A Glimpse Into Classical Leatherwork With Maximum Henry
From a tightly-knit community of artists in Brooklyn came Maximum Henry, a leather goods brand rooted in quality and traditional craftsmanship. Founded by the Upper-West-Side-native Maximum Henry Cohen in 2008, the brand initially served as an alternative to the surplus of overly-branded, low-quality leather products available at the time. Both daily wear and his bartending career were deteriorating Max’s belts; so after gaining experience in leatherwork through internships in the city, Max decided to create his own—putting design and durability at the forefront.
After belts, Max began to create additional leather goods—bracelets, keychains, chokers, and dog collars; and grew out his team, onboarding a few of his friends from upstate: Jesse Morsberger, Lucas Tromblee, and Giovanni Urgelles. Together in their Greenpoint apartment-studio, the Maximum Henry team hand makes every single item available for sale, sipping Champion Coffee, burning incense, and listening to oldies as they work.
But aside from their simplistic designs, what sets Maximum Henry apart is their detailed and classical production process. From mixing their own custom dyes to polishing and hand-stitching equestrian brass hardware into their leather goods, the brand serves almost as a subconscious refusal of the fast-fashion industry. Max and his team slow things way down, dedicating anywhere from 30 minutes to over an hour to create a single piece. By implementing classic leathership practices (and plenty of patience), Maximum Henry creates accessories designed to last for decades. I spent a morning in studio with the Maximum Henry team, and spoke with Max about his design and production process.
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Kate Marin: It sounds like your friends and surroundings play a major role in your design process. How do you decide what to make next and how much time do you spend planning before creating new products?
Max Henry: At first, I wanted to just make the best of every item you need to leave the house with: belt, wallet, keys. Then, I started expanding to glasses cases, camera straps, and adornments like bracelets and chokers. Right now we are having lots of fun with color. We release seasonal collections, so we are prototyping new designs all season long to make sure we work out all the kinks before a new release.
What's the biggest design challenge when working with leather?
Running a small business comes with a host of challenges, but designing is one of the real joys for me. Leather is a natural material so every piece can react differently to our dyes. Color consistency can be a challenge, but it also makes our products individualized and different.
Are there different schools of thought when it comes to leather work?
So many! People have been working with leather since the beginning of time, so there are millions of things to draw inspiration from and techniques to borrow. We try to take classical techniques that have been proven to withstand the test of time, then update them to our streamlined and crisp aesthetic.
Where do you source your materials?
We insist on using the best quality materials available, sometimes that means sourcing internationally and sometimes it doesn’t. Our leather comes from a Belgian family-run tannery, our buckles from an American equestrian hardware craftsman, and our smaller hardware comes from a brass artisan in Japan.
How does leather change in the tanning process? Can the result be different from tannery to tannery?
We use vegetable tanned leather, which uses vegetable tannins and other organic matter, such as tree bark, fruits, wood, leaves and roots. Recipes are usually closely kept secrets that differ from tannery to tannery, so each tannery does produce its own individual product.
How large is a single skin and how many belts can you make out of one?
Depending on the style of belt we can get anywhere from 25-40 pieces from a single hide.
What do you do with scraps?
Nothing goes to waste! We make all kinds of small things! Figuring out what to do with scraps is a really fun part of our job. In the past we have made dog collars, coasters, bookmarks, bracelets, small belt components, choker necklaces, and a wide variety of other things. I’m looking forward to adding some of that stuff to our online collection down the line.
Do you use a different type of leather for belts vs. small leather goods like cardholders and sunglass cases?
We also use vegetable tanned leather for this but in a much lighter weight. The belts use 9-10 oz leather, while the wallets and keychains use 3-5 oz leather.
What's your favorite part of the production process?
After we dye the belts, we wait a little while for the color to settle then hit the belts with a wax solution that really makes the color shine. I think that is my favorite step, as our colorful pieces are so eye-catching and special.
How do you choose belt colors and how do you make the dyes?
We find base dyes that we really like, then mix them into our own recipes. Our distinct colors are one of my favorite parts about our collection. When worn for a long time, the vegetable tanned leather starts to develop a caramel color that turns into a darker brown through the years. This change often affects the hue that our belts settle on after months of use. We try to mix colors that are on the brighter side, so once they are worn for a while they settle into a more subdued tone. Think fire truck red turning into oxblood, sky blue turning into navy, etc...
In an industry that’s oversaturated with branding and logos, you choose to keep the Maximum Henry name off the exterior of your products. Why is that?
This is so important for us, and part of the reason that I got into making things in the first place. Our items are intended to enhance people's personal style, not encroach on it. I want people to have an intimate connection to their accessories, and feel a sense of ownership with the items they interact with every day. I think that is a little harder to attain when it has a brand name on it.
As a 90’s child who grew up frequenting outlet malls and discount stores, I have such clear memories of products that were sold solely based off their brand name, only to fall apart after a few months of use. I would much rather be the opposite, to develop something that just gets better with time and stands out by perfectly serving its purpose and looks good doing so. That’s why our pieces are guaranteed for life.
I read in an interview that you don't want Maximum Henry to feel like a hyper-masculine brand—you want your products to be for everyone. Can you speak to the importance of inclusivity in design?
Ah, that’s exactly what we strive for so I’m happy you asked that. Growing up in New York, inclusivity is something I have been very aware of my whole life. We try to just keep things simple and make things that work for any and everyone.