Man on a Mission: An Interview with Chuck Bowen of Blue Artisan Group & Mission Mercantile

It’s been a big year for Chuck Bowen and the team at Blue Artisan Group. Just a year after opening their new factory in Leon, Mexico in late 2014, Chuck and the team launched their very own brand of leather goods known as Mission Mercantile. We spoke about how this new venture came to be, the inspiration behind it, and what’s next. 

What initially drew you to the leather industry?

In 2007, I was hired by Saddleback, and in 2008 I joined as CEO and helped open their leather factory called TrueBlue Productions. From 2007-2013 we enjoyed fantastic success, and I really developed a love for the materials, products, and people in the industry.

I’ve always been very drawn to organic materials. It started as I was growing up around dad’s hardware store in rural southern Georgia. Working, smelling, using tools he had had around for forty years. 

How did Blue Artisan Group and Mission Mercantile get their start?

In 2013 I left Saddleback and sold my interest in the factory. After I left, I took a sabbatical to refresh and take inventory. I talked to a lot of trusted friends, did a lot of thinking. Why wouldn’t I launch my own brand? It was just a yearning I couldn’t ignore. The icing on the cake was God sending four incredibly gifted partners.

We started the Blue Artisan Group factory first, at the end of 2014. Our ultimate heartbeat is that we’re artisans who love to create – so we decided to cofound Mission Mercantile together, and share this eternal passion for what we do.


Tell me a little bit about Blue Artisan Group.

The factory is a bootstrap startup in the same town as Saddleback’s factory – in Leon, in the state of Guanajuato. It’s in the heart of Mexico, in the leather region. People in the region have been making shoes for decades. It was a great place to start in 2008.

A little bit about our name: Blue– It’s the color of optimism, possibility, nobility. Artisan– we handcraft products with leather and canvas. We are true artisans, handcrafting. Group– we have bigger ideas around growing the business. It’s very tight-knit down at our factory. Side note, the acronym for Blue Artisan Group was a funny coincidence. We didn’t realize til after we named it that it spelled BAG!

What are your long term goals for BAG?

We want it to be the most sought-after North American creator of leather goods. We have five key goals. We take great care of our people, we handcraft remarkable products, we maintain high ethics, we delight our clients, and we innovate. Our goal is to be good stewards who make the most of what we have to work with.

What makes Blue Artisan Group unique as a leather products manufacturer?

Passion, experience, product development. Those things allow us to offer a “handshake lifetime product” through BAG and Mission Mercantile. Everyone on our team is aligned toward a singular goal. That goal is to make and sell some of the most remarkable items in the world. Our team operates as one.

What is the most beneficial aspect of having your own manufacturing capabilities for Mission Mercantile?

We have the ability to bring designs to life no matter the challenge, and we can work closely with the artisans. We can’t compromise for any reason if you’re making our kind of products, so we can offer uncompromising quality. We have the ability to make and keep our lifetime promise. It’s rare that you can control the entire lifecycle of the product. This translates into the greatest value for your customer.

What is the goal of Mission Mercantile?

We’re a mercantile on a mission. We want to serve men looking for meaning as a man while reestablishing family and heritage. Doing life together with his mission woman. We really want to bring back legacy values in a product, and take wisdom from past. Our goal is for us, and all of our customers to do life together.


Can you tell us a bit about your product line and the inspiration behind it?

We take inspiration from old items, make improvements, and modernize things. Long list of products coming! The Tradesman Bag looks back to an original product from the early 1900s– a bag that was used for carpenters and tradesmen to carry materials.

Our weekender bag, the Stateroom, takes inspiration from bags that were carried by travelers. This bag showed that you were able to travel, and had money.

The steamer backpack had a couple inspirations. In steamship days people would travel with steamer trunks, which were these big open boxes with individual bags inside that people would back separately. We also took some inspiration from old Pony Express Bags. They have the same clasp around the back, but we didn’t include the lock.

The Ice Block Bag has a leather handle on the bottom so you can turn it upside down and dump out contents.

I don’t want to give too much away, but we place certain things in our products that we call Cracker Jack prizes. Authentic, vintage goodies that we slip in as prizes. You’ve seen the pillows in the bags..we want things to be usable, utilitarian.


What does your design process look like?

Our first step is sourcing and merchandising. We do a lot of research into yesteryear pieces. Early 1900s era. Some of the products we find give us a lot of design cues. We have sourced many original pieces, on Etsy, abroad, and many places. Each product embodies the values of the people that carry them. We’ll be sharing a lot of the stories on our website.

Once we’ve found pieces for inspiration, we work out the ideas through sketches unti we’re moved by what’s coming to life in front of us. Meanwhile we’re looking for materials that fit with this idea. The materials must be as remarkable as the design itself. This takes some time. I love naturally occuring materials – cotton canvas, leather, wood. Materials that were alive, had life.

Next, we model. We take that sketch and start to work it out on the table and craft by hand the physical form of the sketches. We work alongside sample makers to construct our “first born.”

No matter how ugly our “first born” is, we start working out the bugs. Construction, form, aesthetics, material functionality. We work through a series of samples until it’s ready – then it’s called a “blue tag.” We have lots of products in this stage now. Once we blue tag the bag, we send it to the artisans to reproduce. Then it’s on to the customer.

What advice would you give someone starting out in the industry?

To narrow it down – become an avid student first. Never stop learning. There’s so much to learn about these materials, not to mention sourcing, manufacturing, design, branding, et cetera. The barrier to entry is fairly high. Find a great mentor, someone who will tell you the truth, talk you through, encourage you. Follow closely or work with a successful smaller brand to learn the ropes. Persistence will end up being the difference maker. It’s hard to be an overnight success and follow that up with more success.

One of the advantages we have is being vertically aligned with the factory. Our clients come first, but there are a lot of advantages of owning your own factory. Making decisions, sidestepping sourcing issues. It’s really critical if you can do it. Work with a manufacturer who takes a close approach and takes care of their clients.


What advice would you give consumers when looking for the right product?

How do you find the right one? There’s so much that consumers have to decide. Ask yourself: Will it give me joy? Will it give joy to the person I give it to as part of my legacy? Remember, it must improve with age. Make sure it won’t fail before you do. It should look its worst the day it comes out of the box. 

What are the “next steps” for Mission Mercantile?

Staying authentic. Continuing to attract people who are as fanatical as we are about our products and the way we make them. Continuing on our journey to become mission men and women.

Can you share some insight on any new additions to your product line?

In the near future, we’ll be honoring dads for Father’s Day. We’ll be launching lots of giftable items to last more than a lifetime. Wallets, bags, hunting gear, adventure products, and some tech products.

Long-term, we’ll be continually launching new products. We will soon be more than doubling our current offering. If they don’t turn heads, then we’ve missed the mark.

A Range of Possibilities – Part 2: An Audio Interview with Leather Virtuoso Kyle Koster

In the first part of our interview with Kyle Koster, creator and owner of Range Leather, we covered a number of topics from his entry into the trade to the ethics of creating luxury goods with leather.  If you haven’t had a chance to read or listen to the first part of the interview, you can find it here.  Rather than draw it out with a lengthy introduction, we present the second of three parts in our series of with Kyle.


BL: It’s pretty close to the holiday shopping season, though for some retailers you’d think it started in July.  What plans do you have for Range Leather this holiday season?

KK: This is really the first Christmas that we’ll be fully geared up to be in business which is nice in that we’ve had time to prep both products and just inventory in a sense. So we are doing some Christmas shows, different ones. We’re actually doing one this weekend.

There are tons of different – from like high schools in this area. All have craft shows. Those are like the smallest shows we’ve done, but there have been some larger shows, even in Spokane. We’ve traveled to Portland and different things, to shows.


Listen to what Kyle has to say


BL: What do you find to be one of the biggest hurdles when you’re trying to prepare for a show or, better yet, your first holiday season?

KK:  I think the biggest one that always happens is working capital within a business. Your hides are expensive. People don’t understand. They really are expensive, and then to buy like quantity, and to not know when you’re going. If you’re making to order obviously it’s easy as a business. If you’re making inventory for a show or a craft fair, whatever it is, you have to have a large amount of each item that you create in stock because some shows you’ll sell a ton of minimalist wallets. Then the next show you’ll sell very few minimalist wallets, and you’ll sell key chains and bracelets and stuff like you can’t believe. So you have to have quite a bit of inventory stocked up. That means obviously you have to have quite a bit of hides.

One of the reasons we did this Range Mug Kickstarter was because we hadn’t worked with 9 or 10 ounce leather at all, and so I had stayed away just because of this being a hurdle. Obviously 9 or 10 ounce leather is more expensive, and it’s for wallets, and for what we originally were doing I didn’t need it. I could do 4 to 6 ounce, I kind of like 4.5 to 5 for wallets or at least the ones we do.

This Kickstarter with the Range Mug we’re raising money because we’re going to place a pretty large order with Horween for 9 or 10 ounce leather. That’s a huge hurdle. It’s like funding that, especially because I funded every business. It’s been a blessing. We haven’t taken on any investors or anything like that. That’s probably the biggest hurdle is working capital. 

Listen to what Kyle has to say:


BL: Let’s get technical for a moment – what you mean when you’re talking about a 5-ounce leather versus a 10-ounce leather?

KK: Probably the best way is to either go on line and look at a scale or a chart, but leather is going to go by ounces starting at maybe 2 ounces.

It’s thickness. So if you would measure the thickness – it does go in mm is usually the best way. But you can look at a chart, and it goes up. It doesn’t jump equally. The difference between 6 and 7 ounces may not necessarily be the difference between 9 and 10 ounces if that makes sense. But you can look at the chart, so it’s going up in thickness of the leather.

The best way you can use a caliper or a leather gauge, and you can get your 1.9 mm, 1.8, and look at. And that’s the crazy thing. Each piece of leather is going to – most of them are sold 4.5 or 5 ounce even because each hide has a variation. That’s one of the things I like about leather. Every piece is essentially unique, where it comes from on the hide, the animal, everything. Your medium is not square is what I always tell people.

Listen to what Kyle has to say:


BL: It’s all about the leather when you get right down to it.  What’s your preference: vegetable-tanned, chrome-tanned, or otherwise?

KK: That’s a good question. The veg tan leather I like. I really have been liking some of Horween’s Dublin as well. That is a great tannage from them.

It’s Horween’s – I can’t remember exactly, but it’s a veg tan leather, and then working with Chromexcel which is a chrome tan, and then it’s re-veg tanned. That’s kind of like their staple, but between those two it’s kind of what I enjoy working with. I don’t know. Even when you’re working with it you can tell how the edges burnish up and different things like that.


I found kind of the colors I like the best from them. My favorite is their whiskey color; it’s a beautiful rich brown. For our Range mug we’re doing natural Dublin which is really cool. On the Kickstarter page you can see what the natural looks like. It’s really really good-looking stuff. The pull up on that if you like creased over the leather you can see maybe the best way to describe it is a different variation of color. The Dublin has a really really rich – it just kind of looks rugged from the start.

Listen to what Kyle has to say:


BL: With all that fine leather, we know you’re making some pretty cool products.  What can you tell us about your most recent Kickstarter project and how the stretch goals have helped make the Range Mug a success?

KK: In the Kickstarter project where we are we put a stretch goal for both black and brown, so adding 2 additional colors as your project maybe goes beyond what you thought it would go or what you wanted it to go, or the goal you set for it. You can release stretch goals. People with Kickstarter are familiar. We did one at five thousand dollars. We were releasing brown and black as additional colors to our natural Dublin, and I just got some samples in. Actually I don’t have any of the natural today because we’re going to have to place the large order with Horween, so here’s a brown and a black.

Listen to what Kyle has to say:


BL: I checked, and as of this interview, you’re pretty close to your first stretch goal.  How close are you away from your goal? Why do you think this project has been so successful already?

KK: Like sixty dollars. I fully expect that to be – we still have a week or so left. They’re sturdy.

You know one of the things we do is a hand stitch line down ours which I think really adds character to it. In all the products I like to have some sort of hand stitch worked in. We do everything 100% hand-stitched, don’t use any sewing machines. The reason for that is with a hand stitch like a saddle stitch you’re going to get twice the thread thru every hole. You’re actually using 2 needles on a thread going back and forth, whereas a sewing machine essentially loops and pulls, and if 1 string breaks the whole integrity of the stitch is gone. With the saddle stitch you’re getting double the thread because you’re

Listen to what Kyle has to say:

There you have it for part two of our interview with Kyle Koster, creator and owner of Range Leather.  In the third and final part of our interview, we’ll discuss the ins and outs of the Range Mug, the Sanford Leather Pipe Tobacco Case, and what it was like to live in Hong Kong.  We’ll also have Kyle’s final words on how he finds satisfaction in working with his hands in a business world that always seems to demand more of the mighty dollar.


A Range of Possibilities – Part 1: An Audio Interview with Leather Virtuoso Kyle Koster

The day before Halloween was filled with mad dashes through the candy aisle of overstocked grocery stores in attempts to avoid trickery on All Hallows Eve.  While many of us were considering the rapidly dwindling stock on the shelves of those temporary Halloween stores as our only means to costume contest salvation, Kyle Koster was taking time out his busy day to speak with me on life and his consideration of all things leather.


The road he took to start Range Leather wasn’t direct.  He’s lived in Hong Kong, Mongolia, and Chicago on his journey, and now finds himself splitting his time between Spokane, Washington and Wyoming.  He is a busy man, so we’re grateful we had a chance to speak with him at length on all things of life, leather, and the pursuit of happiness.

The audio of Kyle’s answers are included at the end of each question.  The text has been edited from the audio for clarity in reading.  As I interviewed Kyle at the Flour Mill here in Spokane, Washington, you’ll occasionally be treated to the background noise of passers-by as they do their shopping on a lazy Friday afternoon.

On a final note, we got so much material in this interview that I’ll be splitting it into a few parts to make it more manageable to read through (or listen to) in one sitting.

BL: How did you get started in the leather business?

KK: So, it’s a little complicated. I’ll give you a quick back story here. Three years ago I started a guitar accessory company and created a couple different locking mechanisms to quickly interchange your strap on and off your guitar and created that through injection molding, created a design. It’s produced in an injection mold; it’s a separate company. I was making a nylon strap.

Kind of the idea was, when you get customers, they would say, “Hey, I’d love a leather strap with your strap locks and your quick-connect system.” Kind of just started thinking about leather.

I started taking some lessons from this old cowboy at Tandy, kind of picking his brain, stopping in there. This was a little over a year ago, just coming in, just learning and trying things.

I just always had this fascination with doing something with my hands. I have always liked building, I have always liked design, and so I was looking for something tangible. So I thought, that would be a great way to make these leather straps and put them on a product we already have that we’re selling.

In January we ended up licensing that product out, the guitar accessory site out. It’s all licensed to a large company.  It’s going to hit here at Christmastime. It will be public and get picked up through distribution.

So once I had this skill, then I could not technically make the straps. I kind of foresaw that, and it wasn’t going in a direction where I would be making the straps, so I just started making things myself, made a wallet, did a whole bunch of designs. I really enjoy designing, and just started using it.

Then I had some friends who said, “Hey, I’d love one of those.” It kind of just kept rolling. I gave some away, some more here. It’s actually our minimalist that we started with which we did the first Kickstarter for.

I was home last Christmas. I grew up in Chicago. So, of course, I thought I should go down to Horween just to see it. I took a trip down with my wife. We went to Horween and walked thru. They’re great. I was just so encouraged about their desire to work with small companies.

One of the guys, Johnnie, told me how Timberland was one of their first customers and struggled to meet purchase orders and stuff, and they worked with them and worked with them. Now they’re huge. He just has this desire to work with the smaller companies. They started Tannery Row that is their side if you’re familiar. It’s kind of like they’re focused on the smaller company side, but you can still get Horween leather thru them.

I was able to get a bunch of leather, came back and started. Pretty much since day one I have only used Horween leather, which is, pretty spoiled for that reason because I absolutely love it. I have seen some other stuff. It is super premium for anything you could find out there.

That’s just kind of how it started, and then we launched that first Kickstarter.

Listen to what Kyle has to say:


BL: What were you doing before you decided to devote your working hours to the leather trade?

KK: Absolutely. Crazy story. I graduated from the University of Illinois with a finance degree, still haven’t used it per se.

Right after I graduated I actually applied to be a youth pastor at a bunch of different churches, and I got a position in Hong Kong. I got on a plane and moved over there as a youth intern in a youth ministry. Lived there for 2 years, learned a lot about manufacturing. Living is crazy expensive in Hong Kong.

One of the families who hosted me had an extra room, and I was fortunate enough to be able to stay with them because it is crazy expensive for an apartment and stuff.

Anyway, a lot of what people do in Hong Kong is do logistics for someone who wants to make something in Southeast Asia, the US, or the UK. He works with a bunch of kitchenware companies as his primary. So I learned some stuff about that just kind of on the side.

I ended up moving to Mongolia (laughing); bear with me. Moved to Mongolia for just a short period of time.

The guitar accessory company is actually called Hogjim Guitar Gear. Hogjim is the Mongolian word for music. Kind of bridged that gap. I worked with some missionaries there doing food distribution and a bunch of stuff just for a short period of time.

Then I moved back to the States, moved back to Chicago. Kind of had that reverse culture shock going on after being abroad 2-1/2 years. Moved out to Wyoming. My cousin lived out there, moved in with her and her husband and their 4 kids. Got plugged into Wyoming really like that. Lived out there for a little bit. That’s where I actually started Hogjim, and everything, the LC is based out of there. My wife and I are going back there in December. We’ll kind of be in between Spokane and Wyoming for a little while.

Listen to what Kyle has to say:


BL:We discovered you through your Kickstarter campaign for the Range Mug. Have you used other Kickstarter campaigns in the past to help build your business?

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