EAST Vancouver designer Lincoln Heller has thrown everything but the kitchen sink at his handmade briefcases, handbags and totes.
His fabrication process begins with dropping hubcaps, bicycle spokes and tractor parts on top of wet leather to make unusual patterns in the finished piece.
By turn, he doesn't care if his customers beat the hell out of his bags.
"When you buy a bag and you walk away with it, and someone else buys a very similar bag, at the end of the year, those two bags look different . . . the personality of the person really is absorbed into the bag," says Heller, owner of Fiveleft Leather. "One person goes outdoors a lot, one person sweats a lot, one person beats on their bag."
Heller, 38, created his business in 2005 and has been a fixture at events like the Eastside Culture Crawl and Circle Craft. Now he and his new business manager, Carol Hyslop of North Vancouver's Favourite Gifts, say they're ready to bring the business to the next level. They'll be celebrating this new stage of Fiveleft at a Nov. 3 party called A Night of a Thousand Wonders. Partygoers will have the chance to bid on Heller's 1,000th bag.
"He pulled out all the tricks, all of his trade secrets," Hyslop says of the bag, which the duo are keeping under wraps until the big night (teaser pictures can be viewed on Fiveleft's Facebook page).
"It is completely hand-stitched and there's a lot of extra-special love going into this bag."
Fiveleft is a labour of love for Heller, who grew up in rural Washington and came to Vancouver in 1995 to study photography at Emily Carr University of Art and Design. To put himself through art school, he worked at a logging camp in Alaska, stripping branches off logs with a chainsaw. That's where the leather bug hit him.
"I was working on a remote island with no power or anything for seven months at a time," explains Heller. "When the guys would leave the camp, they'd throw their boots away."
He started cutting the leather off the boots and making tool pouches. Back in the city, he picked up some remnant pieces from Tandy Leather and started experimenting. Heller says he's not afraid of using a sewing machine - he has his mom to thank for that, who got him and his brother and sister to sew some of their own clothes each summer. But he doesn't have any formal training in fashion design or pattern making.
"Me and fabric and soft, floppy garment leather don't get along well," says Heller. "That's not the way my brain designs things."
Instead, Heller's bags are made of stiff, thick leather, a material he likens to paper, plastic or metal, rather than cloth.
"You can fold it over and crease it, and you don't use scissors to cut it - you use a ruler and a knife," says Heller. "It's very architectural."
Heller and his studio assistants start with pieces of wet, undyed leather. That's when the throwing of tractor parts begins: like a large-scale stamp, the metal objects create impressions on the material. Heller and his studio assistants then use a multistage dying process to make the impressions more visible.
"As soon as you start to do different layering of dye, colours and things, that's what actually reveals the texture," says Heller.
Each pre-cut bag piece is individually textured and coloured with plant-based dyes.
"In some ways you're buying a canvas or a piece of art that's wrapped into a bag," says Heller.
The results are a mix of elegant and edgy. Fiveleft makes glossy handbags studded with metal, folded into complex origami shapes; luxe leather luggage hailing from the era when people dressed up to travel; and a cheeky version of the traditional briefcase (Heller has dubbed his version "the career carrier") with wide straps woven through the sides of the bag. Wallets and belts round out Fiveleft's product line.
Hyslop has been a fan of Heller's work since he first approached her to carry Fiveleft in her shop, Favourite Gifts, on the second level at Lonsdale Quay Market. The store stocks handmade, local products and operates as a collective: The artisans represented in the shop take turns staffing the store.
"Over the years we exchanged advice, and I helped him out with his booth setup and helped him out with shows on occasion," says Hyslop. As the new business manager of Fiveleft, she's using her retail and display experience to expand the business.
"It's gotten to a point in the business where he's ready to move on to the next level and do more wholesale accounts and get a wider audience," says Hyslop, who plans to start marketing the bags in Eastern Canada, the U.S. and Europe.
Prices for Fiveleft bags in Hyslop's store range from $45 for a wallet, to $120 for a clutch, and $450 for a briefcase.
For more information on A Night of a Thousand Wonders, visit Fiveleft Leather's Facebook page.