America has no shortage of symbols. But when it comes to projecting strength, nothing compares to the bison. (And no, it’s not a buffalo). In recent years, the animal has also come to represent perseverance. Tens of millions of bison used to dot the landscape of the American plains, but were driven nearly to extinction at the hands of hunters. Today, thanks to conservationists, the numbers have started growing again, and last month the bison was officially named the national mammal of the United States, a designation it has unofficially held in American minds for centuries.
The spirit of the bison and what it represents in the U.S. is a big part of what attracted Parabellum founder Mike Feldman. Launched in 2010, the Los Angeles-based brand crafts some of the finest leather goods in the world out of bison hides. The products, which include belts, bags and wallets, have a unique texture that only bison leather possesses. The deep, thick lines add a depth of character to the products similar to the way that you can sometimes sense the wisdom in an older person just by seeing the wrinkles in his or her face.
Given the bison’s past, Parabellum focuses on sustainably sourcing its leathers and its supply chain is the exact opposite of mass market. Parabellum doesn’t make products for everyone, and that’s just fine with them. They are focused on creating goods for people who can appreciate—innately or overtly—how the edge of a piece of leather is sewn just-so. Crafting things in such a way isn’t fast and it isn’t cheap, but good things are worth waiting (and paying for). And when you factor in the multi-generational life expectancy of the goods, the time and cost seem smaller by comparison.
We spoke with Feldman to find out more about how Parabellum got its start and what it hopes to do in the future.
What made you want to start Parabellum?
At the time, it seemed like all the leather goods on the shelf were tacky, soulless and of poor quality. We started Parabellum, first and foremost, to make things for ourselves.
What were you doing beforehand?
While working my first post-collegiate jobs during the day, I started a company in the evening with an old friend of mine. We had a really unique product, but we had a lot to learn in business. We spent the next 10 years building it from nothing on credit cards into a success, and getting an incredible education along the way. We wound up having to outsource our production to meet the requirements of our large retailers, and that never sat well with me. Because of that, Parabellum is made here in L.A., with a domestic network of sub suppliers behind it.
Why is it important to you to make goods in the U.S.?
We make everything by hand here in L.A and do it to support our local economy, and because the quality that we are known for requires a tremendous amount of attention, patience and creative solutions that we cannot outsource. We believe in real quality, and in supporting the craftsmen that are still able to produce that quality locally.
Where did the decision to use bison leather come from?
We did our research, and we were disgusted with how source animals were treated for most leather goods. It may have a fancy designer name on it, but calfskin means made from veal calves, and so many cowhides come from the same factory ranches as fast food burgers. For us, bison is a totally different path. We love where they are raised, who raises them, how they are treated, the character of their hides, the durability of that leather and the opportunity to bring something unique—and American, in all of the right ways—to the global market. Our hides are a beautiful byproduct of the bison meat industry, which is one of the main financial drivers of [the animal’s] comeback. We make our products from ranch-raised bison, and contribute funds and awareness toward the return of wild bison, which we think is a nice circle of good.
What has it been like for you to see the bison population grow in recent years?
It is such a neat thing to watch! The bison herd went from about 50,000,000 to less than 1,000. If you think about those numbers for a moment, it can make your head spin. But here we are in 2016, they are up to 500,000, and will be back above a million over the next decade. That is such a wonderful comeback, right from the edge of oblivion to being named the National Mammal in April. It’s turning into a Hollywood ending.
What kind of craftsmanship goes into making one of your pieces?
Most leather goods that make it to the shelf are made from flat leathers which are easy to mass produce with very basic skills and processes. Bison leather is the other end of the spectrum. It has tremendous texture to it, and it is very thick and irregular. To turn a thick hide into a thin and refined finished item requires exceptional craftsmanship. That includes splitting and shaving the leather, adding special linings, and skiving the edges so they can be finished by turning or hand painting. You can’t ever leave a raw edge with bison, so it takes a lot of extra work to make it into something exceptional. The bags all have very special handles with hand stitching. And our hardware is very special and custom made locally. If you geek out on one of our items, and really look at the details, you will find something special in there for sure.
When you are evaluating whether or not to pursue new projects, what criteria does it have to meet?
It has to be something that we would want to own and use ourselves. And, it has to be something that is not a “me too” compared with what anyone else is already making. We deplore the wanton theft of creative concepts that is so rampant these days. Everything that we make is an original.
You’ve talked in the past about how long your products last. Building something that can last for a long time is one thing. How do you design things that people will still want to use in 20 years?
We keep our designs clean and timeless. We have been hung up on the basic juxtapositon of old and new since we started, and you can see it in the bison leather and the ceramic hardware. Beyond that, we do not chase trends or rigid seasons. The items that we began selling in 2009 look like they were designed yesterday. We really try to let the materials and the quality speak for themselves. Leather goods should be designed as heirloom items.
What are some sources of inspiration that you find yourself going back to time and again?
Quality. That is what we always think about and focus on. We are inspired by the pursuit of quality.
There’s so many cool brands coming out of L.A. these days, why do you think that is?
L.A. has always projected a very loose and organic creativity out to the world in so many different ways. Things are a lot less expensive here than New York or London, and I think not having to chase the quick dollar quite so hard allows you to take a breath and really dream up something unique. There is also a lack of rigid social structures, which allows people to explore themselves a little more deeply and honestly. But, I would say that the massive changes in how we communicate and how we shop over the last decade have allowed many more people to come here and take a shot at something that they believe in, focusing on the product first. It’s an exciting time.
How would you describe your personal style?
Lots of black, lots of basics, and some really nice leather accessories.
What is your morning routine?
Juice, coffee and a brisk hike is my perfect morning. Seeing a big sky helps me relax and plan out my day.
What other projects or collaborations do you guys have coming up?
Some very exciting things that, unfortunately, I can’t talk about.