Label Spotlight: LAYERxlayer

While at NorthernGRADE this past September, I had a brief but very interesting conversation with Jen Guarino, president of J.W. Hulme, about how she felt the concept of patriotism was changing. We both agreed that the term had long ago been high-jacked and politicized by special interest groups. However, she maintained that in the last few years, there had been a marked increase in the number of Americans who chose to define patriotism not by politics, but by deeds. She believed that these Americans were showing their love for their country by actively supporting domestic manufacturing and business. As someone who has struggled to reconcile the current prevailing definition of patriotism with my preference to buy American, this idea had a lot of appeal to me. I liked thinking there were other ways to show my allegiance, beyond the typical and familiar. And this, in part, is why I have taken such a shine to New York’s LAYERxlayer (kind of a roundabout way to get there, but we still reached our destination).

Founded by partners Patrick Turiello and Leah Fabish, the label offers an array of handmade bags, aprons and small sculptural pieces. In addition to producing their full collection in the US, Turiello and Fabish also procure all of the elements that make up their collection from domestic sources – everything down to the threads. Needless to say, these are people with a deep respect for American-made goods. However, there is little about their brand, or the verbiage they use to describe it, that would lead you to peg Lxl as just another Americana spin-off. The materials may be similar (denim from Texas, mil-grade cotton webbing, stainless hardware), but the execution and designs are unlike anything else out there. And yet, LAYERxlayer’s products still express as patriotic a sentiment as those from even the most traditional American makers. They just do it in a way that isn’t typical or familiar.

Co-founder Patrick Turiello was kind enough to answer a few questions through email. Here’s what he had to say.

How’s business?
Business is quite good. We’re very pleased with the response our work is receiving and have been creating so many great friendships and collaborative connections as a result. It’s been absolutely humbling to get such insightful feedback from our peers, as well as so much constructive customer feedback. Aside from crafting high quality goods, one of our main goals is to collaborate on many different types of projects. So far, we’ve been making good on that promise to ourselves and should have some interesting things to report on soon.

How would you describe LAYERxlayer’s code of ethics?
LAYERxlayer is very much an extension of ourselves, so our code of ethics is really no different from that of our personal beliefs and values. We literally started making things because we saw a need for certain products that were well designed, ethically sound and affordable. Since we hate ranking things, the following are all equally important: quality, function, fairness and honesty. To us, it is just as deplorable to utilize unfair labor as it is to provide someone with a product that is poorly designed and/or crafted, regardless of whether they willingly and knowingly chose to buy it or not. In our opinion, any product that is offered up for sale should be of the highest quality possible. You can call us idealists, but it just seems that is the way it should be; at one point in time, it was the only way. Sometimes you see a product that looks amazing in a photograph, but it turns out to be a complete piece of junk when you see it in person; that to us is unethical. Some of the most gratifying moments are when a customer tells us that they received our product and that it looks even better than in the photographs.

How is LAYERxlayer able to maintain its code of ethics while producing affordable goods?
Design – pure and simple. Since we are uncompromising in our ethical beliefs, good design is really the only way to create things that we are proud to call our own. There was one product in particular that we had a difficult time getting right both in terms of really great design and price point. The right thing to do was to “shelve it.” Months later, and after gaining some insight by completing a few unrelated design experiments, we were able to complete the product to the appropriate specs. That really sums up LAYERxlayer: If we can’t get something absolutely right, we won’t do it all.

Why do you think bigger companies can’t (or won’t) do the same?
There are several reasons really: It’s kind of cliche but most large companies are bottom-line oriented, thus you’ll rarely see the complete package of quality design+materials, fair labor and affordable pricing. At the end of the day, and so long as there is a market for cheap and disposable goods, companies will keep making them – why would there be any incentive to change your business model when there are consumers lining up to hand over their money? It’s definitely difficult to have a code of ethics when a company that requires such a large annual revenue just to stay in business, has to then compete in a global marketplace where the prime objective is to win a pricing “race to the bottom.” That race has destroyed many once great products and companies across the globe.

Do you think LAYERxlayer’s code of ethics has helped to attract customers, or play any other role in the success of the company?
The answer is yes, both directly and indirectly. We have been directly praised for our aforementioned principles of design and ethics by a fair amount of people. The indirect success is a bit more difficult to explain, but is no less significant. A person might be attracted to the design or the materials from a purely aesthetic perspective, without necessarily knowing that we made those decisions informed by a certain ethical foundation. Sounds a bit convoluted, but most people (we’ve encountered thus far) aren’t very interested to hear why we chose this material over another; they either like it or they don’t. To us, it is somewhat more gratifying that our products are chosen because of look or function over some sort of personal belief the buyer might have. We feel doubly rewarded because it says that we created a desirable product while staying true to our own beliefs.

Are there any specific new ways LAYERxlayer is currently attempting to increase it’s level of social responsibility? If yes, what are they?
Sourcing ethically produced materials is an important activity and an ongoing pursuit. The main component of our bags (and upcoming furniture) is grown in the USA under sustainable practices, and we’re quite proud of that.

Education is something very important to us as it has shaped our views and helped form our principles of ethical manufacturing. We can’t really get into specifics just yet, but we’re currently working on a few different projects and events aimed at highlighting the importance of ethics as it relates to manufacturing, specifically focusing on goods produced in the USA. Fortunately, as our brand receives more exposure, we’re being introduced to an increasing number of like-minded designers and makers that we would like the rest of the world to know about. Not only are they making great products, but they are very positive and inspiring individuals; we’d like to help tell their story.

On a personal level, do you think the growing demand for socially responsible products is a fad, or, representative of some sort of larger shift in consumer culture?
We are hopeful that the growing level of consumer consciousness is the beginning of a long-term and permanent social trend. Whether or not that is in fact the case, it seems that it must be the way forward. Aside from the most common ethical arguments centered around human rights and fair labor, etc., there are any number of individual reasons why socially responsibly commerce is important and appealing.

It’s difficult to provide a single answer to any complex issue, especially one such as this, but we think one of the best and most convincing reasons is that typically, (but not always, unfortunately) these types of goods are of a much higher quality than mass-produced sweatshop products. If more people took the long-view and spent a little more up front, they would find that they will be rewarded with a longer lasting product, one that gets better with age and can help contribute to an increase in quality of life. That very last point might sound a bit ridiculous or scary to some, but take the example of a pair of well made boots that keeps a worker’s foot protected and helps with good posture. If that boot is so expertly designed & crafted, it can be nurtured to last for many years and save the owner a fair amount of money. One of just many possible examples.

We may be generalizing here, and this seems to be more the case where fashion is concerned, but it seems clear that the majority of consumers base their purchasing decisions on the design and function of a product, over any sort of personal belief. For better or worse, you can produce the most ethically and environmentally respectful product, but if it lacks a certain “beauty” or functions poorly, it probably won’t be too successful in the market. It’s hard to criticize anyone for thinking in this way; we fill our lives and spaces with things that are meant to assist us with a certain activity or provide a certain type of experience, so it’s only natural to choose products that have a sort of sublime resonance. Humans are clearly influenced and shaped by their physical environment, so it stands to reason that one would want to be surrounded by beautiful things, beauty being entirely subjective.

We think it is very possible for ethical commerce to become commonplace, but it won’t happen overnight. It can however, happen in a relatively straightforward manner: Basically, consumers need to demand more ethically responsible products and manufacturers need to make more of those products available. Both parties need to listen to each other.

But that’s just our 2 cents.

For LAYERxlayer price and purchase information, visit the LAYERxlayer.