I met Claire Painter of Clever with Leather at the 2016 Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover. A native of England, Claire has been sharing her talents with bluegrass equestrians for decades. Now she has clients nation-wide. Claire is a funny, talented individual with a real zest for creating (and life). I enjoyed talking to her immensely and thought you would love to read a bit about her and Clever with Leather too. Clever with Leather makes high quality, hand-made equestrian inspired designs for rider, horse and hound. You can view our past review here. Don’t hesitate to give her a call to see what she can make for you.
What year did you open Clever with Leather? What was your inspiration to start the company?
I am originally from London, England and opened shop when I was about 23. Originally established in Scotland, Clever with Leather opened in 1992 in the United States.
When I first came to the US, I worked in a tack shop that did racing tack repairs and halter making for horse sales. When the business closed in a tough market, there wasn’t anyone doing saddlery and repairs in the area, so I thought “why not give it a go here?” Clever With Leather did well in the UK, so why not here? The needs are the same. Initially we started as a saddlery and doing a lot of repairs and making chaps. I ended up padding bracelets, halters, belts with scrap leather I had laying around and that’s how it started. I’ve done Rolex since I moved to Lexington. It was really tiny for vendors when I started and now it’s a huge event.
I am always trying to make something that is handmade, unique, designed and affordable. Horse people work hard for their things. A $500 custom item is not my customer. My customers do horses for fun and they are not rich people. The biggest kick I get out my business is when people get what I’m doing. When someone thinks, “Wow, that’s a great price and product!” or they “get” that figure 8 noseband reference or emergency release hardware on a belt I feel satisfied with my work. I take inspiration from people that want something nice and are spending as much as they can to get a quality product. I want to provide value to those customers.
What is your background?
When I was young, I had an art teacher (Mr. Cooper) and I used to try really hard drawing pictures of ponies that weren’t really good. He got me into sculpture and I found I could do that. He taught me I could do stuff with my hands. I left school at 16. I liked art and horses. Both of my sisters are trainers, but I wasn’t that good a rider so I knew that wasn’t for me. We used to have a pony and I shared with them, but I hated it because my sister got so much more out of the pony. I wasn’t as talented a rider. After I left school I thought, “I’m really good with my hands, what can I do to with horses?” I thought maybe I could make a good living doing saddlery.
I attended an East End college (that is now closed) that focused on shoemaking and leather goods that offered a saddlery course. At the time it was the place to go. It was not a posh school, but a working class school. It had a waiting list for the saddle course, but I did college for 4 years studing leather goods design and 2 years in the saddlery program. I had my first job and apprenticeship with Nimrod Saddlers in Scotland.
What was your first product you offered for sale and how has your line developed?
The first things I made were all for hunting; bridles, breastplates and reproducing traditional stuff for myself and friends. The first products I started selling were halters and nameplate belts. I started padding using scrap leather about 15 years ago. I then started selling wider padded bracelets with bits on them that did really well at Rolex. Next came crazy prints and colored leather for padding. I knew my products were good when I got a call from a friend one day that said “Congrats Claire! I saw your products in the [unnamed] catalog.” I had not sold any products in a catalog. I called the company about it and they basically said, “That’s business. You weren’t selling in any tack shops, so we thought we would.” That’s when I realized my designs weren’t bad and people actually wanted them, so I started selling to tack shops.
A number of people/companies have borrowed designs from me. But I think that makes it fun, I just have to change the designs and stay creative. I once had to tell a custom belt client “Don’t share your belt on Facebook or someone will steal the design.” Eventually if people like it, designs will be copied.
What makes Clever With Leather different than other companies on the market?
Everything from Clever With Leather is handmade by me and Mary. Nothing is manufactured. If you have a question, Mary and I answer the phones and can answer your questions and help you with custom projects. We are small, so if you want something in a specific color, an abnormal size, a fresh design, adjustments, etc, we are happy to work with you.
We use as much American and European materials as we can. A tannery worker told me that they have no regulations on leather in India/Pakistan, and the dyes and chemicals they use are bleeding into our skin when they get wet. I’m allergic to some leather dyes, so I know you have to be careful where the leather comes from. I feel I need to be responsible where I buy my leather from and give the customer every option they can have. Each customer is really important as a small business. You remember people and your customers. It’s a way of life, because I work with my hands. There’s a top out on wages, so I’m not money motivated. You’re never going to make millions working with your hands, but it’s what I love doing. I’ve only ever done this. I started at 16 and I’m now 50.
Describe a typical day running Clever With Leather.
It’s hard to describe a typical day because it’s almost seasonal. A typical day now is a lot quieter. You’ve got the hunt people coming in, but everyone else is hunkered down or moved to warmer climates. For me, I’m getting stuff ready for Rolex and shows. I try and get up early around 5:00 AM. I get my coffee and go out to the shop and get everything situated for the day. I send my son to school, and then Mary comes and we start work.
We always schedule time in our day for emergencies (1 or 2 repairs) and scheduled work. Every day is different based on our customers. Emergencies happen and we try and squeeze it in and make sure it gets done. You can’t make people wait when you’re doing a repair service. Your customer’s emergencies are your emergencies. The scheduled work could be a belt order from tack shop, custom orders, or products for upcoming event booths. The things I regularly sell like belts and purses we keep working on steadily to keep them in stock. It’s a bit “fly by the seat of our pants” every day. We can rely on stock for shows in the summer, but appart from that, it’s the clients we get every day.
We have done custom boots to help straighten up a foal with crooked legs at one of the big stud farms. We make custom belts, dog collars and halters. We do saddle repairs (English saddlery only). You can make specialist things when you are small and can make sure there’s time to take care of people.
What is your design process?
I’m a bit embarrassed using the word design. Ralph Lauren equestrian or high end french (i.e. Hermes) is the only fashion I get because I feel the history and the equestrian influence behind the brands. I remember going to Noble Outfitters when I was contracted to do belts for them. The designer was there with this big inspiration board. It was a collage of colors and images, but I didn’t find inspiration there. I’m not a high fashion designer and I didn’t go to design school. I don’t work like that. I like to take something traditional and twist it, all equestrian stuff, like my figure 8 noseband belt. It doesn’t always have to have a snaffle bit stuck on it. I like making things that are equestrian for the equestrians, but not overtly so. My inspiration comes from my life growing up in a tack shop and around horses. I like looking at tack from the 1800s when horses were IT…a necessity not a luxury. I pay attention to the hardware from tack and various designs from equestrian equipment. I guess some of it is original design, but most of it is derivative from the past. I like looking to old photos for stuff that has gotten lost.
I get my inspiration from tradition, rather than high fashion or color. I like the idea of morphing saddlebags into a handbag or a tote. I got the idea for my elastic belt by thinking “We use it on the horses for their comfort, so why not on us.” The horseshoe imprint belt is inspired by a past injury (a horseshoe imprint on the top of my foot). I also remember my customer. They do everything for their horses. I remember to think about what could help or make that rider more comfortable.
Do you have any other products plan to add to your line in the near future?
My designs come in spurts, so sometimes it happens all at once, and sometimes it’s a while between.
The next new product is going to be custom halters. I started thinking about my dog collars and how my customers design their own colors, threads, hardware and thought “Why not do it with the halters?” Why not offer customization so they can get exactly want they want instead of buying from a big company with set colors. I also offer custom sizing changes and it does not cost more for adjusting smaller or bigger. We are going to try it and see if people are interested.
I am also currently working on a new American mens belt based on an old photo of Ronald Reagan riding.
I plan on doing some more dog and horse stuff that’s not already out there also. I don’t want to make things that other people are already doing, because they can do it bigger and cheaper. My designs don’t have to be original, but they have to be new. They have to be applicable to the market now and what people want.
How have horses inspired you? Which horses have been the most important in your life?
I love them and I love riding. The truth of the matter is…most saddlers and farriers are terrible riders. I always wanted to be an eventer, but I’ve always been a chicken. I could take a perfectly good jumping horse and teach them to refuse in a few minutes. I wasn’t the bravest rider, but I enjoyed it a whole lot. We had a palomino pony named Tara with a ewe neck and a dodgy hock when we were kids. We got her cheap because she broke a girl’s nose. My sister had a Thoroughbred and I didn’t have naturally light hands so he would throw his head in the air. I had to work hard to improve. I wasn’t one of the world’s natural riders, but I was one of life’s big triers.
I eventually ended up with a Clydesdale/Irish Draught cross named Scotty. He had been used for men’s heavy hunter classes and was this big, fat bald thing. He would look after his rider and you could leave him alone for a week or two and show up and he would be like, “Okay, what do you want to do?” It is hard to replace a horse like that and it’s hard to find horses like those in the US. I never asked him to jump higher than 3 ft. The dogs would jump on his back and he never minded. He’d get out of breath doing the local small events and would trot around the cross country course. He was a champion – a star. He was my savior. He’d do anything to oblige. He was really willing, but he got nervous and frustrated when he couldn’t get a movement (dressage). He was so pleased with himself when he finally got it that you could do it off the most minor queue. He made me look good. I loved that horse.
I would love to have another horse. When the weather is good here, I’m at my busiest and I don’t have time for a horse. In the slow season, it’s too muddy and hard to manage. It’s something I want to eventually get back into doing. It’s therapy. Once you start, it’s hard to stop. I might try to find a good old gelding in a couple of years that I can go around in the small classes and just enjoy it again. There’s not much more pleasure than having a good lesson and having everything going right. Nothing can throw you off when your and your horse are going good. I’d love to learn more about natural horsemanship. The horse is talking to you. The horse is a living entity and has to be happy and not just a machine. The mentality spills over to life.
I enjoyed my sport and always trying to get better every lesson. Enjoy your horse. Not everyone can be the top of the sport.