Jen Stilwell is the mysterious figure behind All Hands, a vegetable-tanned leather goods company that is made here in New York. She just moved to L.A. in June of last year, but recently she was back in town to finish working on a special leather book case (leather book case! That is a thing!) for a client, so we met up for lunch and a chat.
Her story – and this is why I wanted to meet her – is a fascinating one. It starts in Argentina, where she grew up on and off, and involves ships, leather artisanal apprenticeships, love, heartbreak, serendipity, the Arctic, desert hot springs, Lower East Side bohemia, and who knows what else. We really just scratched the surface. Talking with her made me want to pack a knapsack and run off someplace to find myself. I mean, it worked for her.
Read her story, and restrain yourself from emailing her to tell her she’s your spirit animal.
Jen: At the time I was dating a guy who was moving to LA, and he said I should go to LA, too. We didn’t ended up dating for long, but he put the bug in my ear. I realized I needed a break from New York, and that I needed to start from scratch. I still have a lot of furniture and interior design clients in New York. I specialize in architectural leather. The thing is, I consider myself more of a leather artisan than like a handbag designer. The handbags, or anything else that I make, is a way for me to do my leather in a way that’s consumer friendly.
E: Tell me more about how you apprenticed with leather artisans.
J: I was here in New York working, but I was really unhappy. I didn’t feel like anything I was doing was fulfilling any carnal need to actually be making something. I’ve always made my own things, but nothing really ever stuck. I was working for a handbag designer and it was right when she was starting to get big. Production quickly got out of control and she had to move it to China. I didn’t want any of that, I wanted to learn more about leather. I’m half Argentinian, so I could just go down there and apprentice. And I just came alive, it was that feeling I’ve been trying to hit somewhere inside of me.
When I went into this leather workshop, he actually made me go away for a month and take a pattern making class. He was like, “You’re over eager; you need to scale it back and take a pattern making class, because you actually don’t know what you’re doing.” I had so much I wanted to do, and didn’t actually know how to do it, so he was like, “You’re freaking me out. Here’s their number, take the class and then come back and we can talk about you making stuff.”
E: What did your friend in New York said when you were like ‘I’m going to Argentina’?
J: They thought it was awesome. When they thought I lost my shit was when I went to live on a ship.
So I did the apprenticeship down there for a year, all while having a boyfriend here. It was wonderful, I felt like no matter what I was going through during the day I could come home during the evening and talk to my boyfriend and feel supported from afar. When I came back, I found out that he had been having an affair with one of my best friends for months. He was going around to my friends’ restaurants with this person who was my friend. They were dating. It was just so humiliating and painful. Every street I walked in, everything reminded me of him. I had just come off of doing this apprenticeship and I was just like, “I need to go.”
I could’ve done it without the pain, I think anyone could, but sometimes there’s just some moments that are totally transformative, and you have to get through that to get to the point that you’re at.
I put this idea out into the universe, I was like, I have to go work in nature, but all I have experience-wise is fashion stuff or music stuff. So I was like, who the fuck is going to take me? And I found an opening with this artist fund. They own a fleet of ships that are half passenger, half research vessels and they needed someone to work in the artisan development fund, spending seven months out of a year doing fund raising talks and artisan outreach and development in the places that the ship landed, and the other five months of the year working in the office doing product development and stuff. I had the requirements for someone who had worked in luxury goods who also had experience living on a ship, because my father is a ship captain. I turned into a psycho about it and started emailing the office to tell them like, “You have to look at me. I’m the only person.” And they were just like, “Hmm OK, you’re insane.” I was like, “No, I’m going to get this job, because I have to get out of New York immediately.” This was at the time my dad lived in the desert out by some hot springs in California, so I went there for about a month and I just chilled and meditated every day. And then I got a call for the interview, and then two weeks later I was on my way to the Arctic to meet up with them.
I set up a portable leather studio, a cabin on the ship, and I was just making shit from the materials that I would find from the different places. I mean that was the great thing about it, I got to do so much sourcing, notably for the fund, but also for myself. My linen thread all comes from Latvia from one store. When I’m out of thread I have to get up at 3 am and call them through Skype and they don’t speak a word of English and I’m trying to do Google translator, to try to get them to understand that I’m trying to buy more thread, but then we just have these long periods of awkward silence on the Skype. It’s ridiculous, but it’s just like where I buy my thread.
She looked at me one day while she was like putting out a cigarette and she was like, “You know what your problem is? You’re psychically feral.”
I did that on and off for years, to have two months at a time when I was just off, so I used that opportunity to do more apprenticeships. I did one in London.
J: Everywhere. I went to Antarctica all over the Baltic. At the time I was like, “No I’ve really lost my mind, this is insane,” because all my friends here were on the fashion fast track; they still are. We all were just like little hood rats together here in the Lower East Side.
E: So you grew up in New York City?
J: No, when I move here I was 18, but we were all like 21-year-olds here, going to parties and throwing parties all together. There’s this New York Times story on us in the Style section about how we were bringing life back downtown after 9/11, and the picture is just so cute. We’re all on our bicycles.
I was on track to have the office and everything, but I just couldn’t do it. My friend, this girl I met at the ship actually, who’s amazing, she looked at me one day while she was pulling a cigarette and she was like, “You know what your problem is? You’re psychically feral.” And I was like, “You’re right. I am.”
I wouldn’t trade that experience for the world. It formed who I am, what I do, even the shitty break up. I gave up my apartment and went and lived on a ship for years after the lover stuff because I didn’t know what to do to make myself feel better. I needed to dig my hands into something. I could’ve done it without the pain, I think anyone could, but sometimes there’s just some moments that are totally transformative, and you have to get through that to get to the point that you’re at.
E: Why did you decided not to put your face on your site?
J: I wanted to keep it really open. I didn’t know I was going to be doing handbags, I didn’t know if I was maybe going to start out doing leather and then I was going to end up falling for something else. All I knew is that I couldn’t keep working for anyone else anymore, that I needed to figure out my own path. I didn’t have a business plan. I was literally just like, “Here I go!” I really struggled with my website being allhandsny. I didn’t wanted to be tied to a geographical location either, but All Hands was taken by a firefighting company so… People have been telling me for years that my last name is so great and they can’t believe I don’t design under it. I’m finally starting to feel like maybe I want to start designing things under my own name, so I’ve been toying with the idea.
E: After you did your three years on the boat did you come back to New York?
J: Yes. I got off the ship in Tierra del Fuego and I was already reaching out to friends. I just came back to New York and I started plugging away. I made two bags, 25 of each style, and I produced them all. It was kind of a crazy way to start a brand, but I didn’t really know what I was doing, so I just took those bags around the stores and was like “Hey, do you want to carry theses on consignment? It’s no loss to you cause I already paid for them, so all you need to do is make some space for them.” And lucky for me they were rad bags. They were really conceptual and I haven’t been able to design bags like that since. The person I apprenticed for in England was the sample maker for Burberry, so he had highly specialized equipment. I came back with that knowledge and I made these things that factories here couldn’t make; they don’t have the equipment, they don’t have the manpower, they can’t pay someone enough to make all the hand detailing stuff that I had been doing, so then I started designing things that I could make. Then sometimes even then it’s like if I do something kind of cool, but I don’t get enough orders on it I can’t produce it. That’s why I am in that kind of crossroads where maybe I do want to start designing under my own name and just make weird stuff.
E: Where do you get your leather from?
J: I use a lot of raw vegetable-tanned leatherthat comes from countries like Mexico, Brazil, Argentina. Most of the really nice leather comes from Italy, but I use leather that’s kind of like the rough draft of the leather world, the most noble leather, and it’s the stuff that no one wants to use for bags. I mean, it has worked for me because there is an awareness of vegetable-tanned leather and people understand that it starts out really weird and raw, but over time it can get really beautiful. But it gets dirty like immediately so I have to put a warning all over the website. I only use leather that is a product of the meat industry. Cows are not being killed for the leather, they’re being killed for their meat and the leather is a byproduct, it would otherwise be waste. If everyone stopped eating cows, there wouldn’t be any leather and I would be okay with that. I use lamb for that same reason. I would not use chinchilla or a lot of exotics. I’m not interested in the animals that are killed for their skin. If we all stop eating meat now, cool, I won’t work with leather anymore and it’s fine. I can adapt. I’m not vegetarian or vegan, but I respect it and I understand it.
J: This is like my third career, this is the third incarnation of myself. I worked in the music industry for a while, I worked in the fashion industry for a long time, then I started to do this. This is probably the most satisfying of all of the things I’ve done just because I am like fulfilling that need to make stuff. I’m going to keep doing this until it doesn’t feel that need anymore and maybe it will morph into something else. I’m toying with the idea of just moving to like Buenos Aires and opening a small store front and having my workshop it the back and just making little leather things. The economy is like super screwed up down there, but the quality of life is great down there, and it is a lifestyle that vibes with my internal rhythm.
It’s a work in progress, you know.