If you’ve ever eaten at Diner, Marlow & Sons, or one of Andrew Tarlow’s other restaurants scattered around Brooklyn, you know that the food you’re eating came from one of the farms he works with in the tri-state area. You might be aware of his efforts to support local farmers and reduce waste. But did you know that he and his wife, Kate Huling, are going one step further to ensure the life-cycle of the cows from those farms is honored? At Marlow Goods, Huling designs bags, wallets, and other accessories using leather made from the cowhides the farms would otherwise send to China to become mass-produced leather goods or rendered into skincare and household cleaning products.
As Huling tells it, the story begins with Tarlow—who she met at the age of twenty while studying at Columbia—and the restaurants. The first, Diner, opened on New Year’s Eve, 1999, under the Williamsburg Bridge. Shortly after, she began hanging out with a friend who made custom leather sandals in a shop on E 4th Street and loved the process so much she started taking classes at FIT, making things in a little studio in her Williamsburg loft, and became excited about starting her own business. Getting pregnant with their first child put a hold on the leather-making, as she couldn’t work with the glues. By the time she was pregnant with their third child, she was done delaying her ambition.
“In 2007, 2008 we kind of had this eureka moment, when we were using the whole animals,” Huling told me on a recent sunny afternoon at her new shop, which occupies the same space on E 4th Street where she used to hang out watching her friend make sandals. (She previously sold her goods out of the Wythe Hotel’s lobby.) “We were sourcing the animals directly from the farm, and we were like, let’s use this leather, because I wanted to start my own business at the time, and I wanted to work with leather.” Originally, she contacted the source providing materials to the sandal shop, but it was all being shipped over from Afghanistan, the Middle East, or China, and she didn’t want to use a product she couldn’t connect with. Instead, she approached the farmers who provided meat to the restaurants. “I get to work with all the same farmers and the work that we do helps tell the story of the restaurants. It’s all one perfect package,” Huling continued.
She walked me through the process of making a bag, from the farm in Kinderhook to the shop, and explained that sourcing cowhides locally on a small scale comes with its fair share of challenges. Though the farmers were on board, the slaughterhouses weren’t. “All slaughter is done in USDA-inspected slaughterhouses, so they just wanna take those hides and get rid of them and make as much money as they can on them and move on, so in this situation where we’re asking them to take care of them and immediately put them into cold storage and salt them, it’s incredibly inconvenient for them,” Huling explained. It’s necessary, however, or bacteria will destroy the top layer of the hides.
The next stop for the cowhides is the tannery. They send about three cows to slaughter every week, but the slaughterhouse is two hours away from the tannery in Montgomery, so they wait until there are enough hides to make it worth the trip. The team at R.E. Meyer & Sons then tan, stretch, and dye the hides with all-natural chestnut tannins typically used for tanning parchment and bookbinding leather. “Most people use saddle leather, which is oak,” Huling explains. And while most leather bags on the market have a plastic finish to ensure that they look smooth and uniform, Huling doesn’t put any kind of lining or plastic finish inside or on the exterior of her bags. “This leather is just a hundred percent leather and it has no finish whatsoever; it’s totally raw and totally natural,” she tells me. “It’s just a complete other process and it means you’re really seeing everything about that hide. There’s no way to cover over the fact that that animal had scratches and scars and lived a full life.”
“There’s no way to cover over the fact that that animal had scratches and scars and lived a full life.”
Once the hides have been tanned, they travel to Union City, New Jersey, where Ecuadorian-born shoemaker Mesias Paredes sews the bags according to Huling’s specifications. “He can make anything now and he and I totally speak the same language,” she says. “After all these years, I can just make a very simple sketch and he knows exactly what I want, so we have an amazing relationship.”
Marlow Goods bags are clean, streamlined, and utilitarian. There’s a cross-body bag shaped like an envelope with one gold pin used to fasten it, a rectangular backpack with just a couple of straps and a few pockets, a curved-bottom purse with a snap enclosure and removable strap. There are envelope-shaped laptop cases and a few wallets. The most popular style is the Lexington bumpack, which has an adjustable strap so it can be used as a fanny pack, a cross-body bag, or a clutch. Many models have interior pockets or slots for MetroCards and credit cards, but you won’t find any extraneous ornamentation on them. “There are fashion bags and they have all this beautiful hardware that someone has designed with the logo and they’re works of art and I love that,” Huling says, “but what I’m going for is totally about functionality and so much of the character of the piece is in the leather. So I just let the leather be the thing that you’re really attracted to, not some kind of abstract design.”
Huling doesn’t have any training in fashion and doesn’t let trends influence the way she designs. She takes a much more practical, down-to-earth approach, observing the way women use their bags and thinking of ways she can help them. When people come into the shop, she asks them to dump everything they carry around on a daily basis onto the counter so she can help them find a bag that’s the right size. By the end of the interview, I’ve decided I need one of these bags for myself. I put my wallet, iPhone, notebook, lip-gloss, and pen on the counter, and we remove different models from the shelves, testing them out to see how everything fits. I can’t use the smallest model, because as a writer I always carry a notebook, but the next size up fits. Huling wraps it up in paper and seals it with a sticker adorned with the Marlow Goods logo—a cow, of course. A couple days later, I take it with me on a trip to Madrid and find it’s the easiest, most effortlessly stylish purse to carry around. It goes with everything—from my casual slouchy grey pants to the printed maxi dress I wear to a cocktail party at the five-star Hotel Villa Magna. I don’t consider myself a trend-follower or fashion-fiend, but I know great style when I see it, and Marlow Goods bags are for the ages. ♦
Photos by Jarod Taber & Rich Gilligan