Skin in the game

As Bill Drake’s store empties out, a customer comes in to see if anything can be done for his...
As Bill Drake’s store empties out, a customer comes in to see if anything can be done for his golf bag. PHOTOS: CHRISTINE O’CONNOR
Bill Drake has spent the past four decades making a living out of leather, Tom McKinlay writes 

There’s not much left in Bill Drake’s leather shop, Drake Leather.

He’s selling up and closing down. Three hand-written sheets taped to the inside of his Rattray St window say as much.

But there are still clues to the long and varied story of the man’s adventures in leather craft these past 45 years or so.

Take, for example, the classic leather coasters in the wall display case. They are a set of six, sitting snugly in a leather holder, embossed with a kiwi. These were huge once. Which is to say, the coasters have probably remained about the same size. Big enough to balance a glass. But they were once a popular item in gift shops. Bill supplied outlets between Christchurch and Invercargill. There’s less demand for them nowadays.

Then there are the studded leather wrist bands in the counter cabinet. They became essential fashion items in the early ’80s on the back of punk rock’s moment of cultural currency.

Moving right to left around the shop again, a few trouser belts remain of a previously much larger stock. One hangs so long it meets the carpet and makes some progress across it.

Bill Drake in the Rattray St store in 2015, with a full display of satchels behind. 
...
Bill Drake in the Rattray St store in 2015, with a full display of satchels behind. PHOTO: GREGOR RICHARDSON
Bill Drake’s belts have been a mainstay of the business and as with much of what has gone on under his gaze, he has a story.

"When the first cruise ships came to Dunedin, when I was in Princes St — this is going back 20 years or so — an enormously obese American tourist came in. ... And he wanted to buy a belt.

"He said, ‘I don’t see any 48-inch belts here’."

Now, shortly before Bill launches into this anecdote, a slim young man has entered the store and wandered over to the belt stand. Bill immediately advises he is unlikely to find anything in his size — the closing down sale having thinned stock. We can confidently assume, Bill’s an exceptionally good judge of girth.

Anyway, the anecdote.

"I said, ‘with all due respect sir, you are not 48 inches’."

Bill tends to speak his mind.

"He said, ‘my tailor always makes me 48 inch pants’."

So Bill goes around him with the tape measure, which requires 58 inches to do the job.

"He said, ‘that’s the trouble with this goddam country, they told us it was going to be 21 degrees [which in Fahrenheit is not warm] so we all got wrapped up and now you’ve got metric inches’."

Personalised service.
Personalised service.
It’s a bit of a leather-industry joke, as leather is measured in square feet, while its thickness is described in millimetres. But it’s also a story from a lifetime spent serving a public’s multifarious — fickle and particular — needs and foibles.

Bill Drake (67) is proud of his belts. He plans to keep making them for wholesale, once the shop closes. Some say they’re the best. Bill himself tends to think others will be working to a similarly high standard.

"I’m very very fussy about the leather I buy," he says. And the buckles.

He rates the wallets he makes too. And his satchels.

"They only buy a wallet once in 15 years from me because they don’t wear out. That’s why we get this constant comment that our stuff is the highest quality," he says.

"My youngest brother — the All Black one who died [John Drake] — used to criticise me for making things last too long. I said ‘I can’t in all good conscience, with somebody who has paid $300 for a satchel, have them bring back something that is faulty’."

The aim is for those bags to last a lifetime, he says.

There’s a story here too.

Back in the late ’80s — getting on for half a lifetime ago — he sold a satchel to a mature woman graduating from university, as a present to herself. Just a couple of years later she returned with her daughter, to buy her a graduation satchel.

"Because her daughter kept stealing hers.

"Then we were here, in this shop, about 12 years ago and a young fella came in with his mother and his grandmother — who were the original two people who bought the bags — and he was in his graduation robes, and they came in to buy him a bag."

If there is a story for every occasion out the front of Drake Leather, there’s a treasure trove out the back. Because the stuff out the front is made back there.

A sewing station.
A sewing station.
He apologises for its relative state of chaos. He’s sorting out and closing up, after all.

There are piles of leather, naturally, but also those hard-wearing buckles, wooden-handled tools and knives, metal type and some quite singular machines.

One such is a Ramsden and Chaplin clicker press. Bill hits a button and there’s an industrial whirr and grind. A piece of leather and a pattern knife are placed carefully and the press thumps down, in a slightly terrifying way.

Bill says he’s the only one allowed to use it. He thinks Ramsden and Chaplin went bust back in 1937, long before workplace safety was a priority.

When Bill goes, it’s staying. It’s big and heavy.

Then there are sewing machines, a splitting machine and a folding machine, a skiving machine, a book press and a hot embossing machine.

"We invested in machinery and it got to the stage where I couldn’t pull out," Bill muses. "The place has never really made money.

"I’ve had one or two good years, but it was always pretty hard."

A hand tool for all occasions.
A hand tool for all occasions.
Bill Drake’s closing represents a further thinning of the ranks. For example, he says there were, in the past 25 years, three substantial leather shoe making companies in Dunedin. Now there is just McKinlays.

"Their shoes are, to my knowledge, the best menswear shoes in New Zealand," he says.

The pair he’s wearing have been going 10 years. And look in pretty good nick.

As is often the case, Bill didn’t necessarily set out to have the career that found him. But for one reason or another leather wouldn’t leave him alone.

That began with a chance conversation when he was studying at the University of Auckland in 1970, for a bachelor of commerce degree. Someone showed him a watch strap he’d made.

"I was always interested in crafty things, so I went into a tannery shop in Anzac Ave, in Auckland, bought some leather, three tools — that I still have somewhere — a couple of bottles of dye and I made half a dozen watch straps and I sold two of them."

The fad wore off, but as chance would have it, not long thereafter, the young Bill Drake had moved to Dunedin to continue studies and was staying at Selwyn College.

"There were a couple of guys started making leather stuff and it was abysmal terrible quality.

"So I got Mum to send my leather stuff down and I put these guys out of business."

He kept making leather goods after that, so when a job in marketing following studies turned out to be not to his liking, Bill returned to Dunedin and soon opened a craft shop in lower Stuart St — parting with the then princely sum of $1300 key money — with a "minor specialty of leatherwork".

That was 1975.

"A year or so later I expanded by taking over the shop next door."

Hand-tooled leather goods, handbags and the like, were still big, to go with the flares and the shaggy dog haircuts. Back then there were half a dozen leather shops in Dunedin, he estimates.

"Just making and selling the hippie type stuff."

After a couple of years, Bill went wholesale, selling the keys to the Stuart St premises and moving to a factory in Cumberland St next to the old Abbey Lodge.

"In 1980-81 I employed up to seven or eight people making hand-tooled giftware, coasters and all that sort of stuff. Chessboards."

His one remaining staff member, Moira Cunningham, joined at about that time.

There were indeed a couple of good years, exporting and wholesaling the length of the country. "There was a huge range of stuff we made, then the whole thing died."

Those other stores died with it.

"They couldn’t adapt to what was new."

Bill could.

If leather belts have helped support Bill Drake’s enterprise these many years, the businessman’s ability to move with the times has been the key.

Type and foil for the hot embossing machine.
Type and foil for the hot embossing machine.
Bags and wallets — there’s money in those — have been important, but you need to keep pace with changing tastes: from hippie to punk rock and whatever came after.

As ’80s fashion switched from a Gothic look to bright colours — for about half a season, Bill estimates — vivid pinks, yellow, lime green, he switched with it.

He bought some of that bright leather in, but you had to buy a whole bundle and fashion moved on before he could get through it.

"So we made all sorts of things out of it. I seized on luggage straps for suitcases. People used to use them in those days ... I would say, look at the nice bright colour that is. Your suitcase is going to stand out in the airport so you can pick it up straight away."

After Cumberland St, it was Bath St for a bit: "We started making the plain leather satchel, and things like that, which became very very popular".

And a stay in Princes St: "It was the coldest place I have ever worked".

He struck up a relationship with the old Glendermid tannery in Sawyers Bay. It’s not there any more.

"They used to do special runs for me."

They’d dye to his specifications. Do a crocodile print.

About 13 years ago Bill finally made his way to his current digs in Rattray St, in what had been a restaurant.

By that time a reinvigorated Dunedin fashion scene was providing a further outlet for Bill’s creativity.

"I have looked after a number of the fashion graduates and one in particular has been very very successful, she now owns a company in Wellington, 16 or 17 staff I believe, making leather bags. Basically just mentored them."

He still regularly makes things for fashion houses Charmaine Reveley and Company of Strangers. There’s a newspaper clipping stuck to the wall about the opening of the latter’s latest Dunedin premises. Not far away there’s an old cardboard box with "Nom D" scribbled on the side. He’s made stuff for them too in the past.

"One thing I’ve learned with the fashion industry, is it’s very very fickle. You find that your belts and accessories might be de rigeur for say two or three seasons and then it just dries up completely."

Bill’s also had a hand in the phenomenon of artisan shoes, credited by the likes of shoemaker Louise Clifton for his early support. Luminaries shoemaker Flora Knight has walked away from Drake’s closure with great armfulls of leather.

Everything has to go because the building’s coming down to make way for new offices.

Bill, a man who has survived by keen observation of the changing times, has his doubts about that enterprise. Aren’t people working from home now?

You get the feeling Bill Drake won’t be so very sad to see the door close on the retail outlet for the last time.

His health’s not so great these days, for one thing.

And there are other sadnesses considerably more profound.

It is another he will continue to miss. His late wife, Veronica.

Classic kiwi coasters, as made by Drake Leather.
Classic kiwi coasters, as made by Drake Leather.
A fixture on the Drake Leather counter is a collection bucket for the hospice. His habit has been to take it along to the hospice on the anniversary of his wife’s death there.

"That comes from people coming into the shop wanting a hole punched in a belt or a rivet put in something, which we do for nothing, in return for a donation. Some people will go right through their pocket to find a 10 cent piece. Other people will put in a $10 note."

You witness some behaviour after this long in business.

It is clear many others will miss Bill. The phone keeps ringing, people wanting stuff fixed, altered, restored or made to order before it’s too late. This has been one of the last places where you can get stuff fixed.

Bill demurs when its suggested he’d fix just about anything.

"Well, I try to help people," he says.

"If not, I’ll show them how they can do it themselves."

There’s a phone call inquiring about getting a rifle sling fixed. A bloke wanders in with what he describes as a golf bag. It’s done long service by the look of it and he’d like to patch it up. Bill sells him some leather and throws in some fix-it advice for free.

"I would say the shoe repairers around Dunedin are going to be getting some really strange requests now I am not going to be here," he says.

His is the the last leather shop of its type in the country, he reckons.

And it’s closing.

 

Comments

"You don't know what you've got 'till it's gone"

"Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got
Till it's gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot"
Joni Mitchell: Big Yellow Taxi

What a great article.

 

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