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At Home With Thomas Brennan - Design Director for Moore & Giles Leather Goods

01 Tell us about your design background and how you first found yourself working with Moore & Giles?

I was born and raised in Lynchburg, the Virginia town were Moore & Giles began 83 years ago. I left when I was 18 to go to college and, while I love the town, I didn't have any conscious desire to return any time soon. I studied architecture as an undergraduate and joined a construction crew in North Carolina after graduation. I learned how to drive heavy machinery and what goes in to building actual buildings and how to cuss proficiently in Spanish. I then moved to Boston to take a job at an architecture firm were I lasted for about a year before realizing that the scale of architecture wasn't quite right for me. We were working on beautiful buildings but they had such incredibly long build times (years) and you really don't get have much tangible evidence to show for your efforts until near the end. To combat this lack of tangible results, I started apprenticing for a butcher in the evenings after work. Long story short, the butcher shop eventually offered to pay me and I left the architecture firm. That sent me on a four year tour of cooking jobs from Boston through Virginia, Portland, Maine, and Brooklyn. I baked and line cooked and butchered until I got tired of having so much fun (read: late nights, odd hours, low pay).

I felt the itch to get back to the world of design. A long-shot email written from my closet of a room in Brooklyn to my now-boss Elizabeth Stroud and a serendipitous run-in with the President of the company at a wedding led to an internship, which quickly led to the development of a deep affection for the people I worked for and with, which led to me being gradually given more control over the design direction of the division. I still don't think of my role as the sole arbiter of the Moore & Giles look. I'm more like the guy who happens to have the pencil and therefore is in charge of transferring the ideas that come my way onto paper. I'm like the design secretary. Taking design minutes.

02 Does form always follow function in your design process, or are there occasions where the aesthetic or quality of a particular leather leads a projects direction? 

I wish I could say our form always follows function because saying otherwise seems to fly in the face of established design holy writ. Certainly a lot of thought goes into the function of a piece and I pride our designs on shoehorning a surprising amount of function into deceptively simple shapes. But the design of a bag actually does, technically, start with beauty. Before I’m pilloried: we have the distinctive advantage and pleasure of working with a 150 year old Italian tannery to develop new colors, textures, and finishes of leather. This season we’re debuting a handsome navy blue that is the product of many months of back and forth and several rounds of sampling. This is where our design starts. Before we consider function, before we select the smoothest zippers and the classiest hardware, there is the leather development, which is an act of pure beauty development, like adjusting colors on a canvas. Suck it, Louis Sullivan. 

03 What have been the most challenging and/or rewarding pieces that you’ve designed for M&G and why?

Our first piece of rolling luggage (unveiled in January of this year) was a terrific design challenge. Working within strict size and weight limitations and around new pieces of hardware (wheels and frames and telescoping handles) was hard enough. Add to that that everyone——luxury brands, mainstream brands, Disney, car companies, Kanye (unconfirmed)——makes a rolling suitcase, it was tough to develop a design that was not just classic and handsome but distinctive within a crowded market. By blending traditional function with vintage style and swaddling the whole thing in our distinctive leather, we wound up with a handsome and useful piece. As for most rewarding, would it be too on the nose to say that that honor goes to our collaboration - the inimitable Jay briefcase. You guys were great design company and pushed the look and function farther than I could have on my own. It’s hard not to feel an extra dose of satisfaction seeing all of our best ideas blend into a singular piece that's well-received.

04 Is there a ‘holy-grail’ of bags or wallets for you as a designer? What makes the perfect / wallet/ briefcase?

I admire brands that are luxurious while eschewing preciousness and making pieces that improve with age and wear. I don’t think anyone is walking that line better than the Japanese brand Hender Scheme. They shot to prominence a few years ago when they began making faithfully reproduced (sans logos) sneakers out of exceptionally blond vegetable tanned leather that burnishes and darkens to a striking caramel. Like our bags, their shoes only get more handsome as they’re used. The brand Kapital is another creative lodestar for me. They take deep dives into the world of material. What we are to leather, they are (on a smaller scale) to striking traditional Japanese textiles such as boro. They are the kings of deploying traditional material in wildly (sometimes bizarrely) non-traditional ways. Lastly, I love the way that the Italian brand Stone Island approaches fabric as material to be pushed and pulled and shot through with odd tech and unusual finishes. We recently introduced a capsule of bags sporting leather that has an intricate pattern laser-etched into its surface. It has opened up a new realm of experimentation for us, bringing in a treatment beyond the tannery that adds a unique look and feel.

05 Moore & Giles built its reputation on producing amazing leather hides for the likes of Restoration Hardware, Pottery Barn, the automotive and airline industries; and now your part of a small team within the company that’s essentially building a brand within the brand. How would you like to see the accessories division evolve over the next few years?

In the five years I’ve worked here, our team has grown only slightly, but our approach seems to have sharpened in ways that make me excited for the next five years. Though the company as a whole is 83 years old, the bag division is in its infancy at a mere nine years. Through smart growth and good leadership we’ve been able to establish a strong reputation for quality and imagination that we’ve only just begun to parlay into unexpected but complimentary creative realms. For example, our most recent collaboration was with the prolific Brooklyn-based illustrator, Richard Haines. Working over the past year with an artist like Richard, a man who’s done substantial work for such high-fashion luminaries as Prada and Dries van Noten, purposefully pulled us out of our comfort zone of brown briefcases (no offense, brown briefcases) and challenged us to face new problems (how do you precisely transfer intricate drawings onto leather without losing any detail?) and find new solutions (uncovering a small design team who worked with the aforementioned lasers was a coup for that particular project). We will always have one foot firmly in the deeply traditional world of Italian tanning but I’m excited for our other one to wander into new, deeper corners of art and design. I feel like we have only just stepped into the narrow, fertile territory that lies between what is surprising but refined, approachable but a typical.

“When I travel home is the people I’m with. I love and admire my colleagues and feel very lucky to get to stomp around the country preaching the gospel of good leather in their company.

06 So what’s does a ‘typical’ work day look like for you?

A typical work day for me involves waking up and having a good cup of coffee (good in the sense that it’s hot and has lots of half and half in it, not in the Brooklyn sense of it being handpicked by me and roasted in a hand-built brick oven before being ground with pumice stones sourced from a volcano that lived a happy life) and maybe an egg before hopping in the car and driving the twenty minutes to work. Big perk of small town living: no rush hour. My wife and I live in a loft in the middle of downtown Lynchburg, while M&G HQ is across the county line about ten miles away. It’s the distance from Brooklyn to Queens. A stress-free twenty minute drive. Anyway, I get to work by 8:15 and check email, the news and make a game plan for the day. My day is full of creative moments, but those are more of the problem solving variety——checking in with tanneries on a leather delivery; skyping with our production team in the Dominican Republic about whether to use a 1/4” rivet or a 5/16” rivet on the shoulder straps of our backpack; receiving new prototypes that inevitably look weird and need a lot of revisions; working with the marketing department on all the peripheral but essential stuff that goes with a particular bag (hangtags, booklets, webpages)——than the sit-down-and-draw variety. My office does have a big drafting table that used to belong to a late neighbor of mine who was an architect who, among other professional claims to fame, once worked for Walter Gropius. That desk is piled with reams of half baked ideas sketched hastily onto thin tracing paper and cups of of pens and markers that I can use to flesh out the ideas that are strong enough to emerge from the creative fray. We’re a small team so there are lots of informal meetings and check-ins that occur as we all try to stay in sync. My most fruitful time of day is late, so I like when the office clears out and I can let the day settle around me, think and draw. I’m home by 630 or so, where I’ll cook dinner (I’ve recently been having a great time using the inappropriately named "Vegetti" (aka “Spiralizer”) to turn the pounds of CSA squash and zucchini I get each week (enough already!) into all manner of faux-noodle dishes), maybe go for a walk or bike ride with my boo, read (just finished the epic A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara), and head to bed.

07 As someone who is often on the road, what defines ‘home’ for you?

When I travel home is the people I’m with. I love and admire my colleagues and feel very lucky to get to stomp around the country preaching the gospel of good leather in their company. When I’m not traveling, home is where my kitchen knives are. Cooking is a calming, enjoyable activity for me (whether I’m with others or by myself; on vacation at the beach or in my apartment) and not something I ever get to do on the road…but I hate using dull knives.

08 You live and work in Lynchburg VA,– what’s the creative community like for you there?

The creative community is unusual and vibrant in it’s own way. I’m friends with teachers who are poets, interior designers who take figure drawing classes, businesswomen who are gallerists, farmers who weave, bartenders who sell vintage clothes on the side, and photographers who dabble in home renovation. While I sometimes miss the cultural milieu of a bigger city, there is a DIY attitude that permeates smaller communities like Lynchburg that I love being able to tap in to.

09 What essential M&G pieces would we find in your closet if we looked?

The main perk of my job is being able to test new prototypes. Some of these prototypes need more testing than others; I am currently on year four with a Ward zip tote, and year three with a laser cut belt, half-zip wallet and Crews backpack. In a few more years I hope to be able to definitively confirm that these pieces do, in fact, get better with age. In the meantime, I’ll continue to evade the our inventory manager.

10 If you could pack a few of your favorite pieces from Modern Anthology into your favorite M&G duffel, what would they be?

In our new Cope duffel with black calfskin handles I’d pack: Some Raleigh denim, black SKU t-shirt, Diadora Trident sneaks in gray, Dom vetro shades; fancy marvis toothpaste; Aesop body wash and deodorant; and definitely some blackbird incense cones!