KC CO. has its heart and soul in the name — Kansas City. Dominic Scalise, leatherworker, ideator, creator, is inspired each day by the city around him. And it’s not just by the museums and art galleries, it’s also by the people. Scalise is grateful for the openness Kansas Citians have toward new businesses and encouraged by the go-getters who work their asses off to start them.
But an even greater inspiration for Scalise’s craft is his love for leather. He says that knowing the leather hides come from living animals adds an extra element to the creation, which he doesn’t take lightly. Scalise puts his heart and soul into each project — being respectful of the material and where it came from.
It’s a big deal to him. Each creation has a reason for being made — there has to be a need. His projects have a simplistic design to highlight the leather, which sets his work apart.
Where did the idea to start a leatherwork brand come from?
I fell into it by chance. My good buddy Austin Lyon was making these beautiful belts and watchstraps using leather, and I’d never really seen anything like them before. It’s been a snowball effect ever since.
The more I learn about different leathers and the processes that create each kind, the more I love it. There are all kinds of colors and textures and scents. Some smell sweet and others carry that iconic leather scent. Some are stiff and unforgiving, while others have more give. The fact that these hides were once living things adds an extra thing to it — you have to be mindful and respectful of the material. I like having that responsibility.
What was your start like?
My start wasn’t pretty. I purchased some basic tools and made my first belt. It was hideous, and I loved it. I wore the hell out of it.
Each night after work at my old job I would come home and start making things. I would practice getting my stitching a bit straighter. Then I had some friends ask me to make them belts. I started posting these creations on Instagram, and soon I had strangers asking me to make them things as well. It was all kind of a happy accident that it turned into a business.
Where do you find inspiration to create day in and day out?
Everywhere I look! It’s always been that way. The first thing I remember is being carried into a family-friend’s home and hearing a song from the ’50s playing. I’ve been in love with classics ever since.
As a kid, I’d lie down on the sidewalk and stare at the clouds making shapes. I’d be in awe of the way the sprinkler created a misty rainbow. The most ordinary things can really spark something when you really look at them. I think the trick is to not lose that childlike curiosity and wonder.
You do all creation with your own two hands. Tell us about that.
Honestly, I don’t even know what “handmade” means anymore. People throw that word around without even thinking. It seems if people touch the product at some point during the process it becomes handmade. I think it’s a new way to say, “made carefully,” which is a wonderful thing, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it is handmade. The word handmade can also fall in the other direction to a meaning of “crafty,” which I try to steer clear of. Just because I’m cutting these pieces out by hand and stitching most of them by hand doesn’t mean I’m lenient when it comes to execution. The great ones are shooting for perfection.
I would love to see more people falling in love with the hands-on process and becoming great at it. I have a sewing machine for larger objects and materials other than leather, but I will say, that when possible, I hand-stitch. I love everything about it. It’s just a matter of finding the right customer and educating people on why something truly handmade has to cost so much more.
How are your products different than others out there?
It’s in the finishing. The final touches on pieces are often taken out by businesses because they are very time consuming, but once I find a better way to make something, I can’t go back to how it was just for the sake of saving time. I sleep well knowing that I did my best.
You make functional, simple designs. What is it that draws you to that?
Thank you! I hate clutter and I hate gimmicky things. My goal is to design and make things that are timeless, and it seems that when you break things down to just what is necessary, you get a timeless piece.
Is KC CO. a full-time gig for you?
Oh yes. It became the full-time gig about 2 months after I launched the website. I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time.
Describe your typical day.
I’m an early-riser. Up first thing in the morning and start pourin’ that coffee (we’re fortunate in KC to have such amazing coffee all around). I’ll keep the first hour of my day really chill — often reading or editing photos, warming up until I finish all the coffee.
Then I’ll spend about an hour getting some exercise in, come back and make a massive breakfast and then it’s work time. I’ll head to the shop, answer emails, start making what my customers have ordered. After lunch and another round of coffee, I’ll continue making until I need dinner. Somewhere in there I’m trying to fit in some design time, networking, photos, packaging, shipping… and playing with Shap Dag (the office dog, Rufus).
What’s the environment like that you work in?
I work in an environment that is out of a movie — it’s one of the most inspiring spaces I’ve ever known. I walk into the shop, old jazz is playing, and Shap Dag runs up to greet me.
It’s a very large space with soaring ceilings. The walls are covered with paintings and items that are carefully placed in spots that you come to realize are the perfect spot for each piece. Everything is done intentionally and beautifully.
In the back is where we create. My area is just a stone’s throw from David Polivka — woodworking God and owner of the studio — and Matt Castilleja, David’s protégé and my good friend. I’m lucky to be around such amazing artists and craftsmen. Even though our crafts are different, I’ve found that so much is interchangeable. Both Matt and David have helped me become so much better at what I do.
Other than in your name, how does Kansas City influence you?
People make a city, and we have some truly wonderful people here. I’ve found that they are humble, hard-working, and just want to help make the city a better place. I’ve watched some pals start businesses here, work their asses off and the community responds with open arms. Being surrounded by go-getters in such a wonderful city really inspires one to go for it.
How do you come up with new ideas?
I’ll have broad goals of what I want to create and I’ll narrow down specifics. I will put it down on paper to see how it looks, work out dimensions and figure out how to put it together. That’s if things are working smoothly…
Other times, and often times, something just pops into my head when I’m doing something completely unrelated. Then I’ll scramble to find a piece of paper to write my idea down or put it in my phone so I don’t forget it. Those tend to be my favorite.
Any words you lived by while getting off the ground?
Oh gosh. I always have random pieces of paper with quotes scribbled on them falling out of my bags.
I actually commissioned my sister (a far better artist than I) to paint me a take on the “The More You Know” shooting star that I saw on PBS commercials as a kid. Instead, the painting reads “You Are Going To Die” with a shooting star leaving a colorful trail behind it. This is hung in my home right above where I put my keys. Not only does my morbid sense of humor find it hilarious, it reminds me every day that all of this is not forever, that life should be lived to the fullest now.
How would you define success in your business? Have you reached it?
That definition continues to shift for me. I suppose you could attempt to look at it objectively but this is a very personal thing. I’ve been making a living as an artist, and I know many would kill to do that.
I think the old Bob Dylan quote is fitting for this: “A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and goes to bed at night, and in between does what he wants to do.”
I do my best not to take this for granted and to remember how lucky I am; however, I don’t think I’ll ever be content with what I’m doing. I’ll always feel something can be done better and I’ll always chase that idea.
What sets you apart from other brands in leatherwork?
I’d say maybe what I don’t do. I’m almost apprehensive about making things out of leather. It’s a big deal. It shouldn’t be used for the sake of it being leather. Not everything needs to be made out of leather. I always ask myself if a piece is necessary. If there are already a million made or if there is someone doing it perfectly, then I’m not all that interested in making it.
What is your favorite part about this type of business?
Taking something from idea to physical product. It’s such a rush. I love all the problem solving that goes into a piece. How does it look? How does it function? Is the special detail just a gimmick or is it truly better? I love the process.
What has been your most satisfying moment thus far?
I’d have to say getting into Baldwin and Halls. They are the crème de la crème here in KC, and being associated with those companies is a big deal. I’m still excited about it.
Do current trends influence what you’re putting out? How?
I suppose trends influence everyone, but I try to evaluate them objectively. I’d rather make something that looks good and is relevant in 20 years than something that is built to push hard for the next 6 months. Originality is always the goal.
What advice would you give someone who is just starting his/her own business?
Exercise. No matter how or when, just get it in. There is nothing, in my control, that can affect my mood, focus and energy more than exercise. I get mine done first thing in the morning and not only does it put me in the most wonderful mood, I’d say it adds at least a couple hours of productivity to my day. And exercise gets you comfortable with being uncomfortable. And I feel that uncomfortable is where all the good stuff happens.
What are your goals for the future with KC CO.?
Getting further out of my comfort zone. I really want to open up the product line and take on some difficult projects. I want to introduce some new ideas that people really dig. I look forward to adding people to the team. This kind of work needs to be shared.