Born and raised in Brandon, Adam French worked in computers for about 10 years. He was a systems administrator, repaired computers on the bench, and travelled abroad fixing networks. After living in both Montreal and Calgary for a few years, he returned to Brandon and completely changed his career focus. While in Calgary, he’d begun to make hand-tooled leather goods — belts, handbags, laptop computer bags, jewellery, and more. Once back in Brandon, he decided to turn what had been a sideline into a full-time job, and his company, Adan Ballou, was born. He now designs and creates high-end pieces on his acreage just north of town.
So how do you go from being a computer guy to a craftsperson, a designer?
I’ve always been creative. Even when I started getting into computers, I regarded the systems and the machines I was working with more as an artistic medium than necessarily a solution to problems. It was just a fun way to be creative in a very unique and divergent kind of way. Working with computers, of course, taught me a whole lot of things about acquiring information, collecting data and correlating it, making sense of it — basically research techniques. And so when it was time to move on to something different, I tried my best — and to some degree, I think I’ve accomplished that — applying those same kind of research skills to the acquisition of the skills necessary to make these items.
What was it, though, about leather? Was there an ‘aha’ moment, was there a turning point, was there a thing that you saw, something that happened that made you want to do this?
Initially, the whole craft came out of me wanting to make a seat for my motorcycle. That was really what it was. I decided one day I wanted to make a leather motorcycle seat, so I went out and started investigating how to go about doing that. As I discovered how many different kinds of techniques there were available in leather, and the metal craft I picked up as well, just finding different ways to amalgamate them and mix them together was a lot of fun. And the whole thing kind of blossomed out of that — just endeavouring to create the most technically proficient, the most beautiful piece of leatherwork that I was capable of doing, considering what I knew.
You get the raw product, right, and you tan it and dye it and all that? Walk me through producing a bag.
I prefer the idea that I completely participate in every element of the bag’s, or the item’s, production. I make the colours and collect the leathers — I want to get down to as raw and as basic a material as possible for me to work with. The leather we use is entirely vegetable-tanned — oftentimes I’ll try to source that from people in the community — deerskin or elk skin or whatever else is available. And pretty much every piece of leather that I use is a naturally tanned product, with the exception of some exotic skins like snakeskins or sting rays or so on. The dyes that I make are all done by hand — it’s dye stuff that I’ve picked out of various flower beds here in Brandon, or various other dye stuffs, and through the recipe I made myself and developed myself, those are the colours we use and we apply to all the leather.
You use blueberries sometimes?
Blueberries in some cases, oftentimes flower bulbs — I can use coffee, sometimes even old nails I can turn into various colours of dye. And it’s that natural, handmade dye that I use for all the stuff. My goal is, of course, at the end of the day to be able to dump that dye out onto the grounds where we produce our stuff without it having any effect at all. Which is kind of nice because we use the water from the well that’s on the acres where we produce the stuff.
So to gain this kind of expertise, once you got into this, did you just get completely obsessed by all the elements of it?
Kind of, yeah! Because it was a fascination with how many elements there were. There are so many facets to this art — there’s the couture element of fitting linings and dealing with the silks and the satins and incorporating that with the leather to make sure that it’s still durable and it’s not going to fall apart. Dealing with the leather and the various techniques — like there’s the braiding, there’s the dying, there’s the cutting, there’s the trimming, there’s the skiving, there’s the techniques that Louis Vuitton and Hermes used to make their stuff all pretty and shiny. And you’re incorporating that at the same time into western saddlery techniques that come from Al Stohlman and Tandy and trying to merge these different ideas. Stuff from Morocco all the way down to Argentina, and researching and sticking it all into one product that’s beautiful, functional and very durable.
The metalwork you picked up too — that was a part of it?
That was a bit of a divergence. I was looking online and I wanted to find some way to create the metal hardware associated with the bags — so not just the standard buckles that you pick up off the shelf. I wanted to make those myself and be able to be artistic with them, too. So I developed a process kind of merging sandcasting with wax-casting to create a system that I can reproduce my metal sculpture quickly for belts and bags and so forth.
Let me say this: When I read now the writing I did when I first started my journalistic career, I want to stick my head in an oven. Because it showed some promise, but it was … oh god! What was the genesis for you?
There is no ‘was.’ We’re still in that genesis! I suspect — in fact, I hope very much — that I continue to BE in that genesis for a very long time.
That every product will improve on the previous one?
It’s a delicate balance between creating a commercial product and being an artist while doing it. I have the designs that I focus my creativity in, but each one of those individual designs is an opportunity for me to stretch my wings creatively.
You went from working full-time in computers to being self-employed, being an entrepreneur. Is that a little scary in terms of not knowing if the stuff is going to sell?
I’m blessed with a lot of talents and I have the benefit of a lot of experience. And considering what I’m capable of doing, I think it’s important that I do the best I can for myself, my family, and the community that I live in. I spent a long time wondering how I could best participate and best contribute the skills and talents that I have to be able to participate in the community.
Where are your products available?
We’re available in two or three different places, and that’s quickly expanding. Currently we have product available at Lux and Charm in Osborne Village in Winnipeg. We just got into another boutique named Divine and Conquer — I don’t know where they are. And of course, all the products are available online at our website — adanballou.com
In addition to that, we’re investigating opportunities with an online boutique out of New York and another boutique out of Toronto. And those should be coming up shortly.
You’ve had some positive reviews of your work, right?
We’ve been in Sandbox magazine a number of times in Winnipeg, and it was generally well received. We’ve been in other publications anecdotally here and there. But probably one of the best things that happened was a tweet I got from Jeanne Beker — she acknowledged a photograph that we had, saying of the ‘Malena’ bag, ‘The design was a great carry-all bag and wonderful for the weekend.’ That’s from Jeanne Beker, Fashion Television lady for 25 years. That’s a real big compliment.
So people are really starting to take notice of your work, then?
Forgive me, but I don’t much pay attention. It’s a survival technique because I’ve been at this thing for so long — about three years now, trying to develop this thing — and if you keep on waiting for somebody to tell you that you’re doing well, you’d just kill yourself. So I had to stop doing that. I just do this the best I can — I get to produce the most beautiful things that I can in the most ecological way that I can. That’s just my focus.
So if people want to see your stuff, they go to the website?
That would be the best way. Or you can visit me on Facebook as well — that’s where you can actually see me and interact with me as an artist. You can ask questions, make comments, make suggestions — ‘I always wanted to see this thing made — here’s an idea for you’ — post pictures. Any way that you want to interact with the designer, Facebook/adanballouprofile is where you can do that with me.
Handmade, natural products, right from start to finish we’re not picking these up for $29.99 at Wal-Mart.
No, I’m afraid not. With the time and effort I put into these — for example, each design begins with a piece of paper I work on, and I might spend months working with those pieces of paper. Besides the sculpture and the modelling of the wax — again, each one of these pieces of metal could be a hundred hours just to get it right. So the ‘Teresa’s Fire’ is about an $800 bag. It’s an investment piece. It’s the kind of item you should be able to hand down to your kids, the same way you would an Hermes, Louis Vuitton or Gucci bag.
And your belts those would run about …?
Well, we do have a skull belt — again, it’s all cast from recycled brass that I go scavenge for at pawn shops or yard sales or the scrap yard — it’s me going into there, finding the stuff, pulling it out, and melting it down. But the belts are around $150. With that $150, I can personalize it and monogram it for you. So for Diane Nelson, I would hand-tool in there a D.N., denoting it for you uniquely. And as the leather models and moulds to your form, which is the reason we use this kind of leather, because it adapts to you, it really, truly becomes a very personal experience.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition December 15, 2012