Leather was a hot look last fall. From pants to dresses to accessories, faux or real, designers couldn’t get enough of it.
For Heather Hambrecht, the leather obsession is nothing new. The local designer behind the (h(om)e) line of garments, bags and accessories says she doesn’t even really pay attention to fashion trends.
What’s more important to her is the integrity of the individual piece – is it practical? Does it make life more convenient? And just as important, can the buyer connect with it?
"Everything that I do is based on function and form and urban life," she says. "It’s daily items that integrate beautify and sculpture and uniqueness and individuality while still being totally utilitarian and functional."
Hambrecht estimates that she has been creating the (h(om)e) line out of her Bay View studio (a warehouse-turned-creative haven) for the past six or seven years, since she put down more permanent roots in the Milwaukee area, where she grew up.
Using eco-conscious leathers obtained from the excess inventory of upholstery companies and tanneries, Hambrecht creates one-of-a-kind pieces that adorn – and facilitate – the everyday life of an urban professional. The line includes – among other things – handbags, cross-body sashes, modular garments and smaller accessories like wallets.
"Sometimes I will also do smaller items like belts or a garment series two to three times a year, depending on the material, what I want to work with based on the upcoming climate of the season," she says. "Last year I did an ‘Icelandic Linen’ series using images I had taken while traveling in Iceland and had those screen-printed onto linen fabrics that were light and breezy."
Right now she’s working on a garment series of 12-15 pieces that will be created using the excess leather from a previous production run. The concept centers on the power of negative space and the pieces – which look like elegant, deliberately-shredded overaccessories – can be worn over something as simple as a T-shirt and jeans.
"It allows for the piece to integrate onto the body with no fasteners or constrictions whatsoever," she says. "Based on the size and shapes, one definitely is suggestive of a vest; there’s multiple ‘dresses’ in the mix, there’s also a jewelry necklace piece ... so based upon the individuality of the person wearing it and incorporating it into their life, it can transform."
Hambrecht also plans to do a heat stamp featuring "hidden poetry" on the backside of each piece that would be viewable only to the wearer.
The current garment series is being created for a fashion and trunk show in Minneapolis. Hambrecht fills all orders herself and distributes throughout the country (and even the world), but the increasing popularity of (h(om)e) has put her in the early stages of researching means for widespread distribution.
"It’s the year of transformation," she predicts. "I’ve been really fortunate in never taking any formal orders with any of the places that I supply work to; I just tell them what I’ve created, what exists, and then I go from there. It’s been very natural (process), very organic, more unique."
Before settling in Milwaukee, Hambrecht spent most of her time traveling as a freelance wig and makeup artist for opera companies. Her travel companion was always her trusty sewing machine. After working for an evening performance, she would return to her hotel and create an outfit for the next day – a plan that reflects (h(om)e)’s function-centric philosophy.
She was drawn to leather as a medium because of its "natural, rugged beauty" as well as its durability.
"I started working with leather based upon traveling myself and working with other mediums that truthfully didn’t withstand or hold up in any long period of time, based upon how much I was hauling, carrying, traveling," she says. "It was a very natural progression to go to leather because it lasts a lifetime, it’s durable, it absolutely just gets better with age. The more you use it the more beauty and character comes out of it. That whole balance of utilitarian fragility is really fascinating to me."
It's a philosophical approach to consumption that is refreshing for many consumers in today's market. Hambrecht may put a premium on function, but a compelling design is just as important to her. The triple stitching in her handbags, for instance, is a huge hit with customers, who love the pattern the stitches create on the leather; for Hambrecht, it's another clever way of reinforcing the bag.
Third Ward boutique Shoo, 241 N. Broadway, was Hambrecht’s first Milwaukee client. She began supplying owner Kate Blake with handbags about six months after she opened. The Milwaukee Art Museum gift shop also sells (h(om)e) products, and anyone can peruse the full inventory online.
More than anything, though, it is word of mouth that drives Hambrecht’s business.
"There’s a whole family of people through the U.S. and overseas that exist in the family of (h(om)e) based upon word of mouth or knowing someone who has a piece," she says. "It’s really amazing. It’s a family affair."
She says that being her own boss and having total creative freedom is a true blessing.
"It’s really amazing how it’s all just kind of fallen into place and allows me to be able to create what I want to create," she says. "And I get to make a lot of people really happy."
An exclusive meet-and-greet for Hambrecht is scheduled for Sunday, April 14th, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at her Bay View studio. If you would like to attend, please contact Joy Bach at firstname.lastname@example.org for further details.
Colleen Jurkiewicz is a Milwaukee native with a degree in English from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and she loves having a job where she learns something new about the Cream City every day. Her previous incarnations have included stints as a waitress, a barista, a writing tutor, a medical transcriptionist, a freelance journalist, and now this lovely gig at the best online magazine in Milwaukee.