In 2013, Joe Bardwell picked up a magazine article about how to be a real man. Make your own wallet, it read. He gathered scraps of leather and did his best.
“It ended up being the most atrocious thing I have ever seen,” Bardwell said.
But he stuck with it.
He made another wallet for a friend’s bachelor party, a clutch for his wife and a notebook cover for himself. After experienced leatherworkers began asking him how he put together different pieces, he realized he had a knack for the craft.
Bardwell teamed up with his CrossFit coach, Matthew Renna, to form Boulevard East, an artisan leather goods company that is based out of Bardwell’s East Dallas garage. The company is named for Reunion Boulevard East, the street around Reunion Tower.
The garage houses a 60-year-old cast iron sewing machine, complete with foot pedal. Bardwell’s tools are old world. Other than an electric sewing machine and an electric sander, he uses gadgets that leatherworkers would have had centuries ago. He meticulously assembles the leather goods by hand, one at a time.
Bardwell and Renna are picky about the leather they use and worked hard to procure the same Turkish leather producer as Louis Vuitton. They hope to add color to the leather goods market, where black and brown pieces are ubiquitous.
“We didn’t want to be another brown and black briefcase company,” says Bardwell. “Navy blue and tan is a very classy look. You can dress them up or dress them down.”
Boulevard East makes wallets, portfolios and small duffel bags, and it plans to add backpacks and larger duffels. The smaller bags cost $650, but Bardwell and Renna say there is a market for locally produced leather goods in their price range. “You are investing in a product that should last a long time,” Bardwell says.
The two maintain their day jobs (Bardwell does medical sales and Renna is in commercial banking), and they would like to find a local manufacturer who can increase their volume.
As the business grows, they hope to keep the production as local as possible. Bardwell handles the prototypes and leatherwork while Renna works his connections in finance and marketing.
“It doesn’t feel like work,” Renna says. “This is what we would love to do long-term — build something here that is unique and interesting.”
Neighbors can find Boulevard East goods ranging in price from $65-$650 on the shelves at local stores, including St. Bernard at the Shops at Park Lane, at DLM Supply in Bishop Arts and the Statler Hotel Downtown. In addition, they have had pop-up sales at Houndstooth Coffee and other places around the neighborhood.
“This is where the fun begins,” Bardwell says. “Let’s go build something.”
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