David Rogers: The Rich in Enrichment

interview by marie chung

At 71 years old, David has lived through decades of social trends and ideas. But the continuous change and pressures of a highly capitalized world have not stopped him to pursue his own goals of freedom and sustainability. David Rogers has his own custom leather shop in Central Montreal on a beautiful residential lined street called Avenue Laurier.

We park ourselves in the back of his studio shop and he pours us both teas. In the back room, he has a silk draped kimono hanging above his work desk and a modest shelf of books. He also takes out his calendar – one he began recording in from the early 1980s. As we walk through David’s journey, I quickly learn that although he has had very little to live from, richness has always been a central experience in his life.

What sparked your interest in hatmaking?

It just came out of nowhere. All my life comes out of nowhere.

I do lots of things in my life without forethought or preparation. An idea comes to me, I see a material or tool that will spark that idea. There is no “Oh I’m going to be a designer” or “I’m going to make beautiful things”.

People do things differently. I just take a board and put another on it, put paint on it and do this and that to arrive somewhere. I find a little string then I follow it that leads me somewhere (or a dead end).

I make hats because of the market here, usually the mouton or the fur have wonderful colours and textures that I enjoy working with. My other hats get made out of my scrap leather, hats are like mini pieces put together. When I buy leather, I have to buy a full skin and I have to pay for every square inch of that leather, no matter if its good or bad. With the skin, not all of it is usable – that’s how I use scrap leather. The horses I made out there, that’s scrap leather there.

How long have you been working with leather for?

I started in 1963, I was 19 years old. Someone suggested that I do leather work but I wasn’t interested in it at the time. I wasn’t interested in being an artist or any of that. When I was young, before hippies – it was the end of the beatnik era. I had a little goatie and long hair, and because of that, I could never get a job. Nobody would hire me because I was too weird.

At that time in the United States, the world was really straight – like that Madmen series. I have memories after dinner, my dad would pull a cigarette at the dinner table whilst we were still eating. Nobody would even think of suggesting not to do that in that time.

Anyway, I shared an apartment with a guy and we were always getting kicked out because we made too much noise. We were just young kids who made noise. When I got this eviction notice once, I remember going to the window of our second story apartment and thinking, “what am I going to do now?” Across the street, I saw a vacant storefront across the street and I had this idea. I went to that storefront, looked into the window and thought, “we could open an art gallery here”. So we rented the space and then opened an art gallery.

My friend and I built a wall and we put a bogus art gallery in the front and made a hippie crash pad in the back.

How did you fund that?

You scavenge stuff. Much of my stuff here is scavenged off the street, I paid nothing for that (over there). We had an Indian blanket stapled to the wall and a spotlight. Ofcourse the art gallery wasn’t making a penny because we did not have decent art and we knew nothing about art or business. I was talking to this man who had a little bookstore on my street and I was saying to him, “Oh man, I don’t have any money. Rent is due, what am I going to do?” And he said,

“well David, why don’t you make sandals? Nobody in Denver makes sandals”.

He gave me twenty dollars, and said “make my son a pair of sandals”.

I made the kid a pair of sandals straightaway and all of a sudden, I was in the leather business. We changed the art gallery into a leather shop. I made a few samples and put them in the window.

How did you design the sandals? You’ve made some beautiful pieces.

I just made it up, sandals aren’t that hard to make. It took me the first twenty years of doing what I do to arrive to a point where I can really be creative about it. After twenty years, I acquired enough of a technique and understanding of the material to the point that I can make some original work.

I’ve been doing this for 50 years now. My business plan is based on getting enough money together, your first and last months rent, to make or put things in that space. Then for 7 days a week, 10 hours a day, month after month after month, you just stay with that. Pay the rent, pay the rent. Don’t buy cars or go to movies. The model is, you get yourself open and you do everything that you can to stay open. You keep doing that and get some momentum. I came here from Canada and I had nothing fifteen years ago. I acquired a few things but I had nothing business wise. I had hand tools and maybe a couple of boxes of leather. When I first opened, I was bare. It was just a workbench, few samples and my display case.

I drove around in my white van, and picked things from the streets. When I started, I had to make things up because there were no schools or books, and not many people who did it that you could work for.

Now I noticed a sign at the front entrance, “work is love made visible”, what does that mean?

That is the work of a Lebanese author from 100 years ago named Khalil Gibran. To me it has always been my modus operandi, I work at what I love.

"If you work at not what you love, it’s a pain in the butt made visible. If you like what you are doing, then working is loving".

There is a lot of pressure to make money and to become successful. There is this notion of success instilled in us, how do you feel about responding to high demands in production?

I would imagine that it is necessary for the greatest number of people to have access to the material life. I absolutely detest Walmart, but I understand that they provide material goods for people who 20 years ago had no access to those material goods. It costs too much. From that point of view, I guess it’s necessary if people want to have a decent life. I myself benefit from that process because the price of tools and machinery have come down considerably in the last twenty years.

On the other hand, what I do and make cannot compete with imported items in terms of price – that’s a problem in that not many people can afford what I do even though I don’t make much money off it. For most of my entire life, I’ve made minimum wage, maybe $8 – $9 an hour. The man who washes my windows makes 2 or 3 times more money than me, that’s how it is.

Why do you think artisans persist with their industry?

When you buy things in stores, the industry makes them so that things don’t last more than a year. You have to buy more of the same thing more often. The quality has dropped with a lot of items.

It started with womens shoes. Up until twenty years ago, manufactured mens shoes had a level of quality to them. Womens shoes were always crap because they could make women buy them over and over again – that’s not good, it’s consuming the worlds’ resources for a moment’s gleam.

What I do, it’s time consuming and people aren’t prepared to pay the money for people to do these things. There are enough people who understand what I do. The people who have made money, they have to step out of the artisanal range and move into the light manufacturing range – you have to manage employees, materials, the business and all these complications. Unless you are charismatic, and making something extraordinary, it is difficult to sell.

Do you have an opinion on trends in fashion?

I believe in having an internal fashion. I have a personal belt collection that has only meaning to me. I have people coming to me all the time who try to talk shoes, but I have no knowledge of them. I know uggs are ugly and they are from Australia. Aside from that, I know nothing about shoes. I kind of live outside of the world. Do you know what an anachronism is?

An anachronism is a person or a situation out of place and time. For example, a guy with sideburns and a cowboy hat would be an anachronism. I am an anachronism because I make my living out of my hands and handtools, and if modern civilization collapsed – let’s say electricity is gone – I could still make a living because I’m doing things the way they were done 200 years ago. I’m also a hippie and there aren’t that many left, I’m kind of a character with values and a lifestyle of a previous time.

I know money is not a priority for you, so what drives you?

Freedom. The real profit in what I do is that I literally have control over all of my waking hours to do what I want to do, go where I want to go. I don’t have to give 40 hours of my life each week to put a roof over my head. I certainly have to work but I’m doing what I want, the way I want to do it and in the place where I want to do it. I can have the money but not the time or I can have the time but learn to live without money. I preferred to be poor and free, than to be bound and rich.

I’ve had complete control over my life – that allows me to travel a lot. I’ve lived outside of the United States, I went to Europe twice and I did it with no money. I took tools and did leather work. When I was 41, I took a whole year off and went around the world in 11 months and did the whole thing on $4000 including the airfare. I’ve done couchsurfing all my life, but back then you used to use address books and then when you stay with a friend, you get an address of another friend. In fact, that’s how I am here.

I met my wife 40 years ago, she was hitch hiking. She was a young girl on the side of the highway in California, travelling with a boy at the time and they stayed with me in San Fran for a week. When they left, I got her address and a year later when I was going to Europe, the cheapest airfare was from Montreal where she lived. I hitch hiked across the United States until I got here and we hit it off right away. After a year, we stayed in touch and then we started dating but through long distance. In 1976, I moved to be with her. We lived together for four years and then she booted me out, so I went back to my life in the US. For 20 years we had no contact, “boom, like a light switch flicked off”.

16 years ago, one of my dearest friends in San Francisco was getting married in New York. I decided to come to Montreal because it was a few hours away. At the wedding, I went to a telephone booth and had her telephone number to dial. She picks up and I say “hey, it’s David! I’m on the East Coast, you wanna get together?”

"So I stayed with her for two nights in Montreal but flew back to San Francisco. That restarted the relationship I had with her after 20 years – that’s the reason I am here now. I am married to the same woman a second time".

In that 20 years did you meet anyone else?

Yes. She broke my heart when she threw me out. But three years after we broke up, I lived with another woman for 7 years. I’ve had three relationships in my life and each one of them have been about 6 or 7 years long. I’ve been married to this woman now for 16 years. I’ve been very lucky with wonderful women in my life. Ya know lots of people piss and moan about their partners, but all the women in my life have been wonderful.

Do you have any advice for our generation so consumed by success?

Travel. The world is very quickly disappearing, and if you want to see some of it, you should see it now. They are cutting it down, paving it under, blowing it up. There are a lot of places you can’t even go because it is not safe to go. Egypt was a vacation destination for 4000 years, but who wants to go there now? And Las Vegas, why the hell would you want to go to Las Vegas? It’s one of the most dreadful places in the world.

Travel gave me perspective. The first time I came back from Europe at 22 or 23 years old, I saw the US with completely new eyes. I saw America in ways I had never seen or understood before.

One of the major lessons I learned is that other people’s cultures or lives are as valid, or even more valid than Americans. See when you are an American, you are led to believe that you are the best, the most powerful, the leaders. The thing that I learned is that it wasn’t the case. We are not the Ones, there are lots of Ones, and people do things that Americans couldn’t dream of doing. I became not so ethnocentric as I was before. I realized that there are other marvelous ways to live.

Do you have advice for entrepreneurial individuals today?

Just do it. The advantage to being entrepreneurial is that if you succeed at it, you can change your situation and make money. Whereas if you have a job, you are trapped – doesn’t matter how hard you work or smart you are, you are trapped. The system doesn’t care about you. If you are entrepreneurial, somebody could walk into this door this afternoon who could change your life. Years ago, I was in a guidebook called Eat and Shop for all cities in North America. Nothing really came out of the guidebook but three years ago, a lady came in and was really vague about what she wanted. I interrogated her and it turns out she wasn’t asking for something for herself but for someone else – that turned out to be Julia Roberts. So, one day two weeks later, I’m sewing at my machine and I was concentrating on what I was doing but I knew somebody had come into the shop, actually a number of people, but I wanted to finish what I was doing. I made them wait, there are now 6 or 7 people and I’m ignoring them.

"I finish what I’m doing, look up, and it’s Julia Roberts. I knew who she was but I didn’t want her to know, so I spoke to her in French. I said, “puis-je vous m’aider madame?”"

They came in the door and I signed a $2000 contract. There’s always that chance of exposure and someone with the right money may come to support you.

Through much of my life, I’ve had a van – this is my Fitwell. I’ve had it for a whole year and inside it is a little apartment. A kitchen, bookshelves, a sound system. I put all of my life in this van. And if I didn’t have the van, I’d put my life in cardboard boxes and put them in storage. I’d put my shoulder bag on my shoulders, stick my thumb out and take off.

What’s more to David is his work in handcrafted pipes, belt buckles, miniature plaque etchings and paintings on the face of egg shells. Between the back room and the front display of his studio, is a cluttered space where he keeps treasures like these. David explains that his next project will be to explore painting on egg shells – a recent discovery that he intends to pursue because he simply enjoys it.

As we finish up he asks, “will you be around for the summer? It’d be a shame because every summer I invite my friends over and have a party. We all bring our old photos together and put a display on the wall”. I came to understand after this invitation that David has rarely let social pressures define his path and that I had met a man who was as free as a man could be.