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How to Make a Leather Jacket

Meet designer Savannah Yarborough, whose totally bespoke approach takes the rugged individualism of leather jackets to its logical, luxurious end.

Made is a series of simple, gorgeous short films that demonstrate how everyday luxury objects are made, and honor the process and craftsmen behind them.

If a tailored suit is a modern gentleman’s armor, then the leather jacket is the urban warrior equivalent. Especially when made by Savannah Yarborough of AtelierSavas, who takes on a Savile Row-like commitment to make her product 100 percent bespoke.

“A leather jacket is one of the most iconic pieces of clothing,” she explains from her Nashville studio. She sees her creations as the continuation of a rich history—from American Indians onward—of using hide as both protection and status symbol. Leather has always been a luxury material, she notes: “It’s considered this item that people want to invest in. They know it’s going to last forever.”

Savannah Yarborough getting the measurement for a client's shoulder width.
"With bespoke, the person that is taking your measurements is also the person that’s with your piece all the whole way through," says Yarborough. "Physically I can only make four jackets a month."
Photographer: Zach Goldstein/Bloomberg

Yarborough works mostly alone, and each jacket takes a week or more to make, costing upwards of $5,000.

It was in London that the Alabama native, who was pulling double-duty attending Central Saint Martins while designing menswear for Billy Reid, realized her passion for leather. The spark: an ill-fitting mass-market jacket. To fix it, she soaked it in a bath and then wore it around wet, even slept with it on. After four days the leather had molded precisely to her body.

Savannah Yarborough putting together patterns for the client's jacket.
Prior to cutting, lining up the patterns on a piece of leather is like a game of Tetris.
Photographer: Zach Goldstein/Bloomberg

“It gave me this level of confidence, this internal power that made me feel really good about myself,” says Yarborough, who looks like Reese Witherspoon might if she dressed like Mick Jagger. After that she decamped to Nashville and opened AtelierSavas in January 2015.

“I’m not creating a ton of things, but just a few really particular pieces that one human is really going to love,” she says of her one-client, one-product approach.

It’s a major undertaking, with considerable time put in upfront. She makes house calls and schedules private appointments around the world with clients—rugged individualists, musicians, jet-setters. They take measurements. They decide whether the leather should be calf hide or pony hair, alligator or ostrich. They debate whether the lining should be silk or cotton or fur or suede, or if that black bomber should actually be constructed in blue. She offers embroidery and hand-pounded studwork, sketching right then what the client’s coat could become.

The next step is turning those many measurements—at least 32, depending—into a paper pattern, from which she’ll fashion together a 3D fabric mock-up for a fitting. It’s but one of the three times she’ll need to meet with the client along the way.

“It gives the client an opportunity to go, ‘Oh, you know what? I want a different collar,’ or, ‘My pockets are too high,’” explains Yarborough. “There are always some tweaks that have to be done. Once the needle goes through the leather, you can’t take back that hole.”

She then cuts. And assembles.

A prototype of a jacket is made with a fabric cloth to make sure the fit and measurements are correct.
Every jacket is sewn twice: first in rough canvas to fine-tune the fit, then again in leather.
Photographer: Zach Goldstein/Bloomberg

The trick is to line up the skins so that blemishes like barbed-wire nicks or branding scars are eliminated, that the natural grains of the leather are shown in their best light, and that the colors match well together. Yarborough compares it to playing Tetris.

The actual sewing, though mentally easy, is the most physically intense element to her art. Yarborough bends for hours over huge metal machines, using hot irons to distress the leather, hammering snaps and gluing seams into place, straining her eyes as she follows the needle in through every pass. Hazards of the trade? Punctured fingernails, blistered knuckles, sore shoulders, eyes, and hands. The whole process takes between 60 and 100 hours on average.

Then come the finishing touches, like sanding and dying or submitting the coat to hours of roughed-up washing. Once she knows the coat cannot be improved upon, Yarborough sews in her AtelierSavas logo—discretely stamped in 22-karat gold—makes a special garment bag for it, and, when she can, delivers it herself. She wouldn’t have it any other way.

Upclose view of AtelierSavas's one-on-of-a-kind leather jacket.
“Modern-day armor” is how Yarborough thinks of a leather jacket. “It gives you that confidence you don’t really get from any other piece of clothing … You should live in it. It should tell that story of your life.”
Photographer: Zach Goldstein/Bloomberg

“There’s a power and confidence that comes when you’re busting your ass. I leave my house at 7 in the morning, and I don’t go home until 10 or 11,” she says. “I’m here doing this because, well, there’s no other choice. There’s no second thought in my head of anywhere else I would rather be.”