Lincoln Heller was ripping through a Vancouver alleyway when he saw it: the body of a deteriorated leather bag resting against the side of a dumpster. The stitching had long rotted away, though the well-worn skin, now patinaed and cracked, remained, in his word, “beautiful”.
The Washington-state-born photography grad took the bag home with him and proceeded to attach it to two other street-side finds: a weathered belt and a 1960s Canadian Automotive Association badge.
He dubbed it “the junk bag” and began carrying it regularly. The compliments—from both men and women—were plentiful.
“Somehow, that bag was really an attention grabber and kind of a signifier that that was something I had a gift for,” Heller tells the Straight by phone. “Then I kept rolling with it.”
Ten years later, the self-described tinkerer and junk collector has carved himself a cozy niche in the leather-accessories game, though given his work as the founder and sole craftsperson behind Fiveleft Leather Goods—a Vancouver-based studio known for its sculptural and unconventionally textured vegetable-tanned-leather purses—“rolling with it” may not be the best term for the practice.
“When you go to look at luxury bags, they nip and they tuck and they roll and they smooth everything out,” he explains. “My bags are very detailed, but in a more raw kind of form. It’s a programming term: what you see is what you get.…There’s a very kind of honest and open approach to the construction.”
Indeed, it’s this straightforward approach that guides the making of Fiveleft’s eccentric catalogue of goods. From standup clutches and boxy travel totes to catchall bowls and fold-over wallets, each piece is crafted from as few sheets of leather as possible, with no hidden linings, reinforcements, or glue. A warm palette of reds, oranges, and browns radiates throughout.
The real magic, however, appears in the texture of the fabric, which Heller marks with repurposed objects he finds abandoned across the city. Most recently, he used a broken umbrella—picked up on Granville Street—to create spiderlike impressions on the surface of a rigid red bag, though he’s also employed bolts, scrap leather, and bike parts.
It’s a move that harks back to Heller’s days at an Alaskan logging camp, where he transformed beat-up boots into pouches and tool belts.
“I don’t necessarily sit down and say, ‘Oh, well, this could be turned into this,’ ” he says of his upcycling. “I think it’s an aesthetic or a mindset that’s just inherent in me that does this all the time.”
Now that the designer has had a decade to perfect his craft, he’s hoping to introduce a new vocabulary into his work in time for his eighth appearance at the Eastside Culture Crawl.
Visitors to the Fiveleft space at Parker Street Studios can expect more delicate accessories as well as purses made using what Heller calls a “plywood” technique, where belts are shredded into thin, spaghettilike pieces and stacked atop one another to form a layered, 3-D effect.
A range of costumes and props that appear in a special 10-year-anniversary film about Fiveleft, including an exquisite puck-shaped hat adorned with strings of leather that swing gracefully from the brim, will also be on display.
And though Heller will be embracing the theatrical and experimental both at the Crawl and over the next year, you can bet that he won’t be swaying away from the vessel that first established his brand.
“That little place that holds all our things is what fascinates me,” he says. “Not shoes, not belts, not clothing.”