White Buffalo Republic leather goods
By Taylor-Ann Smith EBS Staff Writer
In 1989, Jim Sanderson packed his bags and left his hometown of Afton, Wyo., on a religious mission across Guatemala. For his two-year stay, Sanderson needed a sturdy bag to tote his teachings and bought one from a local merchant in San Jose Pinula. It was love after first carry.
Sanderson brought the bag back to the University of Idaho College of Law where he was a student, and later used it as a daily satchel for courtroom litigation in Afton where he currently works as a lawyer. Despite being stuffed with 1,000-page law books and traveling the world, Sanderson’s leather bag has been in use for 27 years, and shows little signs of wear though plenty of character.
“That bag is what got me passionate about leather goods and I wanted more,” Sanderson said.
Meeting his wife Sandra in 2006 brought him back to Guatemala and sparked the creation of White Buffalo Republic.
The economic collapse of 2008 forced Sandra’s family to leave their home in Guatemala City and move to Chiquimula, Guatemala, where her father owned a restaurant that would later go out of business. Fernando Mora, Jim’s father-in-law, asked him what products would sell in the U.S. in hopes of finding a new source of income.
“I made the offhanded comment that my leather bag I’d bought on my mission always attracted attention,” said Sanderson, whose in-laws spent what little savings they had on 20 cheaply constructed bags andexpected him to make a return on their investment.
“I remember looking at this suitcase full of leather bags and thinking, ‘I can’t sell these things’ … [However], we did manage to sell all the bags on eBay, [and] Fernando kept sending more of the same.”
Sanderson began to see the value in the bags despite their crude construction, but didn’t want to sell a product he didn’t believe in. At the same time, Fernando’s friends in Chiquimula – the leatherworkers known as “marroquineros” who constructed the bags – were struggling to make a living. Sanderson urged Fernando to raise the quality.
“I was tired of these skilled workers doubting themselves,” Sanderson said. “I’ve owned name-brand leather bags and those from Guatemala were comparable, if not better. I wanted to show them that they ‘can’ and bring them access to the rest of the world.”
Sanderson made a trip to Guatemala in March of 2011 to visit with the marroquineros and develop a basic, high-quality leather bag design. With the help of his family-in-law, he sought an instructor to teach them to develop a simple, reliable leather bag.
Inspired by those carried by early Rocky Mountain explorers, Sanderson and his team developed their first bag, “Basica” that is now sold as the “Alpine.”
By the end of 2011, White Buffalo Republic was an established business with clientele from America and across the world, including Singapore, Russia, and Wales. Set up as a cooperative, all 16 craftsmenreceive a share of the company profits giving them a high quality of living far greater than if they were selling directly to tourists in Guatemala.
White Buffalo Republic sells about 60 bags per month, all made to order, and typically take four days each to create. The satchels are made from full-grain, natural vegetable-tanned leather from Guatemala to boost the local economy.
Like the animals the hides came from, each bag is unique with characters such as brand marks, insect bites, and scars. Hides are cleaned and dyed with natural oils and waxes to produce a durable finish without sacrificing the original integrity of the hide. White Buffalo Republic’s craftsmen hand cut, sew, and assemble each bag with as many as 1,700 stitches.
Based on attention to detail and pride in the product, White Buffalo Republic bags are intentionally simple with ease of use in mind. Each bag echoes designs of those used by early explorers and reflect the wild, western traits of Wyoming’s landscape.
White Buffalo Republic goods are functional works of art that carry more than just a laptop or notebook. They carry the spirit of the craftsmen and value of hard work.