This story originally ran in WHERE WOMEN CREATE
Jackie Wachter, together with her husband Phillip, are the owners and creators of FOUNT Leather of Cleveland, OH. FOUNT produces an ethically-produced high quality line of leather goods that has also helped them to enrich their community. When they’re not at their studio, they are taking care of their two beautiful kids and managing their two retail locations.
“Isn’t it funny how day by day nothing changes, but when you look back everything is different?”
Looking back, I have always been someone who loves to work with my hands. I grew up in Cleveland, OH, and according to my my mother I was a creative person out of the womb. My family fostered my creativity. I have my grandmother to thank for teaching me to sew when I was seven or eight-years-old, she was a very special person in my life. When I was younger, I used to daydream about potential craft projects at school. Often, I would get off my school bus with a list of supplies and have my mom take me straight to JoAnn Fabrics.
In 7th grade, I started my first business out of my locker. I loved to make macrame hemp jewelry, and my friends started to ask for their own. Soon, the girls from all classes were coming to me with requests for their own bracelets. By demand, I would talk to my clients, sketch designs, and then go home to create their jewelry. I sold the bracelets for $12 each, and was selling several a week. Unfortunately, my venture garnered the attention of the faculty, and after about a year of business and a trip to the principal’s office, I had to close shop.
After high school, I attended the Virginia Marti College of Art & Design and pursued a degree in fashion. While there, it allowed me to hone the skills I was taught by my family and channel them into something I was very passionate about, though it was still manny years before I met my husband, Phillip, and we started FOUNT together. After college, I moved to New York for a while, but I found myself missing something. I was very lonely there and I craved the Midwest charm I’d always known. I was seeking purpose, and became passionate about becoming involved in my community and supporting local and ethical manufacturing after a six month activist trip in Africa. That experience allowed me to get a better view into what I could eventually create through my craft and passion.
A few years ago, all of the stars seemed to align. I met my husband, Phillip, and he became someone who inspired and motivated me daily to be creative. He is also someone who enjoys crafting with his own hands, and like me, had his own schoolyard business selling homemade beanie babies. In our first year of dating, we decided that we would make all of our gifts for each other. Phillip made for me a pair of wool mittens using a vintage Pendleton coat, as well as a cutting board. I made for him a wool pencil case, laptop sleeve, and journal. After looking at our gifts, Phillip suggested that the sewn goods could be beautiful made out of leather, and I agreed. We started trying to find leather, and found a local cobbler that also sold scraps from his hides of leather. We bought our first leather, and the sweet older couple taught us about some of the hand tools and techniques we should use.
Our first product trials were a leather wallet and lucky penny pouch. Phillip and I quickly fell in love with our newfound hobby, and after a little trial-and-error we started to make more leather goods. At the time, I was selling vintage clothing and goods at our local market, slowly we started to introduce a small table of our leather goods alongside it. It was at one of these markets that my friend Nicki’s mother-in-law said she should start trying to design a purse. She wanted to have us make a bag for Nicki for Christmas, and suggested that I give it a try.
During church soon after, I sketched a design, showed her and she said she would help us buy our first sewing machine to get us started. After finding a listing for a Singer 111 on craigslist, we went to test it out. It had been used to stitch WWII parachutes and it ended up being the sewing machine we used for our first six months of business as FOUNT.
Our first great bag was created after many discussions about what every woman would want. It quickly became apparent that our best chance would be a tote. Our mission has been, from the beginning, that we want to make products that are beautiful, timeless, and well-made enough to last a lifetime while also being made ethically. The Bellfield Tote was designed to be a durable everyday bag for anyone. It’s gone through many small transformations since, like adding two pockets and straps that are designed to be unbreakable.
The first totes, though, were designed in our first apartment together on Bellfield Avenue, in a tiny studio that was ten-by-ten feet. The Bellfield Tote is now our number one seller, and is now available in three sizes. From that simple beginning, we have now grown our husband-and-wife business to a team of 41 employees. It has been a wonderful 4-year journey and I am so happy that we have been able to create a thriving community within and around it.
Today, after years of hard work and a leaps of faith, FOUNT has not just one, but two retail locations—as well as our studio where we manufacture. When I was growing up, my dad worked in a factory here in Cleveland and I had to watch the systematic loss of jobs and manufacturing until his job was ultimately outsourced. I always knew that when I was able to create a business, I wanted it to be able to stimulate my local economy and make my products here in the United States. Today, I’m happy to say that we have been able to do that by supporting our 41 employees, as well as community outreach through events.
FOUNT is a direct-to-consumer business, so we don’t have a face in the consumer market and boutiques. This can be a challenge, but until recently we have always marketed ourselves by attending maker shows. We take pride in making a high-quality product, and word of mouth is our best type of marketing. In every bag we place a little pouch filled with a couple of business cards that asks our new friends to share our message when people love their bag. It’s a very simple marketing solution, but FOUNT has had a lot of success because of it. We recently had an event in our Cleveland store and a lady pulled out three business cards and approached me. “I work for Apple, and I cant tell you how many times I have complimented your bags, but after getting several of these business cards I had to come see what you were all about,’ she said.
Aside from opening our two retail locations—in a time when people say brick-and-mortar is dead—one of the greatest accomplishments we have had has been to build an inventory.
When we first started, we were making each bag by hand, one-by-one. Now, we do batches by type of hide or pattern. We were part of a television show that helped business-owners with their models, and one constant piece of advice we were getting was that our website was always sold out. We learned that we needed to take a leap of faith, bought a ton of leather, hired nine new employees and built our first inventory. It was a great success, and having a product that a potential customer wanted allowed us to grow our business further.
Every day with FOUNT seems to fly by. It’s very rewarding, and a lot of work, but getting to work with artists and artisans to create and share products makes it all worth it. We have three new designs coming soon, and are planning to create more elevated designs that can be formal, as well. Through this business I’ve been able to do something impactful, both in my community and across the world—like our partnership which brought over ten thousand dollars to dig wells in Africa and provide clean water. Being able to share our products with the world and see the positive impact that they bring to our families, friends, and community makes me every minute of this business worth it.