WHEN Tom Berney Jr was about six, his playground was often the workshop in Berney Bros Saddlers in Kilcullen, messing around with bits of discarded leather. Understandable, as he was in the sixth generation of a dynasty of saddlers which was established in 1880.
By the time he was 11 or 12, in his spare time after school, he was learning the intricacies of saddle- and equine tack-making under the guidance of his own father Thomas, and his grandfather and uncle. Another layer of proof, perhaps, that skills can come through the genes.
It was maybe inevitable that the weight of five generations of tradition would push him towards the same business, but he says he never found that to be a burden. “I always liked working with my hands, and have always enjoyed working with leather, and I decided I wanted to take the craft and put it to new and creative uses.”
The opportunity to do just that came by accident four or five months ago when he decided to craft himself a tote bag from the material he so loves. “I’m in my final year of Business and Entrepreneurship studies at Maynooth University, and the trend among students is tote bags to carry their stuff, usually made of canvas. I designed one in leather, and made two, one for myself and I put one in the shop.”
The one in the shop sold immediately, and after he put a picture on his Instagram page his friends in college began looking for versions for themselves. “From one post I put out, I got a load of orders.” Suddenly young Tom had an embryo new business, albeit with one product.
He gave that business a name, Buan, an Irish word meaning ‘lasting’, which he says is the ethos of the business. “I’m trying to make my leather goods like they were in previous generations, sourcing quality materials locally and using traditional techniques and craftsmanship which have been passed down to me.”
That original tote bag has now been joined by a crossbody in a plain but distinctive design, as well as a coin purse, and an envelope wallet that incorporates spaces for coins, cards and cash. All Tom’s Buan designs are minimalist, which appeals to him, and clearly to his customers. The tote and crossbody bag are available in a range of colours.
Apart from the tote, which is unigender, the other products are aimed at female customers. But Tom has plans to expand his designs to include bags aimed at men, including briefcase styles. Given the amount of time and craft that goes into each item, his pricing is surprisingly affordable.
His clients to date have been very good at giving Tom feedback, including suggestions as to how to improve any of the designs in practical terms.
The positive in any craft is that products are handmade, especially in leatherwork. The downside, of course, is that there is a physical limit of output, which makes any handcraft business hard to scale up. “I’d love the idea of bringing on one or two people with me to help with the manufacture, but I always want the products to be handcrafted. At the moment I’m doing everything myself, which isn’t very sustainable.”
Also, while still studying at college, ‘my foot is only halfway down on the gas’, so output is further limited for the moment. “When I graduate, I can go at it properly.”
He is very thankful for the support from his father and grandfather. “They think it is great, and anything I learn from this I can always bring back to the family business.”