Q&A: Tanner Goods Creative Director & Founder Sam Huff
Discussing ditching smartphones, making in America, and the paradox of modern retail with the Portland, Oregon-based leader in leather goods
“I don’t want a ton of shit in my life,” Sam Huff, the Founder and Creative Director of Tanner Goods told me on a recent Friday afternoon in Portland. He says it plainly and unironically, which seems strange, and maybe even antithetical, coming from a guy who sells stuff for a living. “Just the things I touch day after day...I want those to be well-made and beautiful.”
As such, well-made and beautiful things is what Huff has built his brand on. He, with partner Jevan Lautz, started with small, handmade leather goods—wallets, belts, that type of thing—a handful of years ago, and found success. In recent years though, the brand’s interests have taken a more holistic turn with the introduction of private label apparel and home goods. Yet even with such a wealth of products being produced and sold under his eye, Huff remains a minimalist at heart.
One recent by-product of his pared down existence is his smartphone. This past winter, while on a trip to Australia, Huff picked up an issue of The New Philosopher magazine that centered on tech and connectivity. It resonated. “I was so tired of being constantly connected. I had no time to get shit done because I was tethered to [my smartphone].”
“I’m not going to email you back within 48 hours. It may take a week"
After Huff returned home, he did some research and found a sleek, well-crafted phone called the Punkt MP01. “Everyone laughed, they thought it was a phase” Huff recounted seven months after the switch, still smart-phone free. “I wanted to try something different, because what I was doing wasn’t working for me. I wasn’t happy.” And well, the dumb phone, as it turns out, holds a certain power. “I’m not going to email you back within 48 hours. It may take a week,” he said. “If you need to talk to me now, pick up the phone and call me.” With three brick-and-mortar locations in as many cities, some might think the move ill advised, but Huff says there haven’t been any catastrophes since the transition.
And while Tanner is expanding in the familiar city of Portland, Huff expressed hesitation about breaking new ground elsewhere. “We could do New York, Atlanta, Texas, and I’m sure they’d be great,” he said. “But I don’t want the headache of going around and managing those things. I don’t want to spend my time that way.”
In short, Tanner Goods is a paradox. Huff is building a brand based on building quality goods, and then making it last longer. The latest product category to get the Tanner treatment is, to much fanfare, cannabis accessories. As Huff puts it, “If you’re a designer, you’re interested in all facets of design.”
In person, he speaks with measured confidence, never hesitant to explain just why he’s chosen to run Tanner the way he has. Huff’s personal taste seems to be the compass. “When you look at bigger brands, the place that they falter is trying to create a lifestyle they think their consumer wants,” he said. “For me, it was less about ‘This is cool, this is a movement.’ It was more just ‘This is what I wanna do.’”
Take the new cannabis accessories as an example. Weed, which is legal for recreational use in Oregon, is plagued with cheap plastic parts, unimaginative Bob Marley appropriation, and generally dull design. “At a certain point, I was using a chopstick to push the weed down [into a joint],” Huff says, recounting some frustration. So, he thought: “Why can’t we make our version of this stuff?” The company now offers sturdy, aluminum grinders and pristine, pipes that could double as shelf art. “I want it to be a better experience.”
“I don’t want a ton of shit in my life"
He’s also not shy when I ask if he thinks companies of his ilk use the term “Made In America” to their advantage. “There are a couple larger bands that are facing that backlash because they’re trying to appropriate a term or an idea and use it as a marketing tool. That’s not the reason we started making stuff ourselves,” he said. “All these brands...how many of them are still going to be doing this in 10 years when it’s not cool, or are they aren’t able to capitalize on it anymore?” He continues. “If I were Japanese, it would be made in Japan. If I were Italian, it would be made in Italy...it’s about keeping it close to home—localization. I would almost identify more with ‘made in the Pacific Northwest’ than ‘made in the US.’ This is home to me.”
Tanner, or Huff’s, most recent move saw the opening of a new flagship store in NE Portland’s Albina neighborhood with an attached bar called The Wayback. We met just six days before it opens, and Huff had spent all day working on lighting, wiring, and drilling wood shelves into place—you know, “details shit.” The building is a brand new, industrial modern build, though Huff is quick to make a distinction between it and the hordes of cheaply built, lux condos nearby. He arranged for custom metal fabrication to be done throughout. Crisp, pristine wood paneling coats the ceiling and frames the huge street-facing windows that stream afternoon into the shop.
There is retail of course, including space for sister-brand Mazama Wares, but the headliner of the new spot is its sprawling, 2,000 square foot outdoor courtyard. As Huff tells it, he decided to open the space because he and his wife had trouble finding a good local spot to grab a drink outdoors. “[The store] is not strictly about ‘Here’s product, come and buy the product’," he said. “I don’t like shopping that way.”
From the front retail space, shoppers walk through a narrow corridor before it expands into a high-ceilinged, airy bar adorned with sleek mid-century touches and beer, wine, cocktails, and of course, Stumptown cold brew. Eleven-foot tall timber french doors lead into the patio, where there is a spot for a DJ to spin vinyl, and patio furniture made of locust wood, which will glow under black lights. Date palms dot the outside, while philodendrons and other broadleaf plants flow through the inside. Huff says he was going for “mid-century den” vibe. It shows.
"I always knew, and [my mother] made it clear—if you want to make something of yourself, it’s on you."
Putting a bar space inside a retail space is not completely new, but it’s an interesting move for a bootstrapped, self-funded brand like Tanner that has to sling their wares to survive. I ask him about Toms, who seems to build out a welcoming coffee shop in each new storefront meant to sell their shoes. “With a lot of these bigger, corporate companies they don’t have to make a profit. Build hype around the brand and take it public or sell it off,” he said. “Our mentality is totally different.” That is, Huff has to keep an eye on his bottom line. It’s unclear if a flagship meant for hanging out makes financial sense for a brand like Tanner, but at the least it is the physical representation of homegrown independence in an industry that is increasingly devoid of it.
In the years since Tanner’s rise, venture capital has flooded into the clothing sector. Specialty sock brand Stance and menswear brand Bonobos are both backed by over $100 million in funding. Toms was acquired by Boston-based Bain Capital in a 2014 deal that valued the shoemaker at $625 million. Watchmaker Shinola reportedly took on $125 million of funding in a round last year. Tanner has not taken on any debt, or outside capital. “Up until probably 3-4 years ago, I honestly didn’t even know why venture capitalists would invest in a brand like ours,” Huff says. “Our goal has never been to take it and blow it up quick and sell it someone else.”
So if the goal isn’t exorbitant growth followed by a sale to the highest bidder, what is it? Huff says it’s a modest living, plain and simple—one that gives him space to helm a family. “I’ve been doing this for 10 years. This is all I’ve done for my adult life,” Huff said. “I grew up in a single parent house and my mom had to work really hard. I always knew, and she made it clear, if you want to make something of yourself, it’s on you. I’ve had this mentality that I need to make my own way… and I want to do it early so by the time my wife and I are having kids, I have something in place where I can spend time being present with our kids.” He trailed off, took a deep, wistful breath, and then flashed a smile. “Want another beer?”