My first piece of high-end leathercraft was a Red Moon cellphone holder from even before I started blogging, back when flip-phones were all the rage. I had very little understanding of leathers or their patination, but my Samurai Jeans dealer at the time recommended that I give Red Moon a try.
Little did I know at the time, that phone holder was the beginning of what would be a long-term obsession with leather.
I remember the first time I handled Red Moon’s natural vegetable tanned leather – so pale, yet so supple, with good thickness and a nice temper – it was dramatically different from the calfskin goods I had been using up until that point. The way the Red Moon holder changed over the first few weeks was dramatic too, and took on a beauty in grain development & patina that I have been fascinated with ever since.
After coming back to the hobby recently, I was glad to learn that Red Moon founder Keiichiro Goto had launched a high end leather brand in 2011 – Pailot River – with pieces handcrafted in the Village Works atelier, manned by Red Moon’s core group of young leather craftsmen.
Thanks to the folks at Denimio, an official stockist through whom the entire range of Pailot River’s collection is available for made-to-order, I’m excited to review this PR-SR01B short wallet from Pailot River’s “Street Rider” series of wallets.
This is a short wallet, an uncommon size between a bifold and a mid-wallet.
It measures 11 cm in vertical length, 9 cm in horizontal width, and 2.2 cm in thickness when compressed.
The outshell consists of two pieces of leather, with the inner piece trimmed and sewn to make the notes compartment. The ridge construction in the middle of the compartment allows for better folding.
The Pailot River logo is heat-embossed unto the outshell – nicely done, no cracks.
In design and shape it is a simplification of Red Moon’s iconic HR-01 ver. 2 pattern – the wallet being reviewed does not feature the classic concho clip or an internal zipper – which fits my personal preference of having no hardware in my smaller wallets.
The HR-01 ver. 2 design is fairly layered, and you can see that it does not lack for compartments despite its size. Given this is the zipper-less model, effectively we end up with 3 full-sized card compartments with one large notes compartment.
The compartments on the right and top left are made from one piece of leather, whilst the bottom left is made of two. These compartments will hold your cards securely, despite lacking any sealing mechanism; accessing the cards is pretty easy, although since you cannot see the cards when you open the wallet, you’ll have to start remembering which cards live in each compartment 😛
This model is unlined. The corium side of the leather is smoothly burnished.
You can also see in the photo below that the corners have small circles cut in, a clever way to minimize any distortions of the leather with use.
The notes compartment is spacious and not too tall. In the photo above you can see that Australian notes will sit approximately 1 cm below the border of the outshell. Despite being larger than traditional billfolds, this wallet is just as easy to use in terms of accessing money.
Before the founding of Pailot River, for many years Red Moon has been well known for their proprietary saddle leather – in many ways spearheading the natural leather hobby within vintage and workwear circles. Since then, enthusiasts have been guessing as to where and how this leather is produced.
Village Works, for the first time ever, has agreed to disclose some factual details about this leather for me to share with you: First, the steer hides used are mostly North America in origin, with 30% being domestic Japanese hides. Second, the hides are tanned in Himeji – the traditional epicentre of Japanese leather tanning, famous for Himekawa (“white leather”). Thirdly, the leather is vegetable tanned in tanning pits, with a recipe unchanged from the early days of Red Moon’s founding – this tannage takes a minimum of 3 months, and may extend up to 6 months depending on factors such as temperature and humidity.
In addition to the above information, I am also guessing that this leather has been further processed once the basic tanning is finished – this is inferred through two observations: One, this leather is a shade darker compared with dry, unfinished natural leather which usually looks almost white. Two, the leather is very slippery and shiny on the surface, to a degree I have never encountered on unfinished leathers.
My theory is that this leather has been further stuffed with oils once dried – which then further modifies the temper and the patina potential of the grain – all without altering the pale, fleshy-pink colour too much. Japanese tanners often call this type of leather “extra lipid”. I have heard that neatsfoot oil and cod oil are commonly used for this purpose, but I cannot confirm the use of this technique for the saddle leather we are seeing here.
Whatever the actual process, the end result is that Pailot River’s natural leather is not like the usual saddle leather that you might find at your local leather supply store. What I notice is a smoother grain, a colour that is slightly darker compared with true natural, a tone tending towards pink, a more flexible temper, a ‘wet’ handfeel, and an increase in ‘responsiveness” that I can only explain by assuming the extra oil content leads to quicker oxidation.
You can also see on the macro photo above that this saddle leather has much more ‘growth’ compared with other veg tanned leathers, and is more akin to Baker’s oak bark leather in grain texture and definition.
The reasons? Gentle pit tannage of course 🙂
The leather also seems to be glazed or waxed, and is much more slippery & shiny compared with most natural leathers. This is best appreciated in the photo below, when the leather is illuminated with LED lighting.
The backside of the leather is hand burnished with a glass instrument.
This natural saddle leather is 4 oz (1.6mm).
This wallet was made in the Village Works atelier, though like all Pailot River pieces, it is made by one craftsman from cutting to finishing. This is not a production line wallet. The craftsman’s signature stamp in Chinese characters feature on the certificate of authenticity.
The layer construction is quite remarkable, especially considering the minimised stitching and clever folding – this is a smart, optimised design. Each layer is individually stitched on the other, then closed, then attached with another layer, and so on. Indeed, what you see here is the refinement of Red Moon’s first wallet design back in 1993.
The lock-stitching is sewn with
vintage needle & awl machines Seiko cylinder stitcher (Singer Roller Foot reproduction; many thanks for the correction to Ray Lansburg). Examining the stitching closely, they appear straight & well-spaced, with a density of around 7 SPI. A point of difference in the machine work here is the stitch tension & tightness; notice how the thread sits flat against the grain without any use of grooves, but at the same time does not cut into the leather excessively. The stitch holes produced by Village Work’s machines punches through the leather very cleanly, and does not flare out the leather grain around the holes in any way.
The advantage of using such specialist machinery is that the resulting lock-stitch is more durable over time compared with similar stitching done with regular single-needle sewing machines, as a tighter stitch is produced in a smaller hole.
Here is the stitching process on a similar wallet at Village Works, explained by Goto:
Village Works states that different circumstances call for either machine or hand stitch. While a few leather craftsmen I know would say a saddle-stitch sewn by experienced hands would be superior in any given circumstance, I am no where near expert enough to contradict Goto, so I will leave this up to you to debate! Nevertheless, a hand-stitched version of the HR-01 is available, at a premium of 5000 yen compared with the machine stitched version, accounting extra time required for hand-stitching.
A little known but interesting feature of this wallet is that no leather glue has been used in putting it together and the wallet relies on the precise cutting & sewing of the pieces to keep the sum of the whole intact & aligned. This has the advantage of allowing the wallet to better mold to the user through small movements of the different layers, and also allows for complete repairs by restitching and re-burnishing the individual pieces after a few years of use. I am quite impressed by how well all the many individual pieces come together without the use of glue, especially on what is a fairly complicated and multilayered short wallet. This well-matched alignment is most evident when observing the wallet from the sides.
Unlike Red Moon wallets where only the outer edges are burnished, Pailot River’s pieces have all edges of each component piece fully burnished by hand. Even the backsides of the leather is burnished using a glass tool.
The burnish work here is slightly better compared with most Red Moon pieces I have handled over the years.
At 33,000 yen, this is not the cheapest short wallet out there. However, comparing this wallet to other made in Japan workshop leathercrafts, it can be considered to be pretty good value given the precise make, the “one craftsman” approach, the tested & refined design, and the aging potential of their proprietary saddle leather.
The level of craftsmanship and detailing is fairly high, one tier above most other workshop productions, and in finer details are a step above even Red Moon’s regular offerings. A few people have asked how I would compare Red Moon to Kawatako: after handling this Pailot River wallet, I would say that although Kawatako offers interesting bridle and coloured leathers, Pailot River’s construction is better within the same price bracket. Here, I am considering the clean stitch-work, precise cutting, decent all-round burnishing and a multi-layered but very functional & tested design.
Further, if you are a fan of growing your own grain patina on natural leather, Red Moon / Pailot River’s saddle leather is one of the best for this purpose, made with a tanning recipe that was established 20 years ago, able to produce fantastic dark tones and superb lustre over time.
On aspects such as burnishing, hand-stitching and metal composition of hardware, Pailot River may not reach the the absolute highest standards of a master craftsman, for which you might expect edges that feel like glass & reflect like mirrors, dense hand-sewing, or conchos made of fine silver…but keep in mind this type of craftsmanship in Japan could very well cost you a minimum of 50% more than what you’d expect to pay for a Pailot River wallet.
Red Moon wallets have always had a distinct and unmistakable southwestern Americana aesthetic, and Pailot River’s offerings don’t deviate too much from this rugged, Native American inspired look.
Although sized nicely in between a bifold and a midwallet, don’t mistake this wallet for fashion carry piece. Consider the decent thickness at 2.2 cm, the result of several layers of 4 oz leather…this wallet was very much made for denimheads and heritage clothing enthusiasts.
All in all, would I recommend this Pailot River wallet? Yes!
Both Keiichiro Goto and his Red Moon wallets are legendary among leather circles, and, through Pailot River, Mr. RedMoon manages to raise the bar again.
For people just starting their leather journey, a Red Moon piece could be an ideal beginning. Those with a higher budget should definitely consider Pailot River’s offerings. To me, Pailot River feels like a step upwards from workshop crafting, offering products that are somewhere in between workshop MTO and true bespoke crafting.
All in all, I’m very happy to own another product from the Village Works atelier.
Pailot River and Red Moon leathercrafts are made-to-order by Village Works when purchased through Denimio, with a make-time of approximately 2 weeks. With free shipping worldwide, full Village Works warranty and options for repairs & servicing, Denimio is by far the most convenient and economical way of purchasing Village Works’ crafts. Check them out here.