It is a rare mindset that allows diverse experience to become a thought, a thought to become a concept, a concept to be designed into an idea and an idea to be manufactured into a product. But Darrell Ratliff, a quiet, always thinking, always designing man, has been creating such inexact trajectories most of his adult life. Such is the life of someone who is an artist and designer by nature and nurture. His company, Borlino, and his website www.borlino.com, is the latest of his ideas, borne of experiential and design analytics, that have come to fruition. Borlino is a high-end leather products brand, making bags, overnight duffels, purses, and satchels. But the story of Mr. Ratliff’s cognitive organicity that allowed him to create these things is as unique as the products themselves.
It is not every day you meet a founder of a high end leather goods company, whose passion is fine art, who paints, who studied under major contemporary artists, Casey Baugh, Jay Moore, David Leffel, Jeremy Lipking and Jacob Collins; and one of whose favorite American artists is John Singer Sargent. It is also not every day you meet an entrepreneur who was born in Bassett, Virginia who started working in the Bassett Furniture manufacturing plant in Bassett, Virginia, then when he was 18, joined the Marine Corps and became a combat illustrator, owned a 3-D T-Shirt company, designed children’s products for Disney’s The Lion King, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Jim Henson Productions, 20th Century Fox, and Warner Bros. He has also sold Amway products. And at the end of the day – the day not being quite over yet – had life experience that covered all aspects of product creation – from the beginning point of manufacturing to the end point of sales.
Like many entrepreneurs, he is a risk tolerant thinker and doer, as he combines logical, analytical, mathematic abilities with intuitive artistic abilities. His most recent endeavor is Borlino. At present, the company’s manufacturing plant is in Florence, Italy, although the main office is here in the United States, in Castle Rock, Colorado, a suburb of Denver.
Pursuitist recently spoke to Mr. Ratliff about his life, art, and how his life choices have impacted where he is now.
Pursuitist: The Borlino brand and bag and website seem to reflect a kind of rugged yet deeply tender aesthetic. Does that reflect the Borlino vision in some way?
Mr. Ratliff: I like to think it does. I have always combined two really opposite parts of my personality. I ride Harley Davidson’s, am an elk hunter but also a fine artist and illustrator. Those things could really conflict with each either, but they don’t. The tough/tender ratio balances out, and I think you see that in the Borlino leather goods.
Pursuitist: I would imagine that you learned a lot about manufacturing products when you worked at that factory, but were there any lessons you learned from being in the Marines?
Mr. Ratliff: I learned a lot about risk tolerance in the Marines, the old “failure is not an option” mindset. I never did look back, but in the Marines, I REALLY never did look back, as that way of doing things was encouraged.
Pursuitist: Please tell me about how your aesthetic vision defines the Borlino brand — what does this brand have both process and product-wise that makes you most proud?
Mr. Ratliff: First, my vision was to create a brand for myself – something that I liked and I did not find in the marketplace. I didn’t design thinking about what someone else would like; but instead I wanted to design things that that I would want to own and then hope there were other people out there like me. I also refused to research the market because I didn’t want to be influenced by other designers. I had seen enough in the market to know what I didn’t want. That’s all I needed to know.
From a process view, once I decided on the high-end leather goods focus, I wanted to design products with a tough/tender balance. I wanted them to be rugged as the Rockies, as tough as a Marine but as soft as the finest luxury leather anyone has ever touched. I looked at leathers from Argentina, Colombia, and even the US but nothing compared to the leathers from Italy. And even within Italy, there were only 3 tanneries that I was thrilled with. Their processes were ancient and eco-friendly. By the way, just because someone says they use Tuscan leather doesn’t mean its quality leather! And just because someone claims they make their products in Italy does not mean Italians make it. I have seen entire factories in Italy run by non-Italian workers. I refused to be a part of what, to me at least, felt like deception. Italian craftsmen make our products in Italy. Period.
Finally, if I had to say there was something that I was most proud of, it would be the research we put into the functionality of the design. We tried to think of everything people would use our products for and make sure we focused on giving each piece a deep, authentic purpose. As examples, tablets, laptops, phones and other electronic devices are now endemic to our lives, and we want an easy and beautiful way to take them with us. We try to include the practical, easy and beautiful in all of our products. We design from the inside out, organically.
Pursuitist: I need further explanation about something you said earlier — that you could not find a luxury leather product that fit what you were looking for — something is the tough/tender aesthetic with a root system of worth and craftsmanship. Could you explain what you looked for but could not find in terms of high-end leather goods?
Mr. Ratliff: When I was searching for a travel bag I couldn’t decide if I wanted a messenger style bag or a briefcase. I had a couple of products I dragged around for years, but they were the same old boring cases everyone else seem to drag around. So when I started looking at the luxury brands, I was getting closer to the quality I wanted but the style was crashingly average. Common. Not really my personal style. So I decided to make my own line and in doing so, was able to meld even deeper quality with the style I wanted. What I really wanted, and GOT, was quality and touch that makes the buyer slow down in a busy world, look at the craftsmanship, smell the leather, and realize that a bag could be a sensuous experience, defining worth and legacy together.
Pursuitist: Finally, you are one of the very few entrepreneurs I have interviewed who had experience in manufacturing, industrial and fine arts design, and sales. Most entrepreneurs have experience in conceptualization and some forms of selling, but not the degree of organicity that you have. How has this organicity helped you with Borlino?
Mr. Ratliff: I’m not aware that I’m any different than the next person. (I’m certainly no better than anyone else.) But if that were the case theoretically, then I would attribute it to the combination of my disciplined military background and experience with owning retail stores and other manufacturing and service businesses over the many years. I’ve made plenty of painful and costly business (and personal) mistakes over the past 28 years. Fortunately as I have gotten older, I learned from them and don’t make as many as I used to. For example, in my earlier businesses, if there were a problem of some kind, I would throw a body at it. Then the next thing you know, you have a massive payroll you can’t afford and far more people than you need doing little more sometimes than just creating more problems. Now — I hire as few people as possible and rely first on a good systems management. Then if we can’t design a better process, we would consider adding staff but only as a last resort and with a precise job description.
I like being hands-on with every facet of the business in the beginning. I pack boxes and drive them to FedEx and work in the factory in Italy making the product. I always shop for materials myself. I do trunk shows, trade shows and sales calls. I learn so much this way. Then I can, in many cases, think of a better solution to a problem or think of a better workflow process that will increase productivity which means a better price to our customers.
Many times it’s something simple but can make a huge difference in the time it takes to do something. But instead of increasing our profits, I prefer to pass our savings on to our customers with a better price. Business is not always about how much money you can make. I care about my customers more than a profit. That’s why we guarantee everything for life and if someone isn’t happy with a purchase, I’d refund him or her no matter what condition the product was in when they returned it. I’d rather give it to them for free than have someone unhappy.