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We’re sitting in Nathan Smith’s airy basement studio, and even without hearing him tick off his style influences (he names Cary Grant, Steve McQueen, and a young James Garner among them), his love affair with the midcentury is apparent. The original 1952 brick walls are painted white. Resting on the genuine parquet is sleek assorted seating, their sweeping lines contrasting bold geometric patterns. Although it rests against the wall, the unquestionable centerpiece of both the space and Nathan’s company, Riegel Goods, is a grey Adler sewing machine. He taught himself how to sew on the vintage West-German built instrument, and every Riegel bag is constructed on its table stand.
He lives with his wife, Suzanne, in Calhoun, Georgia, a town about 60 miles northwest of Atlanta. It’s the same place he was born. The one where he went to school. The town where he had his first job as writer and photographer for the Calhoun Times. And it’s the same place where he currently teaches 11th grade literature. Except for now, it’s summer, so every day, its ten or twelve hours in the studio, waxing and sewing canvas; cutting and burnishing leather; riveting solid copper hardware.
Calhoun also lies along a historic stretch of Highway 41. At the turn of the 20th century, women here sewed bedspreads, many of them tufted with peacocks, and sold them to Midwest tourists seeking the Florida’s sunny climes. An entire cottage industry, in the truest sense, blossomed in newly christened Peacock Alley, enabling some families to escape Depression-era poverty while bringing more enterprising individuals real wealth. “This town has always had that spirit of self-sufficiency, that milltown mentality that’s competitive and tough, that we do what it takes to survive.” The romanticism of this mixture of resilience and creativity is something that always appealed to Nathan. While attempting to revitalize American industries of yore is a considerable challenge, others were proving it could be done. “I really was inspired by Bill’s Khakis (a trouser company in Reading, PA), and thought we could probably make them even cheaper here. We have the resources, we have the facilities, we have the labor force.”
Nathan’s buddy Tom first planted the idea of going to market not with pants, but bags, pointing to the success of military-inspired packs online. To Nathan, the style, simplicity, and durability of vintage military carry goods was self-evident. “Tom said he could sew, so I said, OK, I’ll do the leatherwork and rivets.” So two years ago, Nathan called around the state until he found the very Adler sewing machine for which he’d been searching, in Rome, Georgia. The seller asked Tom to demo it. “Tom said, ‘I can’t sew. I just did a little bit with my Mom when I was a kid.’ So I sat down and tried it. And Tom said, ‘Damn you can sew a pretty straight line!’” And so Nathan’s self-tutelage in graduate-level sewing began; within several months he began selling his original bags online. He recalls the first one that he was truly pleased with. “Other than maybe writing a novel, I can’t see how I could be more satisfied than actually making something with my hands that I’m proud of.”
When it comes to designing, Nathan possesses only one requirement: that it’s a product he’d use himself. Unpacking that notion is a bit more complex. Stylistically: would Steve McQueen or Cary Grant rock it? Would it look appropriate on the set of Le Mans or Grand Prix? Functionally: Is it practical? Is it comfortable? And generationally: Will it not only survive lifetimes, but also improve with age?
Through this multilayer sieve, he arrives at a few staples: the roll-top, the foldover messenger, the tote. Classic silhouettes, thoughtful details, and harmonious colorways are somehow both timeless and trendy. And it takes some time to attain those successful combinations.
“You don’t just grab different things that you like and put them together and hope it comes out right. It won’t. You learn what your machine can work with. What size thread and needles, the thickness of your leather, how waxed canvas sews differently from unwaxed. How a no. 6 is different from a no. 8.You have to match all those things, and that’s a learning process.“
When all is said and done, the Riegel rucksack consumes 12 hours of labor each. Yes, that’s hours, and yep, that’s for each. “I wanted it to be durable. Something that lasts for decades. Something that can even be handed down for generations. And this stuff will, there’s no doubt in my mind.” There’s none in ours either.
Like many American bagmakers, Nathan sources most of his canvas from New Jersey’s Fairfield Textiles. But unlike almost any of them, he both formulates and applies, by hand, his own proprietary blend of wax. He plays notably coy with the mixture he claims is more durable and more uniform than anything on the market. “I’ll tell you that we use a big double boiler. We melt down beeswax, paraffin, and some other ingredients. We do it ourselves in our old fifties kitchen and brush it on.” His claims are difficult to contest. The first Riegel pack I received surely possessed both the weight and water resistance of heavier pre-waxed canvases, but little of the greasiness I’ve become accustomed. Nathan also sources denim from a 170-year-old mill in nearby Trion, the hometown of his wife. Currently known as Mount Vernon Mills, it was once Riegel Textile Corp. The shared branding is no coincidence. It’s a tribute to towns like his and people like him all over Northwest Georgia. “That town, Trion is very similar to this one. It’s a community that was there because of the mill. The school was the company school, the store the company store. The entire community of Trion was there just for that mill. It was the largest denim manufacturer in America. And around here, people knew it and respected it.”
I’ve noticed that Nathan has been answering almost all of my questions with “we.” He’s referring to Suzanne, for whom he has more to thank than just the idea behind the name. In addition to helping with waxing canvas, and burnishing and edge-coating leather, she is CFO, CMO, and COO of Riegel Goods Company. (I can also attest to her status as expert negotiator). “Doing the actual work together is wonderful. It just helps us bond. I’ve told you she’s a superior court judge. She bring a lot to the table, and she’s also just a great advisor. He adds one more to the litany of praise. “She also ships stuff.”
Nathan asks me to not focus much on his teaching as he plans to soon shift full-time to Riegel. And until this point, I’ve generally acquiesced, but full capitulation is difficult. Not when he communicates his perspective on the character of the American dream with such eloquence. “I’ve taught The Great Gatsby and it seems to me that every year more and more students don’t see that as any sort of reality. They’re disillusioned by this idea of being able to work hard and make something of yourself. And I’m honestly not sure if F. Scott believed it either. But I will say that Gatsby and Carraway did have this optimism in the belief to keep trying no matter what. I hope that this made in America spirit will revive some of that optimism in the younger generations that’s been missing for awhile.”