Haley Black comes from a rodeo family. Growing up in Bloomington, Illinois, Black’s father crafted equestrian saddles, so she was always around leather goods. After moving away and getting her undergraduate degree in speech and hearing science at the University of Illinois and then her master’s degree in deaf education from Washington University in St. Louis, Black felt a part of her was missing: a creative outlet. The stress of teaching was weighing on her, and she wanted to express herself in another way.
Going back to her roots, Black turned to leather. “I wanted to create something,” she remembers.
The first thing she made was an envelope-style clutch – something she designed with a very specific purpose.
“Whenever we go anywhere, my husband always hands me his wallet and phone,” she says. “I wanted something that would hold all the things I need as an adult woman, along with things like his wallet and phone.”
Her initial design would become an elegant yet heavy-duty bag that had countless people asking where they could get one. Seeing the interest, Black realized there might be a business endeavor possible there. In 2015, she created Mandolin Handbags – a name carefully chosen from an instrument she and her father both play.
“I learned the skill of leather from him, and we both play the mandolin,” she says. “I’m nowhere near intermediate level at this point, but it’s another thing passed down from him. I like the music that comes from [the mandolin]. It feels like home.”
Black turned her passion for fine-quality things and the current fashion revolution into her efforts with Mandolin Handbags.
“I value the fact that things aren’t made in a factory and are all a little different,” she says.
The current Mandolin Handbags line consists of her inaugural clutch, which retails for $180, the Sequoia Crossbody ($220), the Commuter Bag ($320), a wallet that starts at $50 and a few other home goods like coasters. Each piece is made to order by Black herself and usually arrives within two weeks of the order being placed.
“With the clutch and other pieces, I’ve tried to take the things I liked in my dad’s equestrian background and pare them down a lot,” she says. “Like the commuter bag, for example, has handles made from infinity braids – the same ones you use for horse reins. Because of this, it can hold a lot of weight, and the braid gives when you’re walking so it’s not so much weight on your shoulder.”
Black has put considerable thought into the design of each of her pieces. When she was creating the designs for items like the clutch, she would “do the worst” to it to see what needed to be reinforced. In keeping with the individualized character of every handmade piece, Black doesn’t use a lot of processing on the leather so “it can become yours.” The clutch has suede lining and is accented by polished gold- and silver-toned hardware.
She says the larger crossbody bag has been a best-seller, noting its versatility.
“You can take it anywhere,” Black says. “I’ve taken it on a hike and also to a fashion event.” She adds that the commuter bag is also popular due to its accommodating size. “It’s great to take on vacation, to carry a laptop or even be used as a diaper bag. The size works for so many things.”
Since she began selling bags under the Mandolin Handbags name more than three years ago, Black has received overwhelmingly positive feedback on her creations.
“You can clearly identify that these bags are handmade,” she says. “I think that sets them apart and opens them up for more inquiry.”
In the future, Black says she’d like to expand her line but is careful about what that expansion will look like. She doesn’t want to overlap the functionality of the bags she’s already creating.
“If I went on vacation, I would use the commuter bag as my carry-on, the crossbody during the day and the clutch to go to dinner,” she says. “So I will ask myself, ‘What’s the purpose other than what’s already there?’ I want to be thoughtful and systematic in my growth.”
For now, customers can find her bags locally at Union Studio, a shop in St. Louis’ Botanical Heights neighborhood that carries a collection of goods made by area makers, or via her website.
Mandolin Handbags, themandolinhandbag.com