Clever with Leather: Fashionable and Functional Leather Goods

Claire Painter has made a career out of crafting fashionable and functional leather products for the equestrian community.

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Every horse needs a halter, and every barn dog needs a collar. Claire Painter, owner and founder of Clever with Leather in central Kentucky, makes it her daily mission to provide horse owners everywhere with the essentials, along with one-of-a-kind handmade accessories, with her leather goods.

Painter began her career with leather in London, England, where she became a Master Saddler. After an apprenticeship in Perthshire, Scotland, at which time she began Clever with Leather, Claire relocated to the United States in 1992.

Claire Painter of Clever with Leather works on one of her unique leather purses
Claire Painter works on one of her unique leather purses, an important part of her business.

Leather Goods on the Racetrack to Horse Shows

In Kentucky, Painter began selling handmade halters, focusing on the bustling Thoroughbred racing industry. She discovered that the business was very seasonal, and her customers disappeared in the winter.

To make Clever with Leather a year-round business without leaving Kentucky—she had a young son at the time so she couldn’t travel much—she needed to expand. Painter expanded her business to include English saddlery. She didn’t want it to be too broad in order to make sure she had time to produce quality work that kept her customers happy.

Her focus then began shifting towards sport horses instead of racing, and Painter started producing padded halters. She then made it her goal to create things that made people happy in addition to being practical, and began to find joy in her work again.

“If you repair something and you make it look nice again, it makes people happy,” she says. “If you create something for a person’s horse, or for them, they are happy. It’s a happy purchase.”

A Leather Niche in the Equine World

Painter then began to use the quiet season in winter to build up her inventory and website so people knew what she had to offer. She says that slowly but surely, it began paying off.

She relies on her clients to help figure out the details on her items to make them the ideal product.

“I’ve got a lot of great customers who know their stuff,” says Painter. When developing one of her most popular items, a neck strap, she had sponsored eventing rider Jenn O’Neill test out the prototype.

Painter says that working with people who know what they’re doing and listening to what the customers want helps ensure she is producing functional products and learning from the riders who use them.

The eventing community has been the cornerstone of Clever With Leather for many years. Painter sets up a booth at Defender Kentucky Three-Day Event every year to showcase and sell her products, and in all her years of being a vendor, she says she has never noticed anything being stolen. She believes this is due to her customers truly valuing the work she puts into her products.

The Clever with Leather vendor tent at Kentucky Three-Day Event
The store hosts a vendor tent annually at the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event.

“They like the fact that I’m a small business and I enjoy the business now that I’ve found my niche,” Painter says. “I’ve found my people. They see the value in a handmade purse. They don’t bring me another purse to copy. They want my version. They see the value in what I do. I feel really lucky.”

She says that the Kentucky Three-Day Event always “feels like doing business with old friends. It doesn’t feel like business.” People come back to her booth year after year. Often, people come back just to say hello and tell her that their previously purchased products are still going strong.

Focusing on the Goal

In college, Painter studied leather goods manufacturing and design before beginning the saddlery program. This, in addition to her artistic eye and listening to what her customers want, has allowed her to expand her business further, making wearable items such as chaps and purses.

With the growth of her company, Painter had to learn how to streamline her business.

“I used to do everything,” she says. “I never said no to a job. Now if someone wants something I don’t focus on, I send them to someone else. I’ve narrowed down what I do.”

Painter sees herself staying in Kentucky long-term. Her son is in his second year of college and once he graduates, she likes the idea of possibly starting to ride again.

“I love living here,” she says. “I love the community in Lexington. Everyone sort of knows everyone. It’s quite a safety net.”

Currently the neck straps, made to provide a grab strap for riders, are Painter’s best-selling products. While other companies have produced similar products since she came out with her version, she says that since her customers are loyal and she offers a variety of color options and a quality product, her neck straps keep selling.

Grab straps for eventing in various colors
Clever with Leather’s famous grab straps are beloved by eventers.

“Eventers are loyal,” she says. “They always tell each other they need to get a Clever with Leather neck strap.”

Reputation for a Reason

Painter’s halters are still a huge hit, as are the dog collars. Her products have a reputation for lasting a long time and being functional for years.

“That’s the good and bad side,” she says. “The products last for years, but thankfully people are always getting another horse, and they are always getting another dog.”

For other women looking to go out and start their own business, Painter advises not to be afraid.

“People told me not to go out on my own and start a business here, but it’s worked,” she says. “If you believe in what you do, and you love what you do, don’t be afraid to give it a go.”

Check out Clever with Leather at www.cleverwithleather.com.

This article about Clever with Leather’s leather goods for horses appeared in the March 2023 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!

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