CEO and CO-FOUNDER KEN TOMITA: The Bi-fold Wallet took a longer journey to create than we could ever have imagined. Luckily for us, we enjoy the struggle just as much as the destination. This is that story.
It began with a desire to add another wallet to our everyday carry lineup. We had success with our minimalist wallet, but there were many people that simply weren’t ready to go that minimal. I tasked our design team of Sean Kelly and Kevin Do to create a wallet that was both versatile and relevant in a world where how and what we carry is fast changing. Like many of our customers, I live an uncluttered life carrying only what I need, but being a business person I need to carry a bit of cash, a few business cards, and some receipts for my expense reports. I challenged Sean and Kevin to design a wallet in our signature Grovemade style that could do all that, and do it small.
In the beginning, the team played around in analog fashion with an all leather material palette.
LEAD PRODUCT DESIGNER SEAN KELLY: When we first started, we just worked in paper. We sketched first, and then we went to paper and started either hand-cutting shapes, or we'd go into Rhino and we'd print them, cut them out, fold them up, test them, try again. We just did that over and over until we had a shape that we really liked.
Kevin and Sean made dozens of iterations, but the wallet kept ending up looking like a regular wallet. We always want to push design into new territory, to contribute to the evolution of a product category as a whole, and so regular is something we’re never comfortable with. They decided to shift away from all-leather design.
We really liked the aluminum body on our current minimalist wallet and how it allowed for quick and easy card access, and so we decided to try to build on that concept by adding a leather flap. Attaching the leather to the metal body and making it durable proved to be a big challenge. Wallets take a beating and are expected to last five or more years, so we had to get it right. We explored all kinds of ideas on attachment methods, including sewing, puncturing the metal, and using a metal plate to sandwich the connection.
After a long struggle we had a couple versions that were starting to feel good. We had our machinist Victor Nguyen machine full scale prototypes to test our concepts. We got the design to the point where it was pretty much done.
But then I started to get a bad feeling I couldn’t ignore. This wallet was going to cost about $150. I couldn’t let it go that this new wallet needed a more accessible price point. The price range I’d set was a mistake, and we’d now need to backtrack. I asked the designers to pivot back to using all leather, and they fought me on it. For years I had pushed them to create a unique visual identity, something that would instantly strike people as different and one of a kind. Going back to all-leather, though a logical material for wallets, created a huge challenge when one of your goals is to make something distinct and strikingly unique from other wallets on the market.
SEAN KELLY: Yeah, that just goes back to the idea that we always try to push our designs in different ways. That's why we created a machined metal wallet in the first place, because we're trying to push past what everyone else is doing.
Going back to the drawing board, the designers struggled. No matter what they did, at a glance it looked like other wallets. They argued that going with a more conventional design isn’t our way; that we were, in essence, selling out. While this kind of talk can be uncomfortable, we embrace challenging ourselves and having an open dialog. I loved the passion they had for our ideals, and thought it was interesting that we were sitting at this inflection point. Beauty can be created by the collision of forces if channeled in the right way. I didn’t know what to do besides encouraging them to keep working at it, keep refining, keep pushing. And push on they did.
SEAN KELLY: The key idea with our original minimalist wallet is the power card and carrying exactly what you need and having access to it very quickly. A theme for our second wallet, very early on, was we saw that with normal wallets, it was hard to access cards within the pockets deep inside, behind the regular card slot. Of course you could access them, but we wanted to make it easier in some way. So we decided to create this flapping function that allows you to bend the wallet back to reveal the cash or business cards behind the actual card slots.
This seemingly small innovation ultimately lead to shrinking the overall profile of the wallet down 30% from a traditional bifold. Now that you could access folded bills more easily, we could make a bifold wallet that was considerably smaller without sacrificing too much functionality. We made the tolerances as tight as possible without sacrificing a number of choices within the wallet for bills, cards, etc.
SEAN KELLY: I think we just had to accept that we were going into a really crowded field and it was going to look like other things. But what we could do that could set it apart was really focus on the details and the manufacturing. We also applied some of our thinking around “how can you take this two-dimensional flat piece of leather and create form within it?”
As we dove into the details I locked onto the sewing as an area of improvement. Years ago, we did our own sewing in-house, but ultimately stopped because we weren’t experts in it. So instead of trying again to do something we weren’t that good at, we decided to find an outside expert. Enter Takeshi “Yone” Yonezawa of Yonezawa Leather. Yone does bespoke leather work, making low quantities of extremely premium products as a one man operation. He agreed to not only sew our wallets, but to teach us his techniques and philosophies about leather working.
I went over to Yone’s workshop four or five times to get lessons. He explained to me that newer sewing machines have evolved to be faster in order to save factories money, but that those innovations sacrifice how cleanly they can sew. He doesn’t use these speed-focused machines, choosing quality over speed. The machines he sews on are so old they’re no longer in production, and he makes special trips back to Japan just to hunt them down.
It was a fascinating experience working with Yone. We were interested in how we could make wallets better and Yone opened our eyes to what was possible. He has an obsession with his craft that showed me that even the simplest products have limitless potential where you could take it.
With Yone’s help, we finally got to a prototype we were happy with. I officially signed off on sending that design into production when, literally the next day, we got some unfortunate news.
We’re friends with a lot of other brands we respect, and one of our peers launched a wallet with a flap feature very similar to ours. We spent so much energy coming up with something original, and by pure coincidence our friend’s team landed on something almost identical. We were convinced we’d have to start over. Crazy bad luck!
After some freaking out, we gathered ourselves, took a deep breath, and thought it through. We’re we overreacting? Wallets are all pretty similar because there is only so much you can do with leather. But how would they feel about it? I reached out directly to our friend, telling him what had happened and asking him how he felt about it. I waited anxiously for a few days for a response.
He responded that he felt that the details in our wallets are different enough. He and his CEO had no problem with us moving forward with our wallet design. Phew! What a relief! They were not only okay with it, but gave us some very encouraging words and advice. The project was back on!
We had taken a long and winding path to finding a design we loved, and now needed to make enough to meet our deadline for a holiday launch. We decided on an initial batch of 50 and that Sean and I would make them ourselves armed with what we had learned so far. Because our production floor is so busy during regular hours, we had to spend time late into the evening working to get them done. We had some great quiet time where we could not only lock in the process, but also plenty of time to reflect on our new wallet’s creation story.
SEAN KELLY: I think it's really cool. It kinda takes me back to when we first started the company and were in the production line. We would see every product through, all the way to the end through every step. I remember a great deal of satisfaction in seeing a batch of product being finished, knowing that I touched it or I had a hand in making it.
Making the first batch also felt like a return to my roots as a furniture maker, before co-founding Grovemade. Doing the actual handwork this time made me appreciate the skill and the sheer amount of time and effort it takes to physically make quality products. The meticulous work of gluing the leather panels together by hand was incredibly time consuming at first. I had to be so careful with the consistency of the glue and how thick it was applied, not to mention the placement had to be exact. One mistake and the entire wallet would be ruined. It took a lot of practice to get my manual skills to the point where I could do it well.
I’ve always been skeptical when seeing other USA-made bifold wallets cost $100 or more. It seemed like price gouging because bifold wallets seem so simple in construction. Now I know firsthand that it’s not something easy when done well. It’s easy to underestimate the work that others do until you have to roll up your sleeves and do it yourself.
As I look over our first batch of 50 wallets waiting to go out to customers, I think back on the journey it took to get here. I really enjoyed the meandering path, the tension, and drama involved in making our Bifold Wallet a reality. I like to believe it’s that struggle that gives our products deeper meaning.