Their dream was born on long drives through the country.
Denise Kerr and her daughter, Danielle, drove daily to Dallas from their home in a rural neighborhood near Frisco, Texas.
Denise taught arts and crafts classes in the city. During the hour there and back, as they watched tall buildings blur into trees, they’d talk about everything.
The conversation would always circle back to plans for a shop they wanted to open together—a place to hold ceramics classes and sell the leather goods Denise made.
“My little dream was, I always told Dani, I want to be in an old house and turn it into a place where you can hang out,” Denise, 51, says today. “The kind of place where people say, ‘Hey, it’s 3, and we don’t have anything to do until 6. Let’s go to Sweet Leather.’”
Years later, Sweet Leather would wind up being the name of that shop, and a move to Baton Rouge so Danielle could attend LSU helped make it a reality.
Last fall, the 22-year-old used skills she learned through studying graphic design at LSU to brand her mom’s leather line as Sweet Leather Goods. The pair started selling products at the Baton Rouge Arts Market. But they never could’ve imagined how quickly the rest would fall into place.
Within months, Danielle found a historic building for lease in the Circa 1857 complex, right next door to The Guru. It was everything she and her mom had hoped for and more. They opened their storefront in December, and six months later they added a ceramics studio.
Today, a palm tree sways in the breeze in front of their shop, a quaint teal-colored cottage with a dripping honeycomb design painted along the edge of the roof. Up the creaky wooden steps into the store, the scent of leather pervades the room.
Leather backpacks, bow ties, clutches, jewelry, wallets, coin holders and other accessories sit neatly organized on wooden shelves. Danielle and Denise made the shelves themselves, and Danielle handpainted a black, white and gray diamond pattern on the floor. An industrial starburst-style chandelier provides a warm glow.
Quirky phrases painted by Danielle are scattered throughout. Next to an earrings display are the words “This would look good on you.” Next to necklaces, the shelf reads, “Buy now or cry later.”
Further back, another room in the house sells local maker goods, everything from Basic Bee Shop local honey to the Priceless Collection’s necklaces to prints by artist Sara Scioneaux. Tucked behind that is the Kerrs’ ceramic studio, The Hive. They teach classes by appointment and also sometimes take walk-ins. During a two-hour class, students can complete a piece and leave it to be fired in their kiln.
Denise doesn’t talk about teaching ceramics—she gushes. She says the studio was an even bigger dream than the shop, and it’s clear that teaching is what’s closest to her heart.
“It’s awesome to watch kids who have never touched clay before,” she says. “Especially elementary-
age. Because they’re not in high school yet, they’re not in this box of ‘I know what I want to be when I grow up’ yet. They are just absorbing the craft. I’m always stunned by what they make—like, why didn’t I think of that?”
She walks over to a shelf that holds some recent creations: speckled clay pots, beer steins and beehive-shaped trinkets. She gingerly picks up a delicate llama-shaped piece.
“This was a first-time project,” she says admiringly. “What does that do for your confidence, when you literally make something out of dirt?”
Danielle echoes Denise on how rewarding exposing young people to art is. At the start of her own journey at LSU, she was scared to study graphic design.
“I started studying engineering, because I thought I could be bigger doing that than as an artist,” she says. “I was miserable until I switched to design.”
This afternoon in the shop, Danielle’s fingers are stained with paint, and it’s evident that embracing design and opening Sweet Leather has done wonders for her. She says she never really liked Dallas but is ecstatic to be part of Baton Rouge’s makers community.
“I moved around a lot as a kid,” she says. “This is the first place I’ve lived that I’m proud to call home.”
The final room in the house is a leather workshop, brimming with tools and scraps of cowhide hanging on the walls. “The leather smells so good,” Denise says, breathing in the scent.
This is where Denise designs, following her whims. She works from patterns to keep three of her bags consistent, but the rest are one-of-a-kind, made from scratch—meaning that if you walk into the store on two separate days, you’ll never see the same items for sale.
The products are made with vegetable-tanned leather, hued with eco-friendly dyes made from tree bark, vegetables and berries. The color of the leather changes as it ages and is exposed to elements like the sun. (“To me, that’s the beauty of it,” Denise says.)
They save scraps from bigger projects to make smaller items like coin holders and glasses cases, which they say is to minimize waste out of respect for the animal.
They take custom requests, too, which have come through social media from as far away as Australia.
Danielle offers her mom feedback on the designs.
“Sometimes she brings me stuff and I’m just like, ‘No,’” Danielle says.
Denise’s style is more funky, while Danielle is a minimalist who craves clean lines. Their contrasting personalities help to fine-tune their products.
Denise adds, “I’ve been in a business before where you felt like you were walking on eggshells.” Sweet Leather is different. “We bump heads sometimes. But it’s always ridiculous within a few minutes.”
Denise is married now, but there was a time during Danielle’s childhood when it was just the two of them. They relied wholly on each other, and their bond is the framework Sweet Leather is built on today.
“She’s my best friend. People always think we’re sisters,” Danielle says. “There’s no pressure on my end, like, ‘Oh my god—it’s my mom; I can’t.”
So they share everything, from the business right down to their matching bumblebee tattoos. The bee, which is featured heavily in their branding, is an ode to Denise’s late mother, whom they always associated with a queen bee.
And if she could see them now, she’d surely bee proud. sweetleathergoods.com
Sweet Leather Goods is open daily, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., at 1857 Government St. The Hive offers ceramics classes by appointment, $45 per person for a two-hour session.
This article was originally published in the August 2017 issue of 225 Magazine.