Tucked away in Downtown Opelika along the brick street parallel to the railroad tracks, one of two warehouse doors is rolled up, water flowing out into the cold February air. White–painted brick walls can be seen through the arched entryway next to the sign attached to the outside wall stating the space is for rent by artists.
Inside the gentrified cotton warehouses the smell of day old paint and the sound of 25-year-old Michael Stricklin pressure–washing the floors fills the room. It’s as cold inside the large warehouse as it is outside, and Stricklin wears a hooded Auburn sweatshirt and pants rolled up at the cuff showing leather boots, all with small paint splatters from yesterday’s work.
Eventually, the space will become the workshop and storefront of his leatherwork business Loyal Stricklin.
Stricklin graduated from Auburn with a bachelor’s degree in Architecture in 2013, and a master’s in design construction in August of 2014.
Stricklin also started his own American Dream in the same time frame, an international leather goods business that ships products across the United States and beyond.
In a way, Sticklin says, studying architecture at Auburn is what led him to working with leather and creating his business.
“I’ve always been crafty, into art and into making stuff,” Stricklin said. “In architecture you make models and you draw and then present your project. It just ends with this model or just drawings sometimes.”
Buildings are expensive, and the construction of a project from start–to–finish can take years. Stricklin wanted something he could come up with, design, create, and then see it finished and in his hands.
Stricklin invested in himself with a little bit of money he had saved up. He bought tools and leather to make a phone case and wallet for himself, then made a couple more.
“I put them online and sold a couple, sold a couple more, started making other products and those would sell too,” Stricklin said behind tortoise-shell paint-spotted glasses. “The more I’d sell, the more I’d buy leather and more tools and keep building it.”
The summer after graduating from Auburn’s architecture program he put in his hours learning the craft of leatherwork. That fall he started grad school; school until 6, leatherwork until midnight. By the time Christmas came around, one of his products took off.
Stricklin’s Aviator Mug, a mason jar with a leather sleeve and handle, became his signature product. He returned to Auburn in the spring to finish his master’s in design construction and continued the same routine until he graduated in August; school from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m., creating with leather at his studio in Opelika until midnight.
In that time he moved into a house/studio with Opelika artist RC Hagans, transitioned to a studio/warehouse at the old train depot, built a large and devoted following on the social media platforms he runs the majority of his business on and hired employees to help fill orders.
Since then he has started two temporary pop-up shops with Hagans, one in Opelika and one in Montgomery, created new leather products like bags, backpacks and watch straps, leased an even larger warehouse as a home to the future storefront of his company and hired more employees to help fill orders.
“Last December I was working on a desk beside my bed, and now we’re here,” Stricklin said.
“Life is short. If you’re passionate about something, go after it, put everything you have into it and put in the hours it takes to master it. Many people are led to believe that the next step in life is when life begins: when you go to college, when you graduate, when you get a promotion, when you have kids…etc. etc…but you don’t have to wait for that. You can start now. Every business out there had to start somewhere. When I started, I had a few tools, a hide of leather and a desk in my bedroom. I also had many people telling me that I wouldn’t make it or that I couldn’t do what I do full time either in my face or behind my back. But I didn’t listen to them and kept going, because I believed in myself and that I could succeed. I struggled for a while, but eventually I caught a break that put me on the same level as many of the makers that I admired when I started and continue to admire today. I was fortunate enough to be able to complete two degrees while doing this, so even if I lost it all tomorrow, I have a backup plan, I have a future, and I know that I have the guts and gusto to make it on my own.”
He never saw a need to write a business plan down. He pays the bills and puts the rest back into the company. And over the rapid expansion, he hasn’t found it necessary for expensive marketing or forgotten the core philosophy behind the products he makes.
“It’s just been word-of-mouth, Instagram, putting out a good product and standing behind it,” Stricklin said. “If something breaks, we fix it for free and send it back on our dime. We take care of products that we make and we stand behind them and people are pretty drawn to that. We’ve built a pretty good name for our product in durability and integrity of who we are and what we do.”
Buying from Loyal Stricklin means buying Horween Leather Company’s American-made leather crafted by an all-American leather products company. A company whose owner could tell you which of his six employees, including himself, made each product when he is called directly from the contact number on his website; his personal cell-phone number.
The future of Loyal Stricklin is just as unpredictable as it’s start. Stricklin will have a place for people to come hang out in his new storefront. He also knows he will still be making quality leather products from backpacks to Aviator Mugs to watch straps like the one he wears on his black-faced Timex watch. The little white paint splatters that found even the homemade leather around his wrist are just evidence of the next step in the growth of his business.
Above all, Stricklin knows he will be creating more than just a brand or a storefront.
“The whole thing about what we do is we are trying to create this lifestyle,” Stricklin said. “You can make the American dream still work. You have to put your back into it, pick yourself up by your bootstraps and put a lot of hard work in and a lot of hours, but you do. And little by little, you build something really great.”