Tanner Leatherstein: The Luxury Cutup

As his alter ego Tanner Leatherstein, Volkan Yilmaz cuts up luxury leather goods by Louis Vuitton et al, while growing his own leather D2C brand

Volkan Yilmaz is driven by a singular passion: leather. Passion can be a fickle thing, however, with different ways of expressing it. For Yilmaz, aka Tanner Leatherstein, destroying his passion—figuratively and literally—attracts and entertains his audience. He then finances the whole shebang through his D2C brand hawking high-quality leather accessories. We spoke to Yilmaz about his love of leather, where he got the idea to destroy handbags by luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton, Hermès and Jacquemus and how his modest brand Pegai profits from the carnage.

Inspiration struck at 35,000 feet, somewhere between Honolulu and Chicago. "Clarity hit me and I realized a clear mission," Volkan Yilmaz told OMR, "to show the world how to distinguish high-quality leather goods from cheap knockoffs.” As readily apparent to all of no one, the only way to accomplish his mission was to butcher scads of luxury handbags—with a total sticker price north of 50k.

The "butcher" draws 300k+

Yilmaz currently has 357,000 subscribers on YouTube, where his videos feature him examining the quality of leather goods from top luxury labels and regularly generate views in the six-figure range. On Tiktok, Yilmaz posts snippets of his long-form YouTube clips, which have been liked more than ten million likes to date. His dissection of a Christian Louboutin shoe alone has more than five million views. The combination of luxury and destruction is, of course, social media gold: status symbols being sliced up by some ruffian without batting an eye and drug them through the muck.

Yilmaz calls it "butchery." And he does, in fact, slice up everything from handbags to belts to shoes in order to inspect their quality. And he does so with the nerdy passion of someone who’s spent a life in leather. Yilmaz's family ran a tannery in Turkey, where he would occasionally help out as a little tyke and eventually fell in love with the material. "It was almost magic, turning this fleshy bloody thing into a beautiful, luxurious material," says Yilmaz. When the family business relocated to Turkmenistan, young Yilmaz took over the reins.

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Not for the faint of fashionista heart: a handbag butchery by Tanner Leatherstein. (Image: Tanner Leatherstein)

Instead of simple goatskins, they began processing higher-quality raw materials at the new location. "That was a good experience from the tanning side," recalls Yilmaz, "but a terrible experience from the entrepreneurial and business side." The corruption in the country was crazy. The chance to prove himself had become a dead end. Until Yilmaz hit the jackpot: he won a Green Card.

Dominoes to UBER to MBA

Once he arrived in Chicago, he initially made a living delivering pizzas and as a truck and cab driver. Yilmaz often drove consultants to and from the airport. He struck up conversations with them. "Solving business problems, traveling though the country—sounds like a good gig to me," he thought to himself and enrolled in an MBA program at a local university.

While he was at university, it should have been clear to him that he wouldn't be letting go of leather any time soon. Once, says Yilmaz, the thought struck him in the middle of a course that Leatherstein would be a cool name for a leather brand - sounds like a "European family tradition in the leather business," says Yilmaz. It didn’t take long for him to land on Tanner as a proper first name rooted in the WASP tradition. He secured the domain immediately, because you never know.

Dying on the inside

After graduating, Yilmaz then joined a consultancy firm as he originally planned. Friendly colleagues, good money, but at some point he felt like he was "dying inside." He quit and started working as an Uber driver again. "That's how desperate I was," says Yilmaz. "I just didn't know what to do."

Then he finally pivoted back to his calling, to leather. "I watched YouTube videos to learn how to design leather products and sew them by hand," says Yilmaz. His living room transformed into a studio where he and his wife made wallets to sell on Etsy. Yilmaz chose Pegai as the name for his brand, which was launched at the end of 2016 and offers high-quality, yet affordable leather goods. The logo is a Pegasus soaring in the sky.

Brand two ready for launch

Business picks up pretty quickly; instead of, say, three leather purses sold in a day, it’s ten. He brings in his brother, who sets up a production facility in their parents' former tannery. The business grew steadily and within a few years Pegai employees 70. "I was very ambitious," Yilmaz recalls. Production, however, was inefficient and many of the things he tried didn't work out. 

Two years ago, Yilmaz scaled back Pegai to its pre-expansion size. Today, around 30 people work for the brand, 25 in production in Turkey and four in support in the Philippines. Plus Tanner and his team in Dallas, where Pegai is now based. With Yilmaz preparing to launch a second brand, that number could soon grow again. The second venture is intended to serve the audience he addresses via his alias Tanner Leatherstein.  

D2C brands better than luxury goods?

After his epiphany above the clouds, Yilmaz dusted off his pseudonym concocted in college and began creating social media accounts. The content that Yilmaz posts under Tanner Leatherstein is divided into two categories: shop talk with other leather experts and the videos that have made him both (in)famous in the industry. Namely, clips in which Yilmaz dissects handbags from luxury brands and D2C brands and comments on the materials processed and manufacturing methods used. And he estimates how much the bag probably cost to produce, including the materials.

It is precisely these estimates that reveals the gob-smacking margins prevalent in the luxury industry. For example, Yilmaz estimates the production price of a Salvatore Ferragamo bag selling for USD 2400 at nearly a tenth of the sticker price (USD 255). A Jaquemus bag retailing for 680 bucks? 76 to produce. Yilmaz doesn’t limit the scathing critiques to the absurd margins but goes in hard mocking the poor workmanship and material choice. Was he surprised by how inferior some luxury products are? "That didn't surprise me," says Yilmaz. "What did was how much people are surprised by it."

20 hours for 8 minutes of destruction

Yilmaz dubs his content "Leathertainment." Production takes most of his time and he releases a clip every week. Each video requires about 20 hours—20 hours for an 8-minute video, on average. And production is becoming more elaborate and time intensive. He was recently in the Spanish town of Ubrique, where luxury companies have their leather goods made in factories. In Switzerland, he was shown how to make a high-quality handbag. But it’s creating the destruction videos that take up most of his time. 

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Volkan Yilmaz as his alter ego: leather expert Tanner Leatherstein (Image: Tanner Leatherstein) 

He says he doesn't want to tell anyone what they should buy. His aim is merely to educate and lay the foundation others to make conscious purchasing decisions. Ultimately, everyone has to decide for themselves how much they’re willing to pay for the prestige of a luxury label, he says. But if you watch a number of his videos and Tiktoks, it becomes clear what his own preference is: young D2C labels such as Polène, Strathberry and Mlouye, which survive his section unscathed, metaphorically speaking of course. No leather remains physically unharmed in his videos.

"People think good leather is expensive," says Yilmaz. "And that if you want a good leather bag, you have to buy one from Louis Vuitton." A myth that he as leather expert Tanner Leatherstein debunks. It’s an opportunity that the enterprising entrepreneur Yilmaz wants to profit off of with his second D2C brand. It aims to be more fashionable than Pegai, but with equally high-quality standards. It will be manufactured in Spain in the same factories where the luxury labels have their products made. And he will probably also advertise this new brand much more strongly on the Leatherstein channels, says Yilmaz. Pegai only features via the occasional name-drop.

"You the guy with the bags?"

The venture may possibly force luxury labels to take notice and vacate their elegant indifference thus far shown to his videos. After all, everyone in the industry is likely to know Tanner Leatherstein. Recently in London, Yilmaz tells OMR, he went to the flagship store of British luxury brand Mulberry, where a saleswoman recognized him, asking, "Aren't you the one who does the bag videos?" Yilmaz, who buys all the bags for his section videos himself, with his own account in his real name, said in fact that was. The woman then asked which model he was interested in, according to Yilmaz. "They were very nice and very helpful." The highest quality of service—the absolute bare minimum when you show a genuine interest in spending 1k on a handbag.

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Scott Peterson
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