The story of Suede Products, LLC, nee Kirk's Suede-Life

The history of Suede Products, LLC has a colorful beginning that bears similarity to a Horatio Alger story.

Clifford K. Kirkpatrick, the Kirk in the company's previous name, was a pre-med student at the University of Kansas at the outbreak of the Great Depression. He had an illness that forced him to drop out of school during a semester. Upon recovering he needed a haircut. While in the barber's chair the dry cleaner, who operated the dry cleaning store behind the barber shop, stormed out and quit his job. Kirk applied for the job, and the barber who owned the dry cleaning shop, hired him on the spot.

Kirk had no knowledge of dry cleaning but quickly learned the trade. He stayed with it until the next summer when the barber dismissed him because there was not enough work to pay his salary during the summer.

Undaunted, Kirk took his meager savings, bought a horse and wagon, dry cleaning chemicals and other needed items, and set out farm to farm throughout Kansas, dry-cleaning the farmers' woolens. He would go door to door during the day, clean at night, and deliver the goods to the customers the next day--fresh and clean. This lasted through the fall.

With the cold weather facing him, Kirk decided to go to the big city and try his hand as a dry cleaner. The big city was Chicago and he soon found work at a plant. But his entrepreneurial spirit prevailed and he decided to take a job, strictly on commission, selling dry cleaning presses to cleaners and garment manufacturers. These presses produced much better quality results on garments than did the conventional hand irons commonly used at the time.

His experience going door to door had taught him the benefits of contact, and he felt that personal contact while demonstrating would increase his sales possibilities. The trouble was the presses weighed several hundred pounds and needed heat (steam from a boiler). Clearly a press demonstration required planning.

With a makeshift trailer, assorted plumbing fittings to connect steam, and a trusty Ford, Kirk set out across the U.S., demonstrating the presses door to door to dry cleaners. His plan was a success, but not financially. Remember, this was the Depression. He sold more presses by himself than the rest of the company had ever sold. But bigger problems developed. The company was under-capitalized, and could not get loans to produce the presses. So Kirk was fired for being too good.

Kirk was in San Francisco when this happened and he needed a job. He approached his uncle, who was a principal in the Menasse Block Tannery in nearby Berkley. During his time there he learned how a skin, or hide, was transformed into leather and was made pliable by replenishing the fats and oils which had been removed during the tanning process. In addition, Kirk had made contact with the leather tanning industry while selling presses to tanners. He learned that leather and suede were being tanned in greater numbers for the garment industry. He therefore concluded that an industry, specializing in cleaning those garments, would develop.

Within a short time Kirk had opened leather cleaning plants in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. They were immediate successes. He researched procedures, developing specialty chemicals and the equipment needed to successfully process these garments.

As his business prospered he realized that other markets could support their own leather and suede cleaning facilities. This led to his beginning the C.K. Kirkpatrick Specialty Company, which was to supply the products, equipment and teach the know how, to others so that they could prosper in this business. He soon organized his plants with skilled personnel that enabled him to go once again door to door, selling, demonstrating and teaching procedures to his new customer base.

In the early 1960's Kirk sold his company to Arthur Andrews. Kirk was approaching retirement age, and had developed to a point were he had international customers. However, Kirk insisted that he wanted to continue his door to door visits to customers and new prospects. He did this until he was incapacitated in the late 60's. He passed away in the early 70's.

In the late 1960's two leather cleaners, Mike Selesnick and Joe Meir, developed a system that permitted filtered cleaning of suede and leather and heated drying. This process, which came to be known as Suede-Life, was eventually patented.

In 1970 a merger of the Suede-Life Co. with C.K. Kirkpatrick Specialty Company created Kirk's Suede-Life, Inc. Kirk's Suede-Life, Inc. became the world leader in the supply of chemicals, equipment and processes for the cleaning of suede and leather apparel.

In early 2006, Kirk's Suede-Life, Inc. was purchased by Suede Products. Suede Products continues to serve Suede-Life customers with the same quality products, which are used daily by professional suede and leather cleaners on six continents.