Tucked into the corner of a nondescript warehouse here in southwestern Michigan, there’s an empire hidden in plain sight.
Souldier, a design manufacturer that specializes in handmade items from guitar straps to handbags, is stashed away on the back side of a building that houses multiple companies. There’s no signage directing people toward it. Those unaware of its existence are likely to stay that way.
But it is far from a small operation. Souldier, which was born in a Chicago apartment from what was essentially a craft project, is now one of the most well-known brands in the music industry.
“It took off before I even thought it was going to take off,” said Jen Tabor, Souldier’s do-everything founder and owner. “Even to this day we’re trying to keep up with orders. For 13 years we’ve been trying to keep up with orders.”
Tabor, a 39-year old South Bend native and Penn High School graduate, spent a couple years at Indiana University-South Bend pursuing a career as an orchestra teacher before finishing up college at DePaul University in Chicago. By 2004, she was teaching orchestra in the suburbs by day and playing in a band by night.
That year she decided to make birthday gifts for her band mates — handmade guitar straps from old seat belts and vintage fabric. Just like that, a business took root.
Tabor started selling the straps at gigs. She eventually approached local music stores. Tabor said she went to 200 different stores the first year. They all started carrying her product. Then came the big break: Wilco front man Jeff Tweedy purchased one of the straps at a store in Chicago and wore it during a television performance on Saturday Night Live.
Game on. Tabor quit her teaching job in 2010 when it became clear Souldier needed to be her only focus.
“The reason I left teaching was with this endeavor, my only cap is myself,” Tabor said. “I love challenges and I love being put to the test. With this I felt that the sky’s the limit.”
She’s since built the business into an indispensable part of the music community, started shipping straps globally and diversified her line.
Consider some of the bands and artists known to sport Souldier straps: Wilco, Aerosmith, Cage the Elephant, Dave Matthews Band, Gary Clark Jr., Portugal. The Man, The Black Keys, MGMT, The Lumineers and several others. Many country and folk guitarists are using the straps too.
Over the years, Tabor has done custom lines of straps for Wilco and Dave Matthews Band.
Tweedy helped launch Souldier into this stratosphere by wearing an owl strap on national television. Others picked up the brand and ran with it. Johnny Marr, guitarist in the English rock band The Smiths in the ‘80s and later part of Modest Mouse from 2006-09, is one such artist.
“Before Souldier came along, it really was a mission for those of us searching for a good guitar strap,” Marr said in an e-mail interview. “It was just Zebra stripes and skulls and crossbones for years. Thank God Jen and Souldier saved us.”
An aspect that has made the Souldier straps so popular is their vintage aesthetic. The straps are made by hand from recycled seat belts, leather and vintage fabrics. Tabor has a stock of fabric straight from the 1960s and 1970s. It’s the same stuff used by legendary guitarists like Jimmy Hendrix, Duane Allman and Jimmy Page.
“The artists who had these when they were 16, they went nuts immediately,” Tabor said. “They had to have the strap their dad had on their Les Paul.”
What’s more, basically all of Souldier’s momentum came at the grassroots level.
Tabor marketed and sold the straps on her own, traveling to craft fairs and music festivals. She’s had a shop at Lollapalooza, the Chicago-based music festival, for years now. She offered them up on Etsy, the e-commerce site focused on handmade items.
Word of mouth has been Tabor’s best marketing tool. Artists share the straps with their friends or pass them along backstage.
Often times, they’ve come across Souldier products in music stores. That’s how Jesse Tucker, the lead guitarist for country star Brett Eldredge, ended up donning multiple Souldier straps. He found them at a retailer in Chicago.
“The store had just about every single pattern in stock,” Tucker said in an e-mail. “That’s where I bought my first and (and still favorite) Souldier strap: my Dresden star in orange. It goes well with so many of my guitars and it’s gotten the most use out of any of my Souldiers.”
Souldier now ships all over the world and has branched out into other products, including camera straps, dog collars, belts, headbands, cuffs, key chains and wallets. All of it is handmade, often from material that Tabor doesn’t want to see thrown away or laying around unused.
Back in January, Tabor relocated here. She’d been taking a look at different destinations, including South Bend, before settling in Buchanan.
“It’s a sweet little community,” Tabor said. “It used to be a huge manufacturing town. I think we can do something here. I think we can help continue to grow the town.”
Soon she’ll open a storefront in downtown Buchanan, where customers can buy Souldier products directly. Down the road, Tabor wants to use it as a place for music lessons or summer camps for local kids.
Naturally, Tabor isn’t waiting around in the meantime. South Bend Music Exchange, located at 626 Portage Ave., recently started carrying some guitar straps. The online store is always open at souldier.us.
Even bigger picture, Tabor mentioned using industry connections to put together some kind of music festival. She wants to use her company as a vehicle for more area excitement.
“I feel like we need more things like that here,” Tabor said. “I know South Bend is growing tremendously. It’s becoming the place we all wanted it to be for so long. I feel like there’s a better chance for me to work with local companies and maybe get a little farther than I would’ve in Chicago.”
As for Souldier, Tabor has no plans of slowing down any time soon. Most days she’s doing work herself. Tabor trains all employees. There are about five of those right now. Tabor added that there’s room to hire more staff.
Expansion, of course, isn’t out of the question either.
“One day I hope to be Levi’s jeans,” she said. “I hope to be the industry standard for rock-and-roll lifestyle brand.”
To view a video of Souldier guitar straps made by Buchanan’s Jen Tabor, visit southbendtribune.com