‘There’s a bag for that’

Roscoe entrepreneur hand crafts one-of-a-kind bags for one-of-a-kind clientele

Valerie “Val” Marshall describes herself as a chameleon. Her adaptable nature, combined with her astute marketing savvy, have served her well as the jack-of-all-trades behind her business, Darlington Custom Leather.  

Sparked by her passion for fashion, Val specializes in making one-of-a-kind leather bags for her one-of-a-kind customers. She markets her creations for “trendsetters, leaders and adventurers” and describes her bags and accessories as “functional art for women with discerning tastes.”

From a turquoise tooled clutch to a metallic-gold, hair-on-hide bag that doubles as a backpack, her creative juices are reflected in the varied works that come out of her shop.  

“I do best when I’m custom creating for someone based on the style they love,” she says. “I would go crazy if I had to make the same bag over and over.” 

A tour through her website — darlingtoncustomleather.com — offers shoppers a taste of their options and a glimpse of Val’s artistry. Montana cowhide, buttery Italian leathers and even tough water buffalo skins from Asia – take your pick. There’s a dimpled lavender leather, leather embossed with roses, and even leather emblazoned with ranch brands. Choose fringe or no fringe, glitzy designs or classic, strap length and even hardware.

“Oh my gosh, this is so fun. To be able to give that something special to someone,” Val says. “I always like to say, ‘There’s a bag for that.’”

Besides the “Build-a-Bag” option on her website, shoppers can browse Val’s ready-to-ship bags and smaller items like key chains and earrings.

“It’s important to offer something everyone can afford, something that’s pretty and lasts,” she says.  “Every woman can afford $10.”

Val exudes a flair for living life to its fullest. And she’s got a knack for spreading that gusto around. She chooses fanciful materials to line her bags — one depicts scenes from Paris, another captures whimsical dogs in glasses — just because they make her smile. Likewise, she loves adding playful tassels that seem to say “FAB-u-lous!”

“You need things that make you happy,” she says. “Life should be enjoyed, so why not have a really beautiful, one-of-a-kind bag that reflects who you are?”

Val introduced Darlington Custom Leather —± Darlington being her maiden name — six years ago in Red Lodge. Before that, she crisscrossed the country training horses at high-end equestrian operations. When she traded horse training for bag making, she saw the latter as a way to keep close to the smells of leather and horses, a world she’d inhabited since the age of 2.

Considering her background, Val’s creations usually — but not always — trend toward a Western look. Some of her ready-made bags, “The Ekalaka Tote” and the “Red Lodge Bag,” for example, are named for Montana locales.

“I call my style ‘mountain chic,’” she says.

Keeping with that theme, she pulls out a bag made of Brazilian cowhide. “It still suits the cowgirl culture, but it features a few more classic elements,” she says. She also points out that the signature emblem on many of her bags incorporates a heart in place of the “o” in Darlington.

“For me, it’s because they are made with love. That’s my special ingredient.”

Val and husband, TJ, work out of their Roscoe home. TJ, a self-described “artist by birth,” fashions classic leather hats, stunning items of twisted iron and hand-painted holsters that carry names like “Running Free” and “Eye See You.” He and Val met on a trail outside Red Lodge and still — time permitting — enjoy hiking and fishing together.  But time is in short supply. No longer do they play with horses. Nor do they watch TV. Instead, they dedicate nearly all their waking hours to making their business succeed.

“It’s a lifestyle, and we love it,” she says.

Driven as they both are, their days begin early and often end late.

“Neither one of us can sit still at all,” Val says, smiling. “Sometimes I hear (TJ) hammering out a holster at 3 a.m.”

She typically rises by 4 a.m. and doesn’t quit until evening. Her days are packed with phone calls, texts and crafting bags. On occasion, she admits, she has some “pretty naughty” conversations with her sewing machine. But experience has taught her that leather work requires intense concentration.

“I am extremely detail-oriented,” she says. “If you mess up, if you’re even 1/16 of an inch off, you have to throw it away. We’re not talking about huge mistakes but I’m not going to sell it.”

The same can be said for TJ and his hand-stitched hats and holsters.

“You have to pay attention. You have to go slow,” she says. “It’s good for us. It makes us slow down.”

Val prefers marketing her products to talking about herself. And she’d rather show off her finished bags than invite customers into her workspace.

“There’s a messy cacophony, a craziness that goes into making a bag,” she says, smiling.

Upstairs, Val has amassed hundreds of rolls of leather, sourced from countries around the globe. 

“You can be run of the mill and use typical leather, or you can be exotic. That’s what I like to do,” she says, and then smiles again. “I am a leather snob. I like Italian leather.”

Whether marketing on Facebook, buying leather online, building her own website or stitching with utmost accuracy, Val says it’s all been self-taught.

“And the journey will never end,” she adds. “There are always new styles to learn and always time to perfect the craft.”

As Val  hones her own skills, she is just as enthusiastic about sharing what she’s learned. Through Facebook, she offers live tutorials with tips for working with leather (USA Leather Bagmakers Q&A).

“It’s free to join and you can suggest any bag you want to make and we will make it on a live video together. SWEET!” she posts.

She also promotes fellow artisans through a Facebook group where they can post their own products (American Made Artisan Leather Bag Marketplace).

“That’s just to support other bag makers,” she says. “It’s a labor of love.”

Ever exploring new niches, she’s also established a site where she sells leather pieces as small as one square foot (USA Leather Bagmakers Supply). And twice a year – in November and January — she advertises a “scrap sale.”

“Crafters are crazy for this,” she says. “I sold 600 pounds of scraps in three days.”

Darlington Custom Leather caters to a wide swath of clientele, yet the largest share of orders comes from outside Montana. Val’s dream is to change that, to sell her custom line of bags in high-end boutiques across the Big Sky state. With that goal in mind, she has studied the trends and is primed to create whatever her customers crave.

“Bags are the number one item in the fashion world,” she says. “2024 is the year of metallics and I am stocked and ready. I have metallics in every color.”

Val and TJ stress that life as entrepreneurs is not easy. But they share an unwavering belief that their hard work will pay off.

“Surrender is not in our vocabulary,” TJ says. Val adds, “If you have the drive to create something, there’s a reason.”

DARLINGTON CUSTOM LEATHER products can be found online at darlingtoncustomleather.com, in Billings at the Maker’s Market or The Home Store in Townsend.


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