San Francisco’s Circa Makes Leather Belts for Retailers Like the Gap, J. Crew & Target

By Jeffrey Bonior
Photos courtesy Circa of America

Now the 50-year-old company is prepping to launch something of its own.

This year marked the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love in San Francisco. Centered in the Haight-Ashbury District of the city, thousands of young, free-thinking nonconformists converged from across the United States to explore a new way of life. Flower-children filled the streets. The Grateful Dead, icons of the Bay area music scene, lived at 710 Ashbury, in the middle of the logistical madness.

Employees hard at work at the Circa factory in San Francisco.

The year 2017 was also the 50th anniversary of what is now known as Circa of America, a belt and leather goods company that was born in the Haight District during the Summer of Love.

Parked in the middle of the unexpected influx of youth was a young man named Ronaldo Cianciarulo, who sat in the back of his van and made and sold hippy-style belts to the experimenting San Francisco nomads.

At the end of the summer, a mock funeral was held for the Summer of Love, encouraging all those who attended to return to their hometowns and spread the news of a different way of thinking.

But Cianciarulo wasn’t one of those free spirits who left town. Making belts from the back of his van had turned into a legitimate business, and soon he was opening a store in the Haight District called The Leather Shop.

Just two years later, in 1969, Cianciarulo got a capitalistic break by receiving an order from The Gap, the casual wear clothing store. That began a 47-year partnership that continues to thrive today.

In 1975, Cianciarulo sold his business to Mark Glazier, who in 1981 renamed The Leather Shop to Circa of America — playing off the Latin word “Circa,” which means around —  just as the belts were worn around the waist.

Circa began picking up more contracts creating leather belts for popular retailers Banana Republic, Target, Ralph Lauren, J. Crew and Old Navy. Today, after 50 years in business, Circa of America is a multi-million-dollar company.

Through its humble beginnings, Circa has become the largest leather manufacturer in the United States. It uses leather from the few remaining American leather tanneries, but must source most of its top-quality leather from Italy.

For 50 years, Circa has been a supplier of men’s and women’s leather belts to major retailers while keeping its product made in San Francisco, bucking the trend of offshoring its production to countries with cheap labor.

“Automation is super important, but we need our people. There are things machines can’t do,” Circa’s Michelle Wahlen says.

Circa of America is now located in the Bayview District, just a stone’s throw away from the old Candlestick Park. The location houses the headquarters and a factory that employs approximately 150 artisans.

Michelle Wahlen is the vice president of marketing and merchandising and a profound proponent of keeping it Made in America. 

“The thing I am working on right now is kind of how we are able to do all we are able to do that relates to a lot of the companies we work with and are still able to stay in the U.S.,” said Wahlen. “We have to pay livable wages in San Francisco, which has become the most expensive city to live in. We are constantly investing in machines and updating our machinery that allows us to be automated and still have a skilled worker. The innovation and technology, especially being in the backyard of all the top technology companies, really helps us. They keep us competitive.

“Automation is super important, but we need our people. There are things machines can’t do. Aesthetics machines can’t do. Going from hand cutting to machine cutting we can save that money, invest in more machines and we can hire more people because we can make more product. And we can pay those people a living wage.”

Circa makes belts and small leather goods. It supplied the cloth belts for Ralph Lauren’s design of the USA Olympic team uniforms during the 2014 Winter Olympics. And Circa supplies many major American retailers with leather belts branded with each company’s logo.

Circa supplied Ralph Lauren with leather goods worn by athletes the 2014 Winter Olympic games.

But Circa is in the process of creating its own brand in the coming years. This will eliminate some of the middle-men and let Circa sell direct to the consumer.

“Before, we didn’t want anyone to know who we were so we were not bothered by small companies,” Wahlen said. “We manufactured for the name companies and put their brand on our products. Honestly, when we were privately owned, we wouldn’t have entertained small start-ups. Now we give tours constantly to small companies, because we want to support the community here. We like giving these people a chance because we believe in what they are doing.”

One such example is Southern Straps.

“The owner’s a great guy who is doing watchbands for the Apple watch,” said Wahlen. “We love working with him. It’s just him. It’s his company and it’s a nice healthy business, but not our target market. We are supporting local people who are trying to do something on their own so we are a huge proponent of that. When we start to build our own brand, we know exactly what it is like to build something from scratch so we are supporting the people around that are trying very selectively.”

Circa expects to launch its new brand, under a different name, sometime in 2018.

“It will have its own e-commerce website,” said Wahlen. “There is a markup from the manufacturer to the brand. We will be both. That is our future model.”

The new Circa brand will continue to be Made in America, right on the factory floor in the City by the Bay.

Circa products appeared in this Banana Republic ad.

“Made in America is how we started and that’s how we are doing it today 50 years later,” Wahlen said. “That is very important to our own brand. We do vendor management inventory so we can make it, stock it here and send it directly to our vendors as opposed to it coming from China. How many weeks do you have to wait for it to come in on a ship from China? So, a lot of what we do allows us to be more competitive than Asian countries. It’s all intentional, but that’s what allows us to compete. If we didn’t do a lot of what we do we would never be able to compete.”

As the leader in the American leather industry, Circa’s mission is to continue to grow and create more livable-wage jobs, a goal hoped to be realized by building its own brand. If you are wearing a belt today, there is a good chance it was manufactured by Circa of America for the designer collection imprinted on the leather.

Fifty years later, the Summer of Love is just a memory for many Baby Boomers. But it is probably belts manufactured by Circa of America that are holding up their pants.