Volkan Yilmaz, best known as Tanner Leatherstein, at his studio in Dallas
Courtesy Tanner Leatherstein
Accessories 12 May 2024 7 MIN

The TikToker who butchered bags worth $50,000 in a year

Would he take a Birkin apart? “Oh yeah, I wouldn’t care.”

Even if you aren’t someone who’s into leather goods or fashion in general, there’s a good chance you’ve come across one of Tanner Leatherstein’s videos on social media where he dissects bags from top-tier brands: cutting open stitches, pulling apart panels, pouring acetone onto the leather and scraping away the top layer. “Is Jacquemus worth it?” he asks, and then out come the scissors. He begins ripping the Insta-famous candy-coloured Le Chiquito mini bag with the enthusiasm of a kid in a candy store. The shock value makes it almost impossible to skip, but it’s clear in a few seconds that’s not the only reason his videos are so popular.

You might wonder: who in their right mind would butcher a perfectly good bag that costs hundreds or thousands of dollars? But after ripping up your favourite piece, Leatherstein proceeds to explain what he thinks of the leather quality, the finish, the hardware, and the big reveal at the end of the video: if you overpaid. His cost estimate could be US$250, while what you’ve paid is probably close to US$4,500. And you can tell he’s an expert in leather and craftsmanship who knows what he’s talking about.

Tanner Leatherstein, whose real name is Volkan Yilmaz, began posting ‘leathertainment’ videos in 2021. For years, his friends had turned to him to find out if their leather purchases were worth the price (he was born into the leather business and has spent his life gathering a wealth of experience in the industry). By breaking down how much it costs to make these bags, he hopes to help more people understand and experience leather better. “People think, ‘oh good leather must be US$3,000’, which I know is not the case. I want to show them that there is missing information here that’s making people a little nervous about shopping and understanding the quality of leather,” he tells me over a video call from his base in Dallas, Texas, dressed in his signature black t-shirt. The estimates calculate only tangible costs such as the price of the leather, hardware, and labour. Intangible expenses such as store rent, marketing, and all the money that is spent on creating the illusion of luxury are not included.

Leatherstein grew up on a family-owned tannery in Turkey and remembers being involved in its workings as early as the age of 11. “It was a magical thing for me to experience. Seeing the dirty, bloody, ugly rawhide turn into a beautiful fabric was like alchemy and it just captivated me.” In 2009, he moved to the US and worked as an Uber driver before going back to school and getting an MBA. After spending a year in a cushy job in management consulting in Chicago, in 2017, he decided to pursue his real passion and started his own accessory brand, Pegai.

At the time of this interview, he has amassed more than 6,54,000 followers on Instagram, dissecting bags from brands including Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Saint Laurent, Goyard, Chloé, and more. His TikTok account has racked up more than 10.6 million likes and above 9,66,000 followers. The comments sections are full of requests to take apart bags from various brands, both big and small. The hit list has more than 900 names.

In the last year itself, he has cut up bags that are easily worth more than US$50,000 (₹41,71,552) at retail. Many of these are bags he has paid for out of his own pocket. I ask him if it hurts to chop up bags worth so much in great condition. “I definitely felt a little uncomfortable spending so much money just to cut them up,” he admits. But the feedback he gets from viewers who say his work has helped them make better decisions, coupled with everything he learns while making this content, is what motivates him to keep creating more.

Since going viral, Leatherstein has even been approached by brands who submit their bags for an honest, unbiased review. For this, he started a series called The Chopping Block. “There was an overwhelming interest, especially from smaller and newer brands,” he says. Viewers were also invited to submit leather goods for dissection in exchange for a Pegai product in a series he called the Leather Bureau of Investigation (LBI). It shouldn’t come as a surprise that both programmes were put on hold as the response was massive.

“There are a lot of companies who are willing to spend a lot more than US$50,000 to grow a following. I don’t have a direct income from this content, I don’t take advertising deals or sponsorships at this point. It’s still worth it because people start trusting my expertise and name in the leather space and then they find my brand,” he says. “It ended up being the best marketing campaign for Pegai indirectly.”

One of his biggest icks when it comes to assessing leather goods from luxury brands is the finish. He performs an acetone test to dissolve the finish on the top layer to reveal what’s underneath. A lot of the time, the leather selection may be great, but layers of coating may make the products feel cheap and plastic-like. “Think of it like make-up. You can slap a lot of chemicals and plastic on it and make it look standard but then you’re going to lose the natural characteristics of leather,” he explains. “That’s the part that I’m against, but a lot of brands opt for it because it’s the easier route.”

Preserving the natural look and feel of leather while ensuring it is well protected is a mix of art and science. Are there any brands that are doing it right? Leatherstein lists Hermès, Bottega Veneta, and Loewe as some of the big brands that do a good job. “They pick leathers that are very well done, with super-balanced finishes: they’re natural enough while being protected for a good fashion application. They walk that thin line nicely, so I have special respect for those brands out of all the others I’ve seen so far.”

Now for the big question: “Is it worth it?” The answer depends on how much value one personally places on the prestige that comes with a brand logo or name. If you’re just looking for high-quality leather goods and don’t care so much about a fancy name, you’re better off buying from local artisans and bespoke makers who work with small batches of natural leather. But if you want sophisticated contemporary styles without paying an insane premium, the bag butcher suggests going for brands like Polène, RSVP Paris, and Strathberry (which also has Meghan Markle’s stamp of approval, just FYI). Smaller D2C brands have fewer middlemen and less intangible costs, and deliver products that you may find worthy of your hard-earned money.

Is there a dream bag he would like to dissect? “Probably an Hermès Birkin or a Kelly one day,” he says. I’m amused as Birkins can go for anywhere between US$10,500 (₹8,76,000) to US$2 million (₹16.7 crores). Would he do it without flinching? “Oh yeah, I wouldn’t care. I hurt the most for the bags I really like personally and that happens whenever the leather is very special and the price is very fair. If I feel like there’s a lot of value in the bag, I feel bad cutting it. But if it’s a bag that costs thousands of dollars just because of a brand name, it really doesn’t mean anything to me.”

Demystifying the cost of prestige brands is one part of it, but he also makes other content for budding leather enthusiasts. On a recent trip to China, he went in search of the legendary superfake. He bought an ‘Hermès’ belt and a classic ‘Chanel’ flap bag. How do they hold up to the real thing? “I think it’s easy for someone who has been looking at these bags for a long time to tell them apart, but somebody from outside probably won’t be able to tell the difference instantly,” he says.

So what happens to the bags once the autopsy has been completed? “I keep all the material from the dissections for future remake projects. We put the bag together in different formats, shapes, or colours. But time is the limitation; I’m barely keeping up with making one video each week.” His aim is to grow Pegai to a point where he can pursue creating content full-time instead of just half the work week. “It’s still not completely doable at this point, but I’m shifting towards it slowly.”