Tom Mauldin is a designer who understands the true beauty of form and function
By Rachel Haynie
Tom Mauldin has earned a reputation as an expert fisherman; he’s reeled in the limit in salt and fresh waters all along the East Coast, around the tip of Florida and in oceans beyond. But the Columbia native’s most enduring catch is the concept for his business HookNHide: sculpture as accent for the male waist.
While the hook, by one definition, is the one skillfully set in the lip of the fish, it also signifies a hook that rests in the eyelet of a fine leather belt strap. Mauldin has designed artisan belt buckles to pull double duty. “The strap can be worn with regular belt buckles, too.”
In a maneuver that would recall the wrist action perfected in the Wild West by cowboys lassoing horses, a nimble owner of this waist jewelry could wrest the buckle from the leather strap and pop the cap off a cold beverage. Viola! An artisan belt buckle that can handle the tough task necessary for quenching a mighty thirst, while simultaneously giving evidence of the wearer’s styling taste.
Although he is most comfortable in a boat, HookNHide has planted this outdoorsman’s Docksiders solidly on dry land: in trade show settings, presentation rooms, outfitters’ and other retail shops, including Britton’s on Devine Street – Columbia’s only location for the distinguished concept. And also in Charleston where designs for the next new pieces are executed so as to join his string of (primarily) fish buckles that emulate Mauldin’s deep respect for nature.
“Our first designs were a redfish, mako shark, sailfish, bull dolphin and a rainbow trout.“ Mauldin, 39, is now designing a flounder. “It’s such a popular fish around here.” And he recently finished the design for a yellowfin tuna.
To say the angler Mauldin knows these fish like he knows the back of his hand would discount the artist Mauldin’s creative bent. Translating one of nature’s exquisite designs into a utilitarian – although handsome – belt buckle conjures up serious talent.
“The first buckles I created were given away to friends and family, but my sisters, Caroline and Logan, and my Mom saw their business potential, saw the buckles as products. Majoring in visual art at Hampden Sydney (College) prepared me to launch a business that combined art and function.” Thus was born a unique male fashion accessory. That was in 2008, and Mauldin has been steadily reeling in the successes since. Relationship-building has characterized the venture’s thriving.
The HookNHide concept already has “surpassed my goals at this early stage in the company’s growth,” said Mauldin who, in a leap of faith, left his full-time job in the wholesale marine distribution industry to turn his hobby into an entrepreneurial venture. HookNHide has garnered repeat orders from some of the most revered shops in the Port City and Lowcountry – and in landlocked locales as well.
As predicted, the buckles have been popular as groomsmen’s gifts and also as personal gifts at traditional giving times of year. But it was being approached at a trade show by a top executive of a major outfitter that ultimately ratcheted Mauldin and his company to a new awareness level.
“I didn’t know Perk Perkins when he stopped at my booth at the Southeastern Wildlife Expo, but it was clear he liked the product. I tried to find out his name, but he wouldn’t tell me,” Mauldin recalled. “He just told me to expect some fellows from Orvis to come by the next day. They did; that’s when I found out Perkins was the CEO.” The outfitter’s interest solidified as a commitment, and when the sporting gift catalog was released, HookNHide was gracing a page.
“I am always thinking ahead and probably will add new designs within coming months.” Mauldin listened to family, friends’ and vendors’ advice as he steered his company into deeper retail waters in its early stages. “The advice I am getting now is to introduce buckles, or other accessories, that will appeal to females as well.” He’s also being encouraged to add equestrian-inspired pieces.
Such an addition would be a bit of a tribute to his sisters who have been by his side from the beginning. Logan helped coin the name of the business. Mauldin always credits his entrepreneurial acumen to both his parents. His mother, Melanie Mauldin, founded and grew Handpicked, a Columbia-based jewelry line that perpetuated the silver artisan traditions of Mexico. After more than two decades of growth and success, Melanie sold Handpicked in 2014 to Sonja Ingram who had long been associated with the specialty jewelry chain.
Mauldin watched, usually from the wings, as his mother’s business escalated. “At times, I went with Mom to Mexico when she sought out artisans, met the silversmiths at the foundry, soaked up inspiration from the country’s very old culture and, clearly, fascination for the process and respect for this tradition stayed with me. I appreciate knowing HookNHide is helping create revenue for those artisan families, as Handpicked did.” Mauldin recently invested in a large oven that stays in Mexico with the artisans he works with.
The process he employs is time-honored, with contemporary updates. “I send them the mold design I’ve created. It takes three days to forge the buckles – just like a piece of sculpture would take. The muted brass finish is achieved by a mix of brass, silver, gold and pewter. But, unlike the ones I catch, these fish don’t have to be cleaned.”
Being at the helm of a business that is taking off has been rewarding for Mauldin, but he notes another high point in the journey. “Recently I was asked to come back and speak to students at Heathwood (School) on Career Day, and it was great to be able to tell them they could couple their artistic talents with a viable business.”
Reconnecting with Columbia and friends from his formative years gives Mauldin pleasure. “Last December I participated in Junior League Columbia’s Holiday Market – that was a great show for me, not only in productivity, but in getting to talk with people I hadn’t seen in a while.” Mauldin has signed on for other shows and markets, one as far away as Texas.
His growth plan is to work smarter, not longer. “I still want to have time to go fishing.”