Not just a ‘belt guy,’ Upton’s Justin Kerzner builds a leather empire

Justin Kerzner wants to get one thing clear: he’s not a “belt guy.” 

“I’m not a belt guy, I never was a belt guy,” says the 25-year-old entrepreneur. ”I used to take shoelaces and tie them around my waist like a belt.”

So how did Kerzner end up launching his own designer leather goods company, called Upton, six months ago? First of all, he knew he needed to upgrade from what he had.

“If I had to dress up for some reason, I’d put on a super-nice suit from my parents, great shoes, great glasses,” he says. “But my belt was some piece of [rubbish] from Banana Republic. Didn’t really make sense.”

But there weren’t so many options out there for men who wanted something stylish, but sensibly priced. So a little over a year ago, he got the idea that he could make a better belt.

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After coming up with what he and his co-founders decided was a winning design, Kerzner’s first step was finding a manufacturer. That was harder than he thought. He got samples from lots of companies where the stitching wasn’t straight or the leather was poor quality.

For nine months, he went from one company to another, finally stumbling across the perfect one in El Paso, Texas.

“It was kind of our last stop before saying ‘[screw] it’ and going to Europe, because nobody could make the belts the way we wanted,” he says. “We needed someone who would hand stitch all the buckles on, but most companies won’t do that. They want to use machines to do it. That one thing totally changes the look of the product.”

With everything the way he wanted it—the leather, the buckles, the packaging— Kerzner hit the road. And he means literally. He went from door to door to dozens of boutiques in New York’s swanky SoHo neighborhood.

He got plenty of rejections. But then one day in early November, the manager of Lululemon’s men’s store took one look at the product and asked him to return that Saturday for a pop-up display. That led to similar pop-ups in five other Lululemon locations around the city.

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The WeWork Commons member says these and other daylong events have been a boon for the company, whose sales are almost entirely online. He enjoys the marketing part of the job: heading out to stores where he hopes to forge partnerships.

What’s next for the company? Kerzner wants to expand the product line to include other leather items. Not a wallet, though. Too obvious. That will be the fourth or fifth product that Upton rolls out.

In the meantime, he’s totally into belts.

I’m definitely not interest in doing anything else right now,” he says. “I like the market we’re getting into. We’re doing things different enough, and well enough, that it will be tough for other people to compete. Anyone can start a belt brand, but to deliver and execute like we have, that’s a real challenge.”

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Photos: Katelyn Perry

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