He dresses them for success
By Riley Robinson

Ralph Quillin prepares leather strips at his workshop in downtown Paris. Ralph, 72, is a serial entrepreneur. He has run a craft brewery, restaurant, private boat ramps and rental properties. But he is best known for Quillin Leather & Tack, which has produced made-to-order halters for more than 40 years. His products are worn by Thoroughbred horses around the world.

On a back table in a corner of the workshop, there are neat rows of brass plates, each engraved with a name. If you’re there on the right day, the array of names might read as a who’s who of the horse world.

These plates will eventually get fixed to handmade leather halters, all trimmed and sewn and polished along Main Street at Quillin Leather & Tack. About a dozen employees, working on century-old machines, produce about 18,000 halters each year. Their work is sought after, not just at horse farms all over Bourbon County, but across the world.

“Quillin’s impact on not only Paris, but the Thoroughbred industry, is unmatched,” says Lauren Biddle, executive director of the Paris Chamber of Commerce. “He has become a worldwide brand.”

Ralph Quillin founded his leather business more than four decades ago, out of a corner of his house. By Ralph’s telling, he stumbled into the leather trade. After deciding to leave college, Ralph said, he got a job making custom leather sandals.

“I brought my ponytail back, and worked in the sandal shop, and hung out with hippies,” he says with a laugh.

Quillin loved working with leather, but it took some improvisation to figure out what would sell. In the early years, if a customer came in and asked if they carried a particular item, Ralph and his sister might sneak a glance, then say, apologetically, that the last one must have just sold. Then they would run to a catalog, figure out what the person had been asking for, and ensure they started carrying that in the store.

One popular sideline is halter belts for men and women, with the owner’s name engraved on the brass plate. They have become a fashion staple in the Bluegrass, and not just among the horsey set.

Eventually, the handmade halters, and the detailed craftsmanship, found a loyal customer base. But even after the leather business took off, Ralph had more ideas for business ventures, and continued to spin off new projects: a vacation rental and boat ramp spot; a restaurant in Lexington; and a craft brewery in Paris, with a big mural of Tom Waits. And all of that came after his time as a cattle farmer, and a whole career as a firefighter and paramedic in Lexington.

His ideas sometimes get pushback. When he brought food trucks to Paris in 2014, it wasn’t entirely popular, he says, especially with some local restaurants. But he saw the change as progress — if people were upset about new competition, they should up their game.

“He’s just a real energetic guy,” says Buckner Woodford, a longtime banker who’s known Ralph, and the Paris business scene, for decades. “And he’s always trying to do business the right way.”

Despite friendly nudges from his wife and colleagues that he can retire, Ralph says he isn’t done yet. While pandemic slowdowns ultimately shuttered the restaurant and brewery, he is keen to someday return to the food scene. He is thinking about writing children’s books. He put his name on the ballot for mayor during the last election cycle, but withdrew before election day, deciding to put his time and energy elsewhere.

Ralph jokes that his eventual tombstone will read, “He died in his spare time.”

“He’s [a] very confident, very creative, very generous guy,” says Pat Conley, a Paris journalist and friend. “But he's gonna have a good time.”

Lately, Quillin’s Main Street workshop has been buzzing with renovations, as Ralph plans to add a showroom. He hoped to have the retail space ready before November when Paris hosted the Secretariat Festival, marking the 50th anniversary of the iconic horse’s arrival at Claiborne Farm. As part of the festivities, the town will formally open Secretariat Park, and unveil a huge bronze sculpture of Big Red.

The artist used a Quillin halter to make a cast for the sculpture, immortalizing it in the work.

“Anything I do, you know, I go for the gusto,” Ralph says. “We can do this, and why not? That’s always spirited me through.”

Ralph estimates there are 150 variable parts that go into producing a Quillin halter. His business makes about 18,000 halters a year, he says. The vast majority are shipped to customers outside of Central Kentucky – as far away as Australia or Japan.

Ralph Quillin describes his various businesses as his hobby. He has a few ideas for childrenís books he would to write. And even though he closed his restaurant and brewery during the pandemic, he hasn't written off the food industry. He is interested in opening another restaurant in the future, or creating a smaller-scale dining pop-up.

The type of industrial sewing machine used in Quillin's shops was patented in 1904, Ralph says. The machines in use in his workshops today were made in the 1920s or 1930s.

A signature feature of Quillin horse halters and human belts is the brass plate, which is engraved with the wearer's name. Cody's Wish is a Grade 1-winning Thoroughbred who has claimed victories at Keeneland, Saratoga and Churchill Downs.

The sewing machines and other equipment in the workshop require caution from the artisans. "I tell my people, if you drop something, don't try and pick it up," he says. "Just let it fall. Otherwise you'll be picking the tool and your finger up off the floor."

Ralph works on graphic design for print ads and social media posts in his office above the showroom. He does all the digital marketing. He keeps the shades drawn to reduce glare. He says employees jokingly refer to the dark space as the dungeon.

Ralph chats with Andrea Pompei (center) founder of Hopewell Bakery next door, and Arthur Newberry, who owns Caffe Marco down the street. Newberry was wearing a Quillin belt.

Rob Windels (from left), Robert Johnson and Jerry Martin move shelving into Quillin's downtown workshop, where Ralph is adding a showroom with retail space. He hopes to get a lot of the work done before the town's Secretariat Festival in November, where Paris will unveil a large statue of Big Red and officially open Secretariat Park, 50 years to the day after the legendary Thoroughbred arrived at Claiborne Farm. Ralph hopes the energy around the festival, and Secretariat-related tourism, will boost businesses in downtown Paris.

Ralph locks up the downtown workshop just after 5:30 p.m. Despite friendly reminders from his wife and colleagues that he's supposedly retired, Quillin loves being busy with his businesses. "If I had to quit right now," he says, "I don't know what I'd do."