On a damp and muggy summer morning on the Lower East Side, Alya Kazakevich slowly stitched up the edges of a leather coin purse and recalled her childhood in Eastern Europe.
The home of her youth was in a twenty-family village 17 kilometers outside the capital city of Belarus. During summers off from school Alya and her younger sister picked wild mushrooms in a neighboring forest and took the town’s cattle to pasture – a boring task as Alya recalls it. “It sounds nice now!” she said, but waiting for hours while the cows chewed cud was far from fun.
She remembers that each autumn her family killed their pigs for sausage and when the winter ended her grandmother spent hours drying, ironing and packing away the winter bedding. “There is a very strong ironing culture there… It is very traditional, very conservative in some ways. People still mend their socks instead of throwing them away,” Alya said.
In college, Alya chose a major that would please her family – world economics and international relations. “I come from a small developing country where if you want to have a Future you have to go into finance, law, or medicine. This is what is supposed to make you successful in life.” Alya said.
At nineteen she travelled to New York City for a year-long student-exchange program. She ended up staying for five years to complete her undergraduate degree and then a Master’s in Finance. “I felt at home here,” she said.
She did not, however, feel at home in the financial world. When Alya finished her Master’s thesis she half-heartedly set up a couple of job interviews and wondered what she could possibly do instead. She expressed her concerns to a close friend who suggested that Alya visit the studio of the legendary Manhattan-based leathersmith, Barbara Shaum. “I asked if I could help her,” Alya said. After five weeks of persistence, Alya became Barbara’s apprentice and was soon hired full-time.
In the evenings, Alya returned home to an apartment that she was quickly filling with leathersmithing equipment. Over the next year, countless pair of shoes and sandals were born in the makeshift studio.
After some months, Alya left Barbara’s studio to work at the E. Vogel shoe factory and then briefly crafted handbags for Stock Vintage. The work was interesting and the people were nice, but Alya had tired of producing other people’s designs.
She fashioned a set of business cards with photos of the shoes she had made in her apartment and dropped one off at Lyell in Soho. The boutique’s founder, Emma Fletcher, was immediately impressed by the designs and asked Alya to sell at Lyell. This was the first time that Alya would be selling her own designs. “It’s nice when people have respect for your creativity and you don’t become just a shoemaker,” Alya said.
As shoe production increased in Alya’s apartment, so did her neighbors’ noise complaints. Alya spoke with Fletcher and explained that she needed a real studio; she was thinking about opening her own studio and she thought she might have found a space on the Lower East Side. Alya’s major hesitation was the expense of renovation and of making rent each month.
Fletcher understood. She had been a single mother with a young baby and a new apartment when she got a credit card and opened Lyell. Fletcher had taken a huge leap in opening her shop, but the risk had paid off.
“I thought, ‘If a person with an apartment and a baby could do it, so could I,’” Alya remembered. That very week she got a credit card and drafted plans for renovation. Her friends, the owners of Vinegar Hill House restaurant where she’d waitressed during college, were also renovating. They pulled up their old wooden flooring and gave it to Alya for her studio. By __ 2008 she moved her machines into the new space and began working.
Alya’s studio has no sign out front to indicate that it is a place of leathersmithing. Visitors must peer in through the window or peep in through the door to identify the shop. Inside is a palette of brown and camel leather – belts of various widths, clutches, purses, backpacks and big bags, handbags, sandals, oxfords, slip-ons and boots. Not a single shoe is lined, so every stitch, grommet and nail has been placed with care. The thickness of each item is determined by the section of animal hide from which it is cut – two compressed layers of leather from the thigh of the cattle for the sole and the thin skin of the cow’s belly for bag flaps and shoe straps.
In the cavernous back section of the studio live the big steel machines that press, pull and cut the animal hide. There too are draped sheets of raw leather, vegetable and chemical dyes, and an orderly shelf of ___ plastic shoe forms. Marking the space between the back and the store front is Alya’s tall, oily wooden work bench.
Alya stood beside the work bench and touched the un-dyed, un-bound parts of a woman’s sandal. She took the small leather coin purse in her hand again and pulled it close to her face. She aimed her waxed cotton twine through a hole in the hide, and then tugged the twine mused about the quality of the leather. “You know, this leather is very moist. When the leather is dry it means that the cow did not eat well. You can tell something about the animal’s life from the quality of the leather.”
She paused her stitching and retrieved a four-foot swatch of un-dyed leather hide from the back of the shop. “Do you see the tick bites and scratches from barbed wire?” she asked while pointing to a scar in the hide. “Do you know this?” she asked. It was a torn area the size of a deck of cards. She explained that it was the area of skin that stretched over the shoulder bone of the animal.
Alya pointed to a coffee-brown purse that hung beside her work bench. The bag’s large top flap had an unusual U shape melted into it. “This is from a branding iron,” she said. It was beautiful and reminiscent of the cattle that Alya took to graze during her childhood summers in Belarus and of her conservative family with their traditions and their unchanging expectations.
“Just the fact that I am a shoemaker is horrendous. In Belarus the opinion is ‘artists die poor,’” Alya said. Alya seldom visits Belarus. It is clear that she loves her family and her home country, but it was only when she moved 4,500 miles away that she was able to explore her career options and to find the work that makes her happy. “I did not know that this was for me until I started doing it. But now, I am never bored of it. I really like working with my hands,” she said.