Sustainability Feature: Love Jules Leather

 

Photos by Nathan Beausoleil
Photos by Nathan Beausoleil

Could you introduce yourselves?

We’re Julia (Jules) Vagelatos & Josh Blodans. We’re partners in life & business, and we have a little bespoke shoe company named Love Jules Leather. We live a studio hermit existence right now, so if you happen to be strolling the streets of Chinatown on a beautiful sunny day, and you stumble upon a couple of disheveled, pale faced, dirtied hand social misfits… could be us. 

Not a lot of people are into hand-making leather products these days. How did you get started?

When we first started, almost 5 years ago now, I’d say it was less popular to be crafting leather wares than it is today. More and more people seem to be playing with leather, which is awesome to see. Jules apprenticed with a leather smith her last couple of years of art school (Nova Scotia College of Art and Design), and upon returning to Whistler after graduating in spring 2007, she started combining her talents for drawing with her leather craft know-how. It was just a hobby at first, and a way to get her creative juices out, but over time it evolved into a fledgling leather accessories business. Today, we’re a slightly less fledgling custom shoe company. 

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You started out in Whistler, but moved down to Vancouver not too long ago. What was the rationale behind the relocation? 

We met in Whistler back in the winter of 07/08, and lived separate work lives ‘till just after the 2010 Winter Olympics. That spring, I (Josh) started helping Jules out with the business side of her leather business, and it didn’t take long for us to be partners-in-crime. A team of two is a grind… but a one woman machine is damn near impossible. Too many hats for one person to balance comfortably, I think. We skied days, made leather accessories (and eventually shoes) at night by candlelight, in our garage-based studio. It was a full-time grind, but we were having fun. Over the next couple of years, things evolved, and demand for what we were doing picked up as we started to figure some things out.

Last winter, things had gotten so busy, we barely got up the mountain. We were fooling ourselves to think we could get a start-up shoe company off the ground, from a garage off the beaten path… and still maintain some semblance of our ski bum lifestyles. We had to make a choice, and we decided to go all-in, putting the business first. We wanted to see what we could really do with this if we had some proper tools at our disposal. June of last year we moved down to Chinatown, with our pup James, and some doors started opening up. Committing wasn’t an easy decision, but we’ll eventually escape back to a cabin in the woods… in the mountains. We just need to figure some shit out first. 

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Why should people be buying from a small business, as opposed to big corporations?

It’s tough, we live in a world that’s evolved in a way that breeds quantity over quality. I’m not going to preach in length, but there’s an intangible cost of doing “new business”—buying disposable swag, mass-produced abroad by faceless corporations. It’s important to remember, the fact we’re not paying the price at the checkout line, means more often than not… someone or something is picking up the tab elsewhere—mother nature, voiceless garment workers, struggling local economies. Not everyone can afford to “support local,” but if you can, I’d highly encourage it. The age-old adage “you get what you pay for” is so very true… the good, the bad and the sad. 

What are some benefits of small-scale production in relation to sustainability?

All our shoes are custom-made to order. We purchase our locally sourced materials on a needs basis, supporting local manufacturers & distributors while keeping waste extremely low. Though our costs of doing business are obviously way pricier on a per shoe basis than large-scale manufacturers, we compete by selling direct & offering something the big boys can’t due to their lengthy supply chains—a custom end-product.

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And what are some benefits for the consumer?

It’s not a hard and fast rule, as there is obviously some crap made in local small-scale operations, and there’s some finely crafted wares made abroad using relatively sustainable practices, but… by supporting local, if done right, you can expect a higher quality product and better customer service, not to mention the warm and fuzzy feeling you get by knowing your making a small difference in bucking the non-sustainable trend. You may have to pay a little bit more on check-out, but if you start to look at purchases as investments versus fleeting impulse buys, it will most likely work out in the end, for all of us. Preaching over.

How long does it take you to make one pair of shoes?

It depends on the style, but on average we’re making a single pair of shoes per day right now. We launched a Kickstarter campaign back in September/October that was overwhelmingly well received. With the funding raised over and above our goal, we were able to acquire (pretty much) our entire wishlist of shoemaking tools and equipment, and assumed we’d be able to ramp up production as efficiencies improved. The reality is, there’s so much hand involved in the shoe ‘crafting process, we didn’t really speed things up all that much. To be perfectly honest, we’re becoming extremely particular (even more so) about what leaves this studio… With our arsenal of machines, we’ve become extremely anal custom shoe makers, maybe even a little slower then pre-Kickstarter. Which is good for you (if you’re okay with the wait), and not so good for us! It’s a labour of love, without a doubt. 

LoveJulesLeather_006Can you walk us through what that process looks like?

Our website is currently under construction, so most of our orders, right now, are the result of an email conversation that most likely germinated from an Instagram post. Customers can choose their shoe silhouette (loafer, boat shoe, midtop/ chukka, hightop boat shoe, or boot), then pick their leather upper colour(s) and sole colour. We also incorporate other textiles – wool, waxed cotton & canvas, denim, etc. and etch custom artwork (woodburning pen or tattoo machine) into the leather upper, so customers can get pretty creative. A lot of our styles have only been done once. All kicks are handcrafted in our Chinatown based workshop (288 East Georgia Street, unit 150). Patterns are traced, leather/other textiles are handcut, skived and stitched. Eyelets and boot hooks are set, artwork is hand etched, and finished uppers are lasted (hand formed around our shoe lasts/forms). Soles are tinted, poured, and cured. Uppers are soled, cleaned, and conditioned, insoles & laces are installed, and the finished shoes are boxed & shipped. Easy peasy… all in a day’s work. 

Where do you source your leather from?

We’ve got a handful of sources, but we nab most of our leather from our local leather guy, Philip of Londsdale Leather (Ontario and 5th), just a short bike ride away. We keep it as close to home as possible, sourcing just a little bit from Toronto, a little bit from New York, a little bit from LA, and only the funkiest of lamb & goatskin from Italy. North American tanneries are a dying breed, so it’s not the cheapest or easiest to source locally. But, it’s worth it to us, and I think our customers appreciate it… so that’s that. 

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You received a whole lot of support from people interested in these sorts of custom shoes. What do you think that says about the future of small scale production?

We’re extremely optimistic about the future of small-scale production. I think we’re witnessing the start of a conscious shift in consumer buying habits as more and more people recognize the value (extremely loaded word) in supporting the little guy. It is a process though, and it all starts with consumer demand. If there’s just enough, there are those of us who are just crazy enough to take leaps of faith on ideas, despite the lack of established supply chains or models to emulate. Thank god for social media. Every day our world gets just a little bit smaller as we continue to become more and more connected. Today, small-scale producers have the ability to cast an extremely wide net, and reach markets that only 5 to10 years ago wouldn’t have been accessible without the support of some sort of big-budget marketing machine. It’s kind of ironic, but technology has paved the way for consumers to be able to take a step back, re-evaluate their purchase decisions, and choose a simpler, more sustainable way. Producer to consumer, with less degrees of separation, even though the actual distance between shipper and receiver might be a literal world apart. It’s a brave new world… in an old school kind of way. The future is bright I think. We’ll keep fighting the good fight anyway.

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