Walking into the a.b.k. studio in Chinatown, New York, we are flooded by the undeniable smell of leather, and we deeply breathe it in. As our eyes adjust in the dimly lit room, we see rolls of leather in warm caramels, olives, and deep walnut browns piled on shelves against the wall. The small studio is filled with leather bags, keychains, bracelets, books, chairs, and pairs of shoes in neat rows. As endearing and humble as her studio, Katya Kazakevich welcomes us in, casually addressing her project at hand. "Oh, I've had the same pair of oxford shoes for about six years now, and they're all beat up, so I'm just making myself a new pair."
Born and raised in Belarus, Katya and her sister Alya came to New York as young adults to study finance and economics. Upon graduating, Katya begin working for a New York hedge fund, but Alya "just couldn't do it." Instead, she worked as a waitress and began taking classes in shoemaking, eventually finding a mentor in iconic sandal designer, Barbara Shaum. Inspired by her experience, Alya began making shoes on her own, recruiting occasional help from Katya and teaching her the craft along the way. Word began to spread, orders for shoes began to increase, and the business was born. "Work kept coming in, and finally we just took a risk and went for it."
Six years later, Katya runs the successful leather shop in New York, and Alya operates a second location on the French seaside in Marseille. Their work has become known for impeccable craftsmanship, expanding well beyond shoes to leather items of all kinds, from the functional to the purely beautiful. Each piece starts with leather that is domestically sourced and tanned without chemicals. Katya and Alya hand-dye their own leather to achieve the exact color palette desired, then use alcohol water to saturate and stretch it before hand-stitching or stapling the pieces into place to dry. It's a process that is all about knowing and feeling the material, and they have developed an expertise for both. Katya explains, "With time, your hand gets used to it. Everything gets better with practice."
Although a.b.k. has been approached by larger companies on several occasions about bringing their products to a larger market, Katya and Alya have no interest in mass production. "With being an artist comes this dilemma," Katya says. "I want to do well enough to get by, but I don't want to grow to the size of having to compromise the quality." This means that the two sisters have to work hard to keep up with orders that come in for commissioned bags, custom furniture, and their growing wholesale accounts. Working together from across the world, some orders the sisters split up to complete, making half in France and half in New York. Katya tells us that the efforts to remain in charge of their own production are well worth it. "For what we do, we have a very special little niche. I just want to be able to continue to create things one by one, and by hand."
It's that pride of craftsmanship that Katya and Alya have that comes through in their work, and reminds us that there is joy to be found in the process of creating something beautiful. From an expertly constructed pair of shoes to a rock snuggly wrapped in leather, each a.b.k. piece represents the uncompromising art of craft. Shop a.b.k. leather goods here.
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