Feature: Independent Thinkers
The right accessories distinguish a man’s personal style and provide an opportunity for a little self-expression. Despite this important role, accessories can too easily be regarded as afterthoughts—supporting characters to the star power of fine tailored clothing or designer sportswear. Likewise, many of the most innovative accessories makers toil in relative obscurity, far from the busy design studios of the major luxury brands. Practicing in humble workshops across the country, these independent thinkers prefer to make their own design rules while turning out masterful works of art in the process.
Heart & Sole
Michael Anthony loves to share the Leo Tolstoy tale What Men Live By. “It’s essentially a story in which someone of royal descent comes to a shoemaker’s shop,” muses Anthony. “He lays down a hide, telling the proprietor—coincidentally named Michael—‘You’ve never seen such fine leather because, well, let’s face it, how could you? I’m royalty, and you’re just a shoemaker.’ ” Anthony, on the other hand, is quite familiar with the German calfskin described by Tolstoy. He has been using it for his custom shoes and boots for more than a decade.
Outside his tiny Sebastopol, Calif., shop, which he describes as the “size of a shoe box,” the 41-year-old cobbler regales passersby with such stories. He often labors at a sidewalk workbench, putting shoes up on lasts or welting them while chatting with the locals. “It’s a lot of fun because most people have never seen a shoe being made,” says Anthony, a jovial fellow who claims he was reincarnated as a shoemaker because of his mistreatment of the same in a previous life. “At least that’s what I tell people when they ask me how I got into this,” he jokes. “Let’s face it, who in their right mind would say, ‘Dad, I want to be a shoemaker’?”
In fact, it was circumstance, and a Harley, that in 1987 brought Anthony from his native Detroit to Northern California’s Sonoma County, where he found work as an oyster rancher and then as a feed store clerk before signing up for a shoemaking apprenticeship with a local cobbler named Joseph Schuman. “He used to refer to us as Mr. and Mrs. Schuman because we fought so much,” recalls Anthony, who eventually found his way to Burnet, Texas, where he spent another five years honing his craft with veteran bootmaker Jack Reed before returning to the West Coast.
He started his signature business in 1994 after being turned down for a state job making shoes for the developmentally disabled. “I made it to the top three candidates, and one of those men owned this shop. He got the job I wanted, and I got the job he didn’t.” Anthony has since parlayed that disappointment into an art form that is uniquely his own. “I work so far outside the box, I can’t even see it anymore,” he says, noting that at full capacity he is capable of turning out a maximum of only three pairs of shoes, or boots, per month.
That is understandable considering the detail involved—more than 372 steps for a typical pair of boots. His shoes have roots in the classics, but they are anything but basic. “I call it European style made in the U.S.A.,” he says, holding up a pair of wing tips to illustrate his point. “It’s very much a traditional upper, but if you look at the front of the shoe, it’s an asymmetrical toe shaped like the cross section of an airplane wing.” In German calfskin, the shoes would start at about $2,500. A pair of custom-made boots, which requires up to 50 hours of labor and as long as a year to deliver, can run anywhere from $2,000 to $8,500 depending on the leather. Anthony prefers to work in calf, alligator, and ostrich but also offers such exotics as crocodile, emu, mule, snake, and lizard. “I don’t tend toward the real flashy Western boot style,” says Anthony, one of only a handful of custom shoemakers working in the United States today. “Most of my creations are very elegant and simple, because I like to let the leather speak for itself.”
Ties to Die For
If John Kochis were not a custom tie maker, the New York designer would probably read tea leaves. In fact, to his way of thinking, the two professions are not necessarily mutually exclusive. “A man reveals so much about his personality by the tie he chooses to wear and how he knots it,” says Kochis, a 23-year retail veteran of Barneys New York and Charivari, who launched his signature neckwear collection in 1989. “He’s either a leader or a follower, traditional or contemporary, meticulous or disorganized.” What does the knot reveal? “If a man wears a spread collar with a four-in-hand knot, I know he doesn’t have it all together. If the dimple is off-center he’s almost there. And if the knot is neat and the dimple is centered, I know he’s impeccable.”
What is not revealed at a glance, however, is the fastidious attention to detail that Kochis brings to every custom tie. He refers to his ties as “neck apparel” and fashions them from the thousands of traditional, exotic, and 1950s vintage silk samples that nearly overrun his Manhattan studio. He offers ties in dozens of blade shapes and calibrates each one to fit the height, neck, chest, and waist of the wearer. Kochis also considers a man’s shirt collar, favorite knot style, and even the button stance of his jacket in determining the right fit.
“In the past, custom-made meant handmade, not custom made to fit you,” says Kochis, who employs four tie makers to craft every fully lined tie by hand before attaching a monogrammed gold medallion to the loop. “But why should a man who wears custom-made clothing wear off-the-rack neckwear?”
This position has been argued by custom suitmakers for decades, which explains why many top tailors employ Kochis’ tie-making talents, in addition to his skills in crafting custom bow ties, braces, cummerbunds, pocket squares, ascots, and scarves. Such services are not reserved for clothiers; Kochis travels the country to indulge private customers in their own homes or offices.
John Kochis Custom Designs
The tables and floors inside Mark Kielty’s compact studio—a makeshift work space in a narrow hallway of his Taos, N.M., home—are covered in 18- and 22-karat pink and yellow gold, sterling silver, and platinum—the essential elements that the veteran belt buckle maker literally pours into his elaborate designs. Nevertheless, all that glitters is not necessarily glamorous. “It’s polishing and welding metal—jewelry is a dirty business,” says Kielty, who made fine jewelry before dedicating himself to the better buckle business more than a decade ago. It is also lonely work, he says, gesturing to a window at the end of the crowded room that provides his only link with daylight on afternoons such as this, when he is immersed in an especially detailed design.
What Kielty calls “the invisible accessory” has turned into an obsession for the 56-year-old designer, whose precious metal buckles sell in the $250 to $5,000 range at Flemings in Atlanta; J.W. Cooper in Bal Harbour, Fla., and New York; and other specialty boutiques. “To see these guys with a great deal of wealth wearing a $65,000 watch and a $45 belt always amuses me,” he says.
When he is not musing over men’s fashion missteps, Kielty, a high-strung perfectionist with an eye for the 1930s to 1950s Streamline Moderne work of industrial designers Norman Bel Geddes and Raymond Loewy, preoccupies himself with three-dimensional curvature, tongue movement, and weightiness—vagaries to the uninitiated that he considers the core of his contemporary work. “When you get into this stuff, you start to notice the minutiae,” says Kielty, whose “retro-futurist” designs, as he describes them, reference cruise ships and sleek locomotives seen in the society pages of vintage Town & Country magazines. “When I was a kid, I remember seeing a 1958 Mercedes 300 Gullwing with fitted luggage in the trunk,” he says. “I always wanted my buckles to fit into that kind of lifestyle.”
He also prefers his work to have a strong three-dimensional presence. “Everyone says all buckles are three-dimensional, but that’s not true. Most don’t consider the side view at all,” says Kielty, who purposely designs each piece “so that when the person wearing it looks down, he sees a piece of sculpture.” Other characteristics that elevate Kielty’s designs are their exclusivity, timelessness, and function. “They have to have a lot of design thought behind them,” he says. “And they should look good two generations from now. Most important, they should have a utilitarian aspect and also be repairable, because these are things you won’t want to throw away.”
Another subtle difference that distinguishes Kielty’s work from that of most buckle makers is his choice of materials. While most others use 30-gauge gold for overlays, he prefers to work with thicker 26-gauge sheets for longer wearability. “I do overlays of 18-karat gold in which I solder a piece of gold onto silver,” he explains. “It’s the little things men don’t notice that really count over time.”
Santiago Vega barely knew his paternal and maternal grandfathers, Alfonso Vega and Eudoro Sanchez. Yet he speaks of them with the kind of reverence one reserves for beloved mentors who nurtured a lifelong passion. Indeed, the two gentlemen—one a custom hatmaker, the other a lawyer—were very much on Vega’s mind when he created Alfonso Eudoro, the limited edition Panama hat collection that he produces through his company, Vizcaya Hat in Quito, Ecuador. “I always wanted to bring back something of my grandfathers, because my father and mother tell me I am very much like them.”
Certainly, Ecuador was not pining for another men’s hat company when Vega set up shop three and a half years ago, just three days before his 22nd birthday. The country counts more than 250,000 hat weavers among its population, only a handful of whom create the finest toquilla straw hats, called Montecristi, which are known throughout the world. Nevertheless, Vega felt that a great deal of knowledge and history about “the prince of straw hats,” as it was known in his grandfather’s day, had been lost to commercialization and increased Asian competition.
“A lot of people think that any straw hat is a Panama, but that is false,” says Vega. “A Panama hat is specifically a hat made of toquilla straw,” which comes from the Carludovica palmata plant found in Ecuador, not Panama, he says. The second misconception stems from many of the major luxury hat brands selling medium-grade Cuenca straw hats as Montecristis. “They are cheating the customer and hurting the industry,” he insists, pointing out that a Montecristi has an extremely tight circular weave with characteristic rings called vueltas. And rather than chemical bleaches, natural sulfur is used to give the Montecristi its natural straw color.
Most of the Alfonso Eudoro straw hats, priced from $145 to $1,180, are created by a handful of master weavers. The hats are later hand-blocked by artisans working in the United States. Hand blocking is very laborious, says Vega, whose company produced fewer than 1,200 hats last year. Instead of using a hydraulic press that molds with heated steel blocks, the hatmakers place sacks of sand on the brim of the steaming hat body. A wooden form creates the crown, and then the finished shape is formed by hand. The process, Vega emphasizes, can be achieved only with very fine, flexible straw. Then the hat is left in this position for two days—mere moments for a hat designed to last a lifetime.
Three months into Franco Eyramian’s course work studying optometry at California’s American Career College, he was asked to cut his first pair of lenses. When he completed the task, the instructor questioned him about where he had received his previous training. “ ‘I didn’t learn the optical business anywhere,’ I said. And she thought I was lying because even she couldn’t cut a lens as well,” Eyramian recalls. “That’s when I said, ‘OK then, I’m done with this school.’ ”
Eyramian, a Lebanese jeweler who came to California in 1982 with $2,000 in his wallet, has been charting his own course ever since. Most days you will find him in his design studio behind his own optical shop, Maison d’Optique, at a busy cross section of Ventura Boulevard in Studio City. Although the upscale boutique and five additional Southern California branches have been open for more than a decade, Eyramian mustered the courage to craft his own eyewear only five years ago. “I had the jewelry fingers from my teenage years when I created gold chains in Lebanon and later learned to be a diamond setter in Amman,” says the 38-year-old entrepreneur. “But I didn’t have an optical brain.” A chance meeting with veteran eyewear maker Varouj Kaloustian—“the master of the plaster” as Eyramian calls him—led to tutelage in the art of custom frame making, which gave him the confidence to test his design skills.
The result has been a continuous flow of new designs—about 25 new styles per year priced from $500 to $22,000. His initial launch, Franco Titanium, was a collection of modern titanium frames colored by using electric voltage technology that he discovered on a trip to an eyewear plant in Copenhagen. Subsequent years have seen the development of Franco Wood, a line of eyewear integrating three-piece construction on titanium frames that have wood temples; and more recently the diamond-studded eyewear that Eyramian calls Luxuriators.
He ventured into this latter genre after he created a pair of $12,000 diamond-studded platinum glasses for Pauletta Washington, wife of actor Denzel Washington. The frames received so much attention that he adapted them in white gold with diamonds set like eyebrows.
Such theatrical frames, however, were never intended for the serious business professionals who form the core of Eyramian’s clientele. “My business is basically more simple,” he says, holding up a pair of small sterling silver frames molded with buffalo horn temples, part of a new collection called—what else?—Franco Buffalo. The unique thing about this new collection, says Eyramian, is that it is made of sterling, which is lightweight like titanium but more identified with jewelry, his childhood passion. It is also easily customized. “So if a guy wants gold,” says Eyramian, “we can do 18 karat on sterling. Better yet, if a guy has red hair, why not a copper finish?”
Franco Eyramian, Maison d’Optique