SPARTA, NJ- The unassuming shop in the theater center with a sign that says Leather Zone Leather Repair does not do justice to the talent of the proprietor. For Hratch Kechishian or HK working with leather is a passion a 40 year passion.
“You name it we can do it,” HK said. Sitting in the customized chairs in the shop the interview was delightfully interrupted by a steady flow of customers. Each interaction was unique, just like HK.
He said he “creates, not just repairs but repair to make it look good.” It is important to HK that it looks good. He is an artisan who knows his craft. He has a knowledge of the industry and explains in detail the process he is going to use to repair your beloved leather jacket, create a custom seat for a motorcycle or repair a handbag or belt. “I am sorry if I go into too much detail,” he said to a customer who replied, “I appreciate it.”
Growing up in Beirut, HK spent time after school in his father’s custom shoe shop with his two uncles. His older brother also worked with his father designing shoes. He learned the business at a young age, “It was part of our family.”
“I had a passion about leather and building things,” HK said.
In the 1980’s he had one brother living in Paris. HK stayed with him for a few years. While there he went to school for fashion “to learn what they do.”
Another brother lived in New York and since he did not want to return to Beirut while the civil war was going on, he went to New York. While there he took a few jobs as a sewing machine operator. He attended Fashion Institute of Technology in the city to “learn the American perspective.” But he found there was not much he could learn there.
“I could make a pattern from scratch and make the prototype,” HK said. “The school gives the knowledge how to do things but the ideas have to come from you. They cannot teach creativity.”
After FIT he did design work for Carlos Falchi in the late 80’s. He worked for Steve Madden in Long Island “starting on the handbag line when it first started.”
From Steve Madden HK started at Coach as a Master Pattern Maker, “the highest rank,” when they manufactured in the United States in Long Island and New Jersey. He remained with Coach as they transitions to a fashion house and began to manufacture in Asia. His position at Coach required frequent travel to Asia to oversee “the places they would be built to assure quality.” That continued for about six or seven more years during which time he gained experience. HK ran the sample room as director of pattern makers.
“It was like going to college,” HK said of his time at Coach. “I was allowed to learn at all levels of the business; from belts and wallets to custom items. People in design respected my abilities, having the opportunities to give my artistic opinions.”
In 2014 HK went to work for the Olsen sisters Ashley and Mary-Kate for their line “Elizabeth and James.” From there he freelanced, working for Michael Kores and consulting for Giorgio Armani. HK worked for Vera Bradley in Indiana.
“I loved the job and I loved the people the pay was excellent,” HK said. He traveled to Fort Wayne, Indiana during the week and came back home to Oak Ridge, New Jersey on the weekends to be with his wife and daughter.
How did he get to Sparta?
They had finally decided to make the move to Indiana. They put the house on the market and then everything changed. HK explained his wife and daughter were shopping in RJ Mars while he waited in the car. Sitting there he saw a sign in the window of a shop that was for rent. He decided that was for him. When his wife and daughter came back to the car he told her “don’t freak out. I just quit my job. I’m going to rent that store.”
In one hour on a Tuesday morning, a woman came in to pick up a clutch purse that had been repaired.
When a man from Garden State Motorcycle Club dropped off a leather vest to have patches sewn on, HK showed him photos of a motorcycle seat he had created for another member of the club. “I love the Garden State Club,” HK told him.
A husband and wife from Ohio came in with a beloved leather jacket that needed repair. They had been here in February, visiting their son who lives in town. When they returned for a visit they brought the jacket to have the craftsman tend to it. “It was a gift from my wife,” the man said explaining their short window. They were returning to Ohio in a week. HK said he would get the job done.
“Leather is in my blood,” HK said pointing to the custom bags he designed and made on the premises that are for sale. When a customer came in and saw them she had HK create small cosmetic bags for her wedding party. He made them for the wedding party, embossed with their initials. HK made wand a special one for the bride as a surprise. “It was just common sense,” HK said with a shrug.
Happy to show off his shop, HK has machines for various stages of creating and repairing. He employs three part time apprentices, coming in mostly off hours so the work can get done uninterrupted.
One of the employees wanted to make something special for his girlfriend, a Harry Potter fan. HK helped him transform an old cigar box into a unique purse with leather and brass fittings.
“I’m always learning,” HK said. I like challenging my team to always come up with solutions from the design to creation to production. You need to have vision to have ideas of how it all works from design to pattern to construction.”
“Everything is coming together. I appreciate the support from Sparta. I am 100% happy with the decision. Sparta has been good to me.” Right on cue a woman came in to pick up a repair and added “He saved my $500 fuzzy, white boots that they don’t make anymore.”
“I do the repairs. With my charming personality and good price point I hope to develop into a shop that is more than a typical cobbler,” HK said.