Heyoka Leather + Leslie Crow
TOPANGA, CA + AUSTIN, TX
Interview and Photography by Chris Phelps
Heyoka Leather is a hand-made leather company co-founded and designed by Leslie Crow, Rachel Avraham, and Angela Bruyere. Their attention to craftsmanship, aesthetic, and responsible ethical practices sets them apart in the fashion world. They also co-own a storefront, The Heyoka Hideout, which is located in the heart of Topanga Canyon, just outside of Los Angeles, CA, where they sell their own goods, as well as vintage clothing and a carefully curated collection of hand-crafted designer goods. We sat down with Leslie Crow at her home studio on the outskirts of Austin, TX where she designs for Heyoka Leather.
Chris Phelps (CP): Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background.
Leslie Crow (LC): I was born and raised in the Appalachian Mountains. Instead of going to college, I left home as soon as I turned 18 and traveled across the country to California, which became my home on and off for the next 13 years. While living in Los Angeles, I worked as a model, and continued to travel as much as possible, always taking time to listen and learn from the artists and free spirits I encountered on my journeys. I knew I wanted to pursue a more creative path, so four years ago I left California and moved to Tucson, Arizona to study silversmithing. I currently live in Texas.
CP: Did you grow up in a creative family?
LC: I did. My mother is an artist, my dad is a photographer, and my grandmother is an amazing musician. Going further back, many of my ancestors were blacksmiths, and silversmiths, harness and saddle makers. So I guess its definitely in my blood.
CP: How did you get started working with leather?
LC: At the time, I was working for an artist in LA, hand sewing beads onto canvas. Someone came into the studio and invited us all out to dinner one night, which happened pretty often and they were always the most incredible dinner parties. This was a much older established group of wealthy Hollywood art patrons and artists that I respected very much and it was such an honor to be included in this circle. Henry Duarte was at the table that night and we started talking about leather. It was something I had already been exploring and I had so many design ideas but no proper education of the craft. He took me under his wing, gave me my first set of tools, and passed on some of his knowledge of leatherwork, as well as good business advice, which inspired me to continue on this path and make leather my career.
CP: How did the Heyoka brand get started?
LC: I started collaborating with my best friend Rachel, who was also interested in designing a line. We set out to make authentic everyday heirlooms; custom handbags you could not live without, inspired by traditional craftsmanship and the finest quality. We wanted them to be recognizable not by the label or branding but by the craftsmanship itself, the longevity and raw natural beauty of the wild harvested and sustainable leather.
CP: You have two other business partners, tell us a little bit about who they are and what is their role in the company?
LC: We're all very close friends. Rachel and Angie are actually cousins, so it really is a family business. The three of us handcraft almost every single piece of Heyoka Leather ourselves. We decided to bring Angie in after the business began to grow, because she had way more experience running a fashion brand (Mogg Jeans) than either of us. In addition to being partners in Heyoka Leather, we co-own the Heyoka Hideout and we all have side projects and other creative outlets as well. Angie is an amazing singer-songwriter and front woman of The Deserters, and Rachel works in film and television as a stylist.
CP: Do you have any other creative outlets yourself?
LC: Mostly painting. drawing, fashion design, and metalsmithing.
CP: Tell us about Heyoka Hideout, your storefront in Topanga Canyon.
LC: Angie was house-hunting in the canyon and discovered this perfect historic creekside storefront in downtown Topanga and fell in love with the space right away. It had been vacant for three years and was ready to make a comeback, so we decided to go ahead and give it a shot. The Hideout is such an inspiring and magical location that we knew we had to have it. The store has been received well in both the local Topanga/Los Angeles community, as well as by the incredible amount of people from all around the world who make the pilgrimage up the canyon just to see the hideout and shop our collection of handcrafted designer goods. We opened Summer 2013.
CP: It’s apparent from visiting The Hideout that you guys are very open to collaborating and supporting other artists, creatives, and brands. Why is it so important in this day and age to collaborate and support each other?
LC: We are very big on family and our artisan friends are like an extended family. We could have never gotten this far without their support, strength, and encouragement. This is why we are fiercely loyal to the people and brands we choose to align ourselves with. Supporting local artists and craftspeople, and building a strong community, is very important to our survival in this modern world. We hope to inspire others to work together and work hard to make their dreams a reality.
CP: If you could work/collaborate with anyone, living or dead who would it be?
LC: I would love to work with any ancient craftspeople. When you look at antiques and ancient art, whether its knives, swords, saddles, leather moccasins or jewelry, the attention to detail is so superior to that of modern craftsmanship. They had much more primitive tools, so I would be intrigued to learn their techniques.
CP: What made you leave LA and how did you land in Austin?
LC: I left LA to get closer to the land and focus on my art. I had spent so many amazing years in the City of Angels, running away to the quiet rivers and forests every chance I got, but one day I just woke up and knew it was time to move on. I wanted space to grow food and raise animals… I didn’t want to sit in traffic anymore. I was just ready to immerse myself in the solitude and peacefulness of country living. I landed in Austin after a year and a half in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona, and I’ve been in Austin almost three years now.
CP: How has Austin been treating you?
LC: The countryside surrounding Austin is beautiful, and there is a vibrant creative community of artists and musicians here with strong Texas roots. I don’t spend too much time in town, but I love living here.
CP: Talk a little bit about your home/studio space.
LC: I live in a rustic handbuilt wooden cabin on a historic 50 acre farm in the country. We have a horse, three donkeys, three goats, three pigs, chickens, guineas, dogs and cats. It is peaceful and surreal… almost like its own little universe lost in a time far far away.
CP: What does a day in your life look like?
LC: Wake up...feed the animals, muck the barn, and then relax on the front porch with a cup of hot coffee. Maybe work in the garden a little bit or do some yoga before getting to work on various leather projects, art, or jewelry. Chores again at sunset, cooking a farm fresh dinner, and then either more work or often enjoying the company of friends and neighbors around an evening fire or during a spontaneous front porch jam.
CP: Your life seems to be a well curated collection of your travels, inspirations, and interests. Talk a little bit about your collections and where you pick up certain things.
LC: Everywhere I go I collect memories to hold on to.... I am very sentimental and cherish the smallest gifts or tokens of affection forever. Every random keepsake I have in my home has a story or holds a memory of places, people, and adventures.
CP: What are some of your favorite possessions?
LC: Some of my favorites are the Acoma Pueblo pottery from my parents, a painting of White Buffalo Calf Woman my aunt gave me, a beaded Huichol skull I brought back from Mexico, the drum given to me by Ojibway ceremonial leader Issac Day, and my barrel racing saddle, which was a gift from the woman who taught me to how to train wild mustangs.
CP: Talk a little bit about your personal style?
LC: My style hasn’t changed much since I was a teenager. I still wear the same turquoise and silver jewelry that belonged to my mom, Harley-Davidson lace tanks, vintage concert t-shirts, leather jackets, old cowboy boots, and ripped up Levis.
CP: What inspires you personally and as a brand?
LC: I am inspired by the heritage of the West, by the nature and majesty of the wilderness with all its sacred places and hidden beauty, lightning striking in the sky, or the color of a perfect sunset as it fades into dusk… any mystical moments spent under the stars. I am also inspired by motorcycle culture, unplanned road trips to Mexico, arguing, antiquities, old fashioned everyday items embellished and made beautiful, the woven pattern stories and textures of a navajo rug, and many vaguely recollected images from my dreams and visions. As a brand there are all those elements fused together with a tough rock and roll attitude, effortless trifecta cool, and an endless quest for adventure. Heyoka is a California lifestyle brand inspired by tradition, yet always original, and committed to staying authentic.
CP: Heyoka seems to be inspired a lot by Native American culture and the Southwest. Where did this inspiration come from and how does it influence your brand?
LC: I have always been really inspired by Native American art and culture. My childhood home was decorated with Navajo rugs, Pueblo pottery, and native art books from my parents travels in the 70's. Many years ago, I was working at Silver Phoenix trading post in Berryville, VA when I met Teresa and Steve Hill (Haudensaunee/Anishinaabe) and started attending powwows with them and going to ceremony. It changed my life. I spent as much time with the Elders as I could just listening and finding so much strength and direction from their teachings. Later on, in LA, I made friends with some Lakota people and continued to attend ceremony there. This is a big part of who I am and inspires me as a person as well as an artist in so many ways.
CP: Tell us a little bit about your creative process and how you get started on a new project.
LC: I make all my own patterns, so I’ll start out with a sketch, add the dimensions and make the pattern from a paper grocery bag. Then I procrastinate and wait, visualize, plan, stare and study for days or sometimes weeks before cutting into a new hide. There is so much mental preparation and foresight out of respect for the animal who gave his life, and for me the entire process is very intuitive. It has to feel right; I don’t want to start a project until I know exactly what I’m doing. Eventually the perfect wave of inspiration hits me and it becomes really instinctive and almost automatic, and then I am able to work fast and confidently until the new project is completed.
CP: What sets Heyoka apart from other companies?
LC: I think our genuine lifestyle based aesthetic and original work sets us apart more than anything else. We are very true to who we are and our designs are not intended to be trend based. Instead, we hope they stand to be classic and timeless. We are dedicated to being pioneers and trailblazers within the fashion industry and are determined to fearlessly forge ahead into the future without forgetting to respect the past.
CP: It seems you pay a lot of attention to where you source your materials. Why is this so important to you?
LC: If I choose not to eat a fast-food hamburger, then I don’t want to buy deer tanned cowhide from a giant corporate tannery that most likely gets their hides as a byproduct from giant corporate cow farms. Doing this still supports the factory farming industry which is stuck in that vicious cycle of consciousless consumerism. Our deer and elk hides are sourced from hunters, who respectfully manage a small number of wild animals a year to support their families and communities. That is the only way we feel good about working with leather. We also buy the majority of our beads from Native owned and reservation based businesses in Canada and the USA.
CP: I heard that if you don’t have enough materials you will start a waiting list for products until you can get what you need. With everything you make being handmade from carefully sourced materials, do you feel like this ever holds you back?
LC: I think its a good way of keeping us from growing too fast. We don’t ever want to compromise quality or integrity to meet larger demands, so we just strive to be as resourceful as possible and not waste anything.
CP: What are some challenges you face and how do you work to overcome them?
LC: Not having any money has always been my biggest challenge, but if you have enough passion for what you do, life is amazing, and money becomes less important than you think.
CP: If you could give one piece of advice to an aspiring artist, what would it be?
LC: Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. This modern internet era makes it easy to sell your art and be self employed. If you are honest and your work is unique and original, you will be surprised how easy it is to start an online store or Etsy shop and quickly become a small business owner. Even with no money and no experience, all you need is an original idea and a lot of dedication and passion.
Find out more about Heyoka Leather and purchase their products here: HEYOKALEATHER.COM
Visit The Heyoka Hideout - 137 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd. Topanga CA 90290.