Seven years ago, Noelle Hindi bumped into Alex Cirka on the street while walking her dog. Neither of them knew at the time that the slightly awkward meeting – which involved a hasty recovery from a burrito covered hand and an art show invite – would lead to a totally unique and awesome Toronto business endeavor. This chance meeting was the catalyst for the entrepreneurial duo behind The Leather Atelier, a flawlessly designed, hand-made leather brand with a line that ranges from drawstring backpacks, to tasseled wall hangings, to iPhone cases. Their most recent achievements include moving into a beautiful studio space within 401 Richmond’s heritage loft building and designing a commissioned make-up case for Maybelline employees with a custom, laser cut collaboration logo. We visited them in their studio to talk about their budding company.

I’ve always been fascinated by the bold designs you use. What inspired you to create your current collection?

Noelle: They’re illustrations that Alex and I created together. We were into the aesthetic of and symbolism behind emoticons, so we decided to create our own. The lips were more of a fun, quirky thing. We also wanted to convey a spiritual vibe so we used the third eye/evil eye motif. We wanted something we could reproduce in patterns so we could create our own custom leather treatments. Our medallion designs are memento mori or symbols that signify death, like the skull, hourglass and praying hands.

Alex: Yeah, we wanted to empower the wearer with different meanings. We hand draw them and then bring them into the computer and laser etch them. Then we hand paint them all, it’s quite a process.

Your mandate states that you use laser etching and other modern techniques combined with traditional leatherwork. How does that ability shape the way you create your products?

Alex: It’s definitely enabled us to elevate our products. If we were doing hand stamping or tooling, it would take hours to achieve what we could be doing with a laser cutter. It makes it much easier to manage with a two-person team.

Noelle: The technology makes our brand totally unique because it allows us to do things that you would never ordinarily see on leather.  We can take a pattern that we hand drew, transfer to a computer, and then laser etch a whole piece of leather with it. You can’t duplicate it and we’re all about that. I can do the hand braiding, sewing and whip stitching and it’s still accessible and affordable. We’ve played with glow-in-the-dark polymer ribbon that we sew into our bags. Now we’re 3D printing a lot of the hardware we’re using for our pieces, which is exciting.

Alex: We want to custom make everything with 3D printing so we can make things that people haven’t necessarily seen before, or transform them in a new way.

Does that mean you are doing most of the production yourselves at the moment?

Noelle: We make all of the jewelry and some bags, but we mostly source other places to put parts together and then assemble the finished product with our own custom flair. I make samples and send them to a small Mom and Pop team. We like to support other businesses within Ontario that have been around for a long time. I like that we’re helping each other out and we learn things from them. Now that we have a new studio I’m going to start doing a lot more bag production. I want to come in on different days, make five unique bags, advertise them by posting pictures on Instagram, and invite people to come visit me at the studio.

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There’s obviously a special connection with you two and leather. What was it about that material that first made you want to work with it?

Noelle: I started working with it before Alex did. I’m a painter, and I was using leather as an alternative canvas. I wanted to make my own handbag so I researched it on my own and looked up different ways I could go about it. My first handbag I hand punched the holes all around it then whip stitched it using a deerskin lace. I really fell in love with the tactility of leather, it’s very forgiving and easy to manipulate. I started working with all kinds of leathers in different applications.

Alex: At that time I was doing a lot of graphic design and computer work so it was really inspiring to actually use my hands. I started making men’s wallets and belts.

Noelle: There’s definitely something to be said about making an object with your hands and seeing it through the stages to the final product that you can show off and get compliments on.

What are your respective backgrounds in?

Noelle: I studied Painting and Drawing at York and took Graphic Design at George Brown. I ended up working in an architecture firm as a graphic designer and art director for 3-4 years. I was laid off of from my job and decided I didn’t want to go back to a computer. I have always made hand-made things and jewelry, everyone always asked me where I got pieces from, so I decided to make some stuff on the side while I wasn’t working to try and make some money. I fell in love with it.

Alex: I used to do graffiti and that led me into graphic design. I switched to OCADU to do Graphic Design from photography at Ryerson and then I did an internship in New York with an ad agency focused on luxury brands. When I came back from NY Noelle was doing a lot more leather stuff so we started The Leather Atelier.

What made you two decide to become business partners?

Noelle: I needed Alex because of his good technical background. He made the website, photographed the pieces and branded it all. It was a perfect partnership model because I would make stuff and he would put it out there. He ended up getting really involved in making the products and wanted to learn more so I showed him different techniques. It ended up being a really good collaboration because both of our skills just came together organically and formed The Leather Atelier.

As a couple sharing a home and a studio there must be some challenging moments. What’s been you biggest hurdle in collaborating?

Noelle: It does become kind of stressful work with your partner sometimes. Being in the fashion and accessories industry is difficult as well because a lot of money is involved. Luckily, we have our skill sets so we don’t have to pay a web designer or photographer. Usually we do all of our own photo shoots. I style them, we build the sets together, and then Alex photographs them.  We’ve collaborated on a few shoots with other people but for the most part I’m able to make something and we can photograph it and have it online within the same day. The turn around is awesome.

How did you get your designs out there?

Alex: We started putting our stuff online and were approached by a showroom from New York. They brought us down to a trade show, which is how we established connections with bigger retailers internationally that we continue to work with now. It was a good introduction for us. Locally, we have a lot of connections and we also do outreach through online marketing.

Noelle:  We did it backwards. Most people will start off selling locally and then go into trade shows but before we got into stores in Toronto, we went to New York. It was better for us because people took us more seriously here and more stores were interested in carrying our stuff.

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What are your dreams for the future?

Noelle: We both have our own individual projects that we enjoy. I’m doing more fashion illustration and incorporating that with the brand. We’re both working on developing our own individual skills so we can have an even greater collaboration for The Leather Atelier. We’re working on getting a bigger international market in Europe and Asia. We want to use what we’ve learned and our collective skillset to work with other brands and businesses to help both of us grow. It would be great to keep doing more private label stuff, designing for other brands or companies under their brand name, but with us taking the lead in designing and setting up the manufacturing side of things.

Alex: We are also into collaborating with other small businesses, not just through leather-focused things but other projects as well like collaborative events.

Noelle:We’re doing a sample sale at our studio on the 6-7 of September with three designer friends. It will be exciting to show people our new space! We hope to do bi-monthly sales here to showcase our new work, whether it be Alex’s photography or things I’m making.

The Leather Atelier stocks locally as Zane, Easy Tiger, Thomas Ballint and the Likely General. Their Tectonic backpack is also online through Urban Outfitters.

Check them out:

Website: theleatheratelier.com

Facebook: /TheLeatherAtelier

Twitter: @Leather_Atelier

Instagram: @theleatheratelier

Tumblr: theleatheratelier.tumblr.com