Making A Lasting Impact
“It’s not for the faint of heart,” said Steven Soria as he sat in the workshop of Make Smith Leather Company, surrounded by rolls of hide and racks of tools.
“We don’t make lightweight things. We make very durable things, but these are going to outlast everyone we know. These things will be around longer than I will be alive.”
Steven Soria is the owner and designer for Make Smith, a family-owned and operated leather workshop and retail store at 135 E De La Guerra St.
Originally a custom workshop, Make Smith has become a must-visit for retail customers looking for handmade craftsmanship in their leather goods. Enter the store and you’ll find beautiful belts, wallets, messenger bags and backpacks, and journals — all made in-house from Grade A U.S. leather.
“We’re kind of known for customizing the bags. We’re able to mix and match different features. We have probably 20 different designs now. Anywhere from super small, like a side satchel, like a man-bag, to a much larger backpack or women’s tote that has like a laptop sleeve in it,” Mr. Soria said.
There’s a degree to which something is “customized” and Make Smith does it all, explained Mr. Soria. One customer may want a wallet in a certain color, and another may want their dream briefcase made from scratch.
“Just like if you were having your entire front yard relandscaped, that would be different than just putting a few potted plants around,” said Mr. Soria.
Either way, Make Smith has it covered.
Mr. Soria knows that the nature of leather goods is luxurious, but even so, he tries to keep their products affordable.
“You’re talking about handmade domestic U.S. materials. Our bags are around $300 to $500. That’s not luxury, that’s functional everyday prices. These bags, if this was a Louis Vuitton or a Gucci, that could start at $2,000,” said Mr. Soria.
Another major difference between luxury brands like Louis Vuitton and a shop like Make Smith is the type of leather. While LV makes leather for trunks and hardshell bags, Make Smith uses leather used in the equine industry to build practical and lighter weight bags for durability “like getting kicked by a horse.”
“Typically it’s made for durability for outdoor workwear, so this is way more durable, way more waterproof,” said Mr. Soria.
Choosing the same leather that saddles, chaps and vests are made of wasn’t just a stylistic or practical decision for Mr. Soria, it came from being a 3rd generation leather craftsman.
Mr. Soria is the grandson of leather craftsman Bernard Soria and the great-nephew of the famed saddlemaker Fred Soria.
“My uncle Fred, he was the artisan. He was the guy who did all the tooling for beautiful, beautiful saddles. When he was younger he trained with Dick May Saddlery, which was here in Santa Barbara,” Mr. Soria said. “If you go to the Carriage Museum on any given day you can see one of Fred Soria saddles that was tooled under the Dick May Outfit.”
Dick May’s saddles were well known in the 1950s, and anyone who won a rodeo at Earl Warren Showgrounds would get a gorgeous Dick May saddle tooled by Fred Soria.
Steven Soria grew up surrounded by leather workers, his father among them. His parents run the Handbag & Luggage store at 609 Chapala St., where Mr. Soria learned his craft when he was young.
“I got to see Fred in action, so I never wanted to do the repairs. That was my dad’s thing. He was making ends meet doing smaller jobs, doing restorations which were pretty cool. There’s a lot of money in that, good money, but I got the itch on that artisan-craft side like Fred. He just wanted to carve. He just always wanted to do the tooling and the carving and the artistry. That’s kind of what I thought was cool,” said Mr. Soria.
When Mr. Soria set out to make a name for himself as a leather craftsman in 2007, taking on commissions out of a Goleta art studio, he knew the first thing he had to do differently than his relatives was to create a brand, something that would give his work value over time. Fred Soria and the rest never put their names on their work.
“Back then it was like a heat repairman coming in and putting his name on the heater. Why would you do that? It was a very common craft to do and you didn’t put your name on stuff. Particularly, his boss’s name should be on it. He was just paid labor,” said Mr. Soria.
With the help of family, a few business classes and entrepreneur groups, Mr. Soria found a designer for the Make Smith brand and created a registered trademark. Now, with its home in the historic Presidio neighborhood, Make Smith has become a beautiful retail store and workshop where modern luxury meets a family’s legacy.
Interested customers can find Make Smith’s full catalogue at www.makesmith.com, but shouldn’t miss out on the opportunity to go in for a fitting or even sign up for leather crafting class where Mr. Soria will teach you to make your own belt, bag, or wallet. Classes start at $65 per person and can be for individuals or corporate groups.
“It’s fun to come here because that’s the leather, these are the guys making it, they have a say so in what they would like to see and not see. And if they want, they can take a class and actually jump in that process,” said Mr. Soria.