Behind the Doors of a South Philly Row House

the doors of south philly row houses
Row Houses, South Philadelphia

I’ve lived on the 9th-10th Street corridor from Lombard to Ritner Streets since the mid 1980’s and for me South Philly is home. From Department Store ready windows, well-kept stoops and nicely appointed exteriors, these houses are home to the residents who create the neighborhood fiber that welcome each wave of immigrants.

Historically this area began as several small Native American townships, including Moyamensing and SouthWark. Further Native American influence is seen in the names Passyunk and Schuylkill. The area grew as wave after wave of laborers, immigrants and refugees arrived looking for industrial and dock work, creating a vibrant cultural mix of old world ways and new world traditions that exist to this day.

In the late 19th early 20th centuries, Philadelphia was known as the “workshop of the world,” producing luxury goods for the likes of John Wanamaker and Strawbridge & Clothier Department stores. Many skilled craftsmen and women immigrated to Philadelphia in search of a better life and South Philly absorbed this wave into the mix. Many of them performed their craft in the home where they first roomed to pay their landlord. This resulted in fascinating finds in working class homes. I’ve lived in 2 and on my tours of many houses for sale, I’ve seen marble window-sills, stained glass windows, even hand-painted wall paper, found in my own humble home.

The Fleischer Art Memorial founded in 1898 had a mission to bring art to the masses and the creative community lives on today with many artists and crafts people living and working in the area at home or in converted studio space. I for one have worked in both my South Philly homes and outside studios in the area. Over my years in South Philly I have pursued millenery, paper-making, fine art, textile design, knitting and currently shoe making in these spaces – all behind closed doors.

In 2016 I launched my hand-made to order shoe-making business, RoxAnneLava. In 2017, I did some customer research and created a series of prototypes and participated in local fairs. I needed a system that would carry and display my product easily.

I settled on a vintage suitcase listed on eBay, a vintage Belber Neolite travel suitcase priced at only $10.50. It looked to be in very good condition, but as I generally do with eBay, I wanted to research the brand before I hit “Buy It Now”.

Belber is a heritage American leather good company founded in Philadelphia in 1891. School age brothers Aaron and Henry Belber (ages 14 and 17) immigrants from Romania via Hamburg and Glasgow pulled together $200 and started making luggage in their South Philadelphia basement. They worked 10 hours a day, 6 days a week handcrafting luggage – behind closed doors.

The brothers, joined by their two other brothers, opened their first factory in Philadelphia in 1903. Using lightweight fabrics, quality leather and hardware and the first of many of their patented state of the art locking mechanisms, they produced stylish and elegant luggage and travel accessories at an affordable price. “As Modern As Tomorrow” was their slogan!

Innovators in marketing and advertising, Belber created a market for their products using inspirational and aspirational advertising in magazines and newspapers. They were one of the first Brands to pursue product tie-ins with celebrities and films.

A group of entrepreneurs acquired the brand in 2013 and launched their first new collection in 2016. It’s not a bad history for some teenage immigrants starting in a basement in South Philly – behind closed doors.

RoxAnneLava shoes on display
Vintage Belber Suitcase – featuring RoxAnneLava Shoes

I bought the suitcase. I use it for display. I like to think that just maybe the Belber brothers started their business in MY basement! Even if they didn’t, their suitcase and story are a constant inspiration to me as I build my brand and business.

Behind so many “closed” doors, there is innovation, creativity and new products being born – that’s Philadelphia!

Community Market for Makers & Shakers

Maker & Shaker Community Market
Maker & Shaker Community Market

The Community Market for Makers & Shakers on Saturday, October 14th was my first live shoe event. Hosted by NextFab in North Philadelphia as part of DesignPhiladelphia, I had a great day of feedback, networking and fun and oh yeah a few sales.

My second generation RoxAnneLava Signature samples in whole sizes 5-11 debuted to the public. I offered 2 options for orders, my holiday leather collection in black or cranberry patent/silver or cranberry crackle/ gold or red metallic,  OR  a new offering of up-cycled leathers that are waste materials from a furniture manufacturer in black/red/brown. My 1st generation Signature prototypes, 3 sample pairs and logo tees were also available. It was great to have people see, try  on and react to my shoes.

These events are always best for exposure and networking and Saturday did not disappoint. I gained about a dozen new email subscribers, sold some product,  got some ideas and feedback and connections on the shoes from people who don’t know me and met some new potential partners for a couple of really interesting initiatives.

The Bonus?

Free Federal Donuts, Coffee, Philly HomeBrew Outlet Breakfast Stout, a lovely Bahn Mi and DJ.

I’ve been a maker and had making businesses for most of my adult life. It’s great to watch this new one grow. I am pleased with the positive response. It’s gratifying to work toward my personal and professional goals. A day like Saturday validates I am on the right path.

 

Back to my Journey

It’s time to get back to my journey and sharing it with you. I’ve had a very shoe- centric 3 months. It’s been exciting and exhilarating and best of all, I’ve carved a path forward with my business.

As many of you know, I had not been able to practice my shoe making skills. My full-time job and personal issues were keeping me very busy. Last summer, I  made a decision to make some big changes that would allow me to focus on shoe making. I’ve stepped down from my full-time teaching position as of August 31, 2016. I’ve beefed up my consultancy, ONO made in the 191.

I attended a Shoe Symposium in Ashland, Oregon and re-connected with my teacher Bill Shanor from Bonney & Wills. The biggest gain from this experience was a bunch of small quantity suppliers. These relationships have been critical in my path forward. I also made a connection with Iron Horse Boots who has a similar business model to me. I am hopeful we can collaborate and support each other as we move forward.

Since May, I’ve been working on making. I started with a recycled sandal and since have moved into 6 styles of women’s sandals. I’ll share each with  you in my next posts. The plan is to work on my craft, work through prototyping and have the prototypes tested. So far so good. I’m concentrating on cement construction just now.

Singer Post Bed
Vintage Singer Post Bed Machine on a Reading Table.

The next batch will include sewing with my fabulous new (to me) Singer Post Bed Machine. I’m partnering with screenprinter/bag maker, Tim Eads. His fabric, my designs to make a men’s loafer style deck shoe and women’s espradrilles. The bases have just arrived via Esty.

I’m back and ready to share my journey with you. Sit back and enjoy.

Works of Art in Leather

Moreschi The Italian Art of Shoemaking Works of Art in Leather book coverEye candy – works of art in leather. It’s arrived. Thank you Amazon Prime. Welcome to my bookshelf – Moreschi The Italian Art of Shoemaking: Works of Art in Leather, edited by Cristina Morrozi, photographed by Giò Martorana and produced by Rizzoli.  This book traces the heritage of artisan culture & craft in Italian shoe production using the premiere brand, Moreschi as a model. Known for exacting standards and unique style, Moreschi produces every pair of shoes from design stage to retailer on-site. Breathtakingly beautiful for your coffee table. Instructive for the shoe purist.

 

SOS – Save our Soles or Souls

The footwear industry can be environmentally damaging, enter SOS (Save our Soles), a design consultancy that merges tradition practice with technology to provide innovative and creative footwear. Masterminded by visionary, Ridhwana Shaik, this consultancy promises passionate design, conceptualization and sustainable manufacture and offers limited quantity, great quality, and uniquely African aesthetic.

SOS fold
SOS fold

SOS - MonkyNutz
SOS – MonkyNutz

Some projects include: MonkyNutz, a uni-sex kids range that is eco-friendly, created from organic cotton and recycled shoes; SOS fold ups made from 100% African cotton and recycled soles; and the Meshuga brand that provides wood soles from the scavenged wood of Jacaranda tree combined with leather by products from the meat industry that are veg-tanned used as uppers.

SOS - Meshuga
SOS – Meshuga

Most of all I like the tag line: “Leave behind a legacy of great footwear, not a landfill of wasted shoes.” A great thought for today or any day.