“In Holland, where I’m from, it’s too cold to even wear sandals,” said Kika Vliegenthart, founder of luxury leather goods brand KikaNY. Vliegenthart’s namesake brand, founded in Brooklyn in 2009, has garnered an international cult following for its sandals. To complement the offering of footwear, KikaNY also offers bags, belts and small leather goods — all crafted in a Brooklyn Navy Yard workshop. Vliegenthart’s designs are rooted in heritage construction techniques, minimalist designs and robust materials. “We just try to show as much of the leather itself,” Vliegenthart added.
The daughter of two art historians, Vliegenthart was raised in the Netherlands and studied economics and fine art in school. She left Europe for New York in 1993 with a scholarship to the New School, where she studied film for the next two years. Though her schooling would lead to a career as a documentary filmmaker, during which she hosted a show on Dutch public TV called “KikaNY,” it also led to her first encounter with Barbara Shaum, a legendary sandal maker in the East Village.
“I walked down 3rd street in the East Village going home, and I saw this woman making sandals,” Vliegenthart said. “So, I walked in and asked her if I could work for her between film school stuff.” Though Shaum was at first apprehensive, Vliegenthart’s interest and persistence landed her an apprenticeship in the small workshop. “So this friendship — almost a grandmother-grandchild idea — started, and I just interned with her for 15 years, on-and-off. We did little things like card cases, or maybe a wallet for somebody, but it was mainly just sandals, sandals, sandals — all kinds of people, all custom. We’d trace people’s feet in the store.”
“It was mainly just sandals, sandals, sandals — all kinds of people, all custom. We’d trace people’s feet in the store.”
Though Shaum did limited runs for Donna Karen, Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein, the majority of her work was custom orders, and it was this craft that she passed to Vliegenthart. “Nothing is new,” Vliegenthart said of the process. “Barbara taught me how to do it; they’re ancient designs. She was taught in Provincetown, and those guys were taught in France.” KikaNY’s range of sandals have molded arches and cobbled footbeds, the seams are sealed from the elements and the curved straps that adorn the arched base seem almost architectural. “There is a logic behind it,” Vliegenthart said of the crossing strips of leather. “There are seven points that hold your foot down to your footbed, and you have to hit at least three of them. If you don’t, it doesn’t hold your foot at all, and you can’t walk.”
Vliegenthart, aiming to reach a wider audience, decided to do a 50/50 mixture of custom orders and wholesale orders. When scaling her production for retailers, she encountered an interesting problem. “I started researching lasts for sandals, but they didn’t exist anymore.” After an in-depth search, Vliegenthart found a set of very old Mexican shoe lasts, which she altered with a notch for the big toe. All of KikaNY’s sandals are hand-finished in a three-step process that is rare in the leather industry: the edges are sanded and beveled, a homemade sealant (passed down from Shaum) is applied to the rounded edge, and a wax mixture is added on top of that (and buffed to a shine).
The process takes more time, but the end result is waterproof and durable. Thought it’s labor intensive, the custom side of the business keeps the scale down and the quality up. “We could never make this fully commercial, because it is not. People have to send in their tracings, and a million people are never going to send in their tracings,” she said. “This filter is also kind of nice. You catch the people who are a little more patient, a little more appreciative of the work, or the heritage, or the legacy of where this all came from.”
In conjunction with the footwear, KikaNY’s backpacks and bags are made with a similar eye for detail. “We’re using the same techniques as the sandals to make the bags,” Vliegenthart said. All of the sanding machines in the workshop are custom made to achieve the bevel needed on backpack seams. Though most brands in the accessories industry treat leather like fabric, using the same technique to sew and hide seams, Vliegenthart relies on her experience with sandals to do the opposite. “We use sturdier leather than most people do — mostly bridle leather — and the seams are on the outside,” she said. KikaNY sources leather for softer bags from Horween, and the majority of their sturdier stock comes from Italy. On display in KikaNY’s workshop, these hides are supple and free of stretch marks (a plus for efficient pattern-cutting).
Vliegenthart’s bag designs come from experimentation and inspiration. After hunting for vintage leather goods, a well-worn leather briefcase inspired the design of a custom portfolio for an architect, who wanted a folder for his drawings. “Brooklyn, and New York, is an amazing place to live because you find these things,” said Vliegenthart, who now offers the portfolio as a stock product, sized to fit a 15-inch laptop. “It’s inspiring.”
Though most brands in the accessories industry treat leather like fabric, using the same technique to sew and hide seams, Vliegenthart relies on her experience with sandals to do the opposite.
To finish the bags and belts, Vliegenthart searched the world for the right type of solid-brass hardware. “We ended up in England with a foundry that does a lot of bridle work for the polo games and works with the Royal Family. And they were so small, so they took on all these little things for us.” Though the hardware isn’t cheap, it offers KikaNY the ability to experiment and create unique fasteners and buckles. “I don’t think anyone can top this here,” Vliegenthart said. “It’s hand tooled. You see, sometimes, little dents — they’re never exactly the same.”
With their unique buckles, KikaNY’s belts caught the eye of menswear store Unionmade, in San Francisco, who promptly placed an order. “I think without them, we wouldn’t be where we are right now,” Vliegenthart said. “It’s amazing how they treat our products, it’s amazing the energy we get from them to do new things and just to be part of the team. Most people find us through them.” KikaNY’s small leather goods have expanded to include phone cases, cardholders and key chains, among other things. Inspired by daily trips around the city, Vliegenthart noted, “We look at what’s happening in the world — especially in New York — what people need, and then translate it.”
Vliegenthart balances her time between working in the shop, attending trade shows, conceiving new ideas and managing day-to-day operations. “There was one day where I was just here on my own making bags, and I felt like, ‘Ok, this is really what I’m on this planet for: to just be quiet, to just make something, to just be happy here by myself.’ But at the same time we have to run a business.” The equilibrium between meditative physical work and creative collaborations is what keeps Vliegenthart moving forward. “I could not just do one thing,” she admitted. Though the techniques Vliegenthart practices are part of a time-honored tradition, her designs remain fresh, as her inspiration is the present. “We can always grow and make something different because the world is changing.”