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Stitching success: Itasca Leathergoods expanding

Owner Paul Kirkman displays two popular shoes.

In the cozy town of Lake George near Itasca State Park, big things are happening for one of its longtime businesses.

Itasca Leathergoods, which had operated since 1986 as Itasca Moccasins with just one paid staff member, now has nine workers – seven in Lake George and two in its new store in Crosslake. Three do hand-stitching on the company’s signature moccasins at home on a contract basis.

“Nine employees and contract workers, up from one in April,” new owner Paul Kirkman said. “That’s a reasonable bit of growth in a small town.”

Kirkman, a Minneapolis transplant who now lives in Remer, purchased the business April 2 and quickly got to work remodeling both stores in time for the Memorial Day weekend.

“We had seven weeks to rebrand, create a marketing campaign, remodel (the Lake George) store, buy and build at the second store and sew enough moccasins to fill the second store,” he said.

The remodel plays on the color of the popular turquoise-colored leather featured on many moccasins.

“When we walked in the store the first time, I saw an ocean of moccasins,” Kirkman said. “All I saw was turquoise.”

 He knew then that turquoise had to become part of the company’s corporate identity. The color, placed strategically throughout the stores, is perhaps most eye-catching on the large panel of wood slices on the wall behind the cash register stand. The wood is painted a color of turquoise blended to match the moccasins.

Handmade in Minnesota

Kirkman said one of the main things he had to do to make the company profitable was raise prices significantly. This came from studying the costs of making each of the products, which are all handmade in Minnesota using domestic leather.

Prices start at about $100 for basic adult moccasins and range to about $400 for premium-quality fringed boots. Children’s moccasins start at about $40.

The styles are named after tributaries of the Mississippi River. The basic canoe-style moccasin is the Cota, which comes in many colors. The current best-selling shoe is a three-color Cota moccasin in turquoise, olive and aqua that Kirkman added to the company’s product list.

Also popular, especially in turquoise, is the Trimbelle, a zippered ankle boot. Some other styles are the Obion, a chukka boot; the Nokasippi, a knee-length laced boot; the Kaskaskia, a long-fringed boot; and the Wapsi, for infants and toddlers.

Most of the bright-colored moccasins are made from cowhide, which is stocked in 30 colors of supple full grain and 25 colors of soft suede. Buffalo, however, can be quite colorful as well, with shades like gray, dark teal, rich red and dusty rose.

Elk and buffalo are premium hides. They cost more but are more supple and last longer. “They feel like they’re broken in right away,” Kirkman said.

Moose is silky smooth, he said, and sheepskin is great for slippers. All but the sheepskin are intended for outside wear.

The leather pieces are stamped by a hydraulic press that uses a different die for each piece. With a moccasin that uses five or six pieces, 30 custom-ordered dies may be needed to create all sizes for the style.

The business does not charge extra for custom colors or foot tracing for hard-to-fit feet. Kirkman said that one custom-designed shoe, in three shades of fuchsia, is now part of the regular offerings of the company.

Itasca Leathergoods has partnered with an area Native American bead worker for a limited-edition run of moccasins that will be signed and numbered.

“We’re very excited about that,” Kirkman said. “Our plan is to do a limited-edition moccasin every year.”

Itasca Leathergoods is branching out into more leather products. Among new offerings is a hand-laced iPad case made of buffalo hide and hand-laced cowhide placemats and coasters. A tote bag is also in the works.

In the back of the Lake George store, in clear view of the retail area, is the sewing department, whose rustic style Kirkman preserved during the remodeling project. Front and center here is the expert in this business, Diane “Sam” DeFatte, who has been with the company for 26 years.

“She’s the best employee you could ever ask for,” Kirkman said. “I’ve had tons of employees over the years, and you can’t beat her.”

“They have been very good to work with,” DeFatte said of her new co-workers. “We all get along very well.”

“It’s one of the first jobs I’ve had that I look forward to going to,” said Pat Penske, who started in the sewing department in late July.

Aiming higher

Kirkman knew right away that he wanted to open another store to increase business, and he plans additional locations in the future.

“We knew we wanted to be in a location with big resort growth,” he said. “We really like the Crosslake area. … I’m really proud of our Crosslake store. It will be the prototype of the rest of the stores that we do.”

Before Kirkman took over, sales were roughly one-third retail, one-third wholesale and one-third Internet.

“Now sales in Crosslake dwarf everything,” he said.

 “My goal is to make this a nationally known company,” Kirkman said, through its own retail sales and through sales to wholesale customers in high-end urban boutiques.

The moccasins are sold now in several stores, such as the Arrow boutique in Minneapolis, and will be featured at a new high-end store, Uptown Minnesota, set to open Dec. 15 in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport.

Itasca Leathergoods’ moccasins will be on the silver screen in 2013 in “Lovesick,” a movie starring Chevy Chase, Ali Larter and Matt LeBlanc, all of whom will be wearing moccasins made in Lake George. Two pair were returned, autographed by Chase and LeBlanc.


Laurie Swenson
Laurie Swenson is a reporter/copy editor for the Bemidji Pioneer. She has been with the Pioneer since 2004.