By Christina Constantine
BU News Service
BOSTON — The AM radio buzzes, and the smell of polish lingers as he pulls a dust mask from the pocket of his weathered apron and ties it on. He starts up an industrial-looking machine, geared with wheeled buffs and blades. From his worktable, he grabs a pair of dismantled oxfords and glides them against the spinning wheel to file the edges down.
“This is good leather,” he says over the clamor of the equipment.
Developed during his time as an apprentice in Greece and his nights working at a Boston shoe repair shop, 83-year-old Christos Soillis has an eye for leather quality. His Harvard Square storefront, Felix Shoe Repair, is one of the last of its kind. To many, his solo, cash-only, phone-less business would be just as old school as the material of leather.
The use of animal skins is on the decline as consumer culture shifts. Some link leather production to deforestation because ranchers clear forests for cattle grazing. Leather has long been in the hot seat with animal rights groups for the way it is sourced and labeled.
Brand empires, like H&M, have turned away from raw skins recently, discontinuing Brazilian leather use. Synthetic leather, a chemically produced substitute, fills its shoes instead. Part of an industry rise, the synthetic leather industry is estimated to be worth $45 billion by 2025.
Yet even as fast fashion prevails, a subset of the population still appreciates leather. Local workers said people who treasure quality help sustain the retail and repair ends of the local leather industry.
Soillis points to a shelf of repaired leather shoes and accessories marked with bright yellow tags. He explained that he used to repair three times as many leather items.
While his clients still maintain their items, most people choose to buy new products instead. He has noticed a decline in the quality of mass-produced leather as a result.
“This customer paid $175 for this leather belt, but see the inside? It’s cardboard,” he said.
Hanging beside him are custom belts composed of whole leather strips, which are popular among tourists in Harvard Square.
“People’s mindset has shifted,” Soillis said, “Why spend money and repair when you can buy a new pair?”
Price deter many from buying leather goods at all. Jill Peso, owner of The Designers, a leather boutique in Beacon Hill for handcrafted goods, has spent 40 years in the industry.
“You get what you pay for,” Peso said, reciting her promise to customers.
The industry’s life, she believes, is as long as that of a leather product: forever.
“We had a young lady come in with a pair of her mom’s leather pants that she wanted taken in,” Peso said. “Her mom had them in her 20s and they were a pair of pants we had made, which was pretty cool.”
Leather, she said, proves more long lasting than its synthetic counterpart in how it can be cared for or repurposed.
“It’s just an extremely durable product,” she explained.
While the leather industry continues to shift, its connoisseurs still value its charm.
“I do this all my life,” Soillis said, running his hand over a leather shoe, “and sometimes you see something and say, ‘Wow, this is a beautiful leather.’”