by Mary E. Miller
photographs by Geoff Wood
It takes a considerable stride to go from a career implem- enting World Bank-funded health and education projects in Peru to launching an artisanal leather repair business in Raleigh. But in Robert Santana’s shoes, love and leather have conspired to chart an unlikely path.
Since moving to Raleigh in 2007, Santana and his brother, Yury, have been growing a business based on skills and passion they learned from their father in Peru, enhanced by their own first careers in logistics and design. The market niche they’ve made their own with Santana Creative is the care and repair of high-end designer shoes and purses – accessories worth thousands of dollars – from clients all over the world.
“People are always calling the shop, saying, ‘Raleigh?’ Why Raleigh?’” but it is a beautiful place to live, and it is much less expensive to ship something UPS from here than courier it across Manhattan,” Robert Santana says.
The brothers Santana have matched Old World craftsmanship to high-tech innovations, a successful pairing that has given their relatively small company of 22 employees a global reach.
Whether they’re applying a tissue-thin veneer of latex to the iconic red soles of a pair of Christian Louboutin designer shoes or sourcing a crocodile skin with scales of the exact size to repair a $43,000 Hermes Birkin handbag, working together, the Santanas can handle it.
In the small universe that is the luxury brand fashion world, their reputation for fine work and creative problem solving has spread. During the past year, their studio off Spring Forest Road handled 20,000 pairs of shoes and as many purses. While some orders represent a loyal and local following, most come from places like Tokyo, Milan, Munich, and New York. Clients include major department stores, well-heeled celebrities, and entertainers. With newly opened satellite studios in Atlanta and Coral Gables, Fla., the Santana brothers hope to double both production and their number of employees.
Luxury is lucrative, but this is a labor of love that has led a father’s sons to follow in his footsteps.
“Leather has an almost magical quality to me; the touch and feel, the smell,” says Robert Santana. “It reminds me of my father.”
Arturo Felix Santana worked his entire life in Arequipa, Peru, in a stone studio with arched ceilings just off the town square, behind a church. An artisan cobbler and designer, he moved around heavy metal machinery while wearing Gucci loafers, and handled glues and dyes wearing a starched white shirt beneath his long leather work apron. Felix Santana died in 1994, and the business and equipment were sold.
Then Robert and Yury realized they wanted to carry on his legacy, each in their own way. Robert had spent nearly a decade with the World Bank, directing logistics on projects, everything from ordering equipment and up-fitting labs in medical centers to delivering text books for primary school education projects in rural areas. Problem-solving work on a large scale was exciting and varied, but stressful. He burned out. In 2000, he moved to New York and decided he belonged in leather, like his father.
“I did my research and sort of apprenticed myself to higher-end shoe repair places,” he says. He got to know people in the world of fashion and quickly identified a market gap.
Yury, for his part, had gone directly into design, starting his own business that focused on leather bags, accessories and clothing for stores in Lima, Peru. In 2001, he moved to New York and started a line of shoes and belts featuring exotic leathers, metal and stonework. There he met his wife, Elisa, who was from Raleigh, and until they married in 2006, he traveled between New York and North Carolina. Robert and his wife, Claudia (who oversees shipping and quality control) decided they loved the area, and Robert quickly realized that Raleigh was ideally located to ship globally.
Elegant men in their early 40s, both physically favor their father, and as many siblings do, reflect different aspects of his personality.
Robert, the extrovert, handles the marketing, research, sourcing, logistics and the business end of the business. Yuri, much quieter, oversees all production, including the design and creation of new machinery. This brother shows, rather than tells.
In the workroom, he pulls out a large black leather Prada satchel with a gold clasp. The bar that held the buckle in place had snapped, and the design company did not have any replacements or any way to fix it. Yury figured out how to shape the metal and electroplate it, then solder it together to look like new.
He slides the clasp through the bar until it locks with a gentle click, then gently swings the bag by its strap.
“It’s a beautiful work of art,” Yury says, admiring the satchel, “But broken, it isn’t useful. Now it is not lost. This is what I love.”
For more information, go to www.santanacreative.com, or call 919-521-8485.