What do your traveling shoes look like? When I studied abroad in Paris, I had a pair of black, low-top Converse that I wore everywhere, with everything. They paired nicely with a skirt for a hike in the Alps, they covered every inch of cobble-stoned Prague when I was too cheap to buy tram tickets. They’re covered in Berthillon ice cream stains, and, let’s be real, they probably have a few dried dog crottes in the grooves of their rubber bottoms.

I remember tying the laces together, and slinging the shoes over my backpack when I wanted to put on my sandals. They dangled, swinging to my knees as I walked to train stations and hostels.

I still have these shoes nestled in the back of my closet. They’re trashed–I don’t wear them anymore–but they’ve walked too many memories to end up in a landfill. Am I a shoe sap? Do you get what I’m saying? This is nostalgia.

When I stumbled across Hemlocks handmade leather shoes the other day, I had questions. Where were these babies when I was traveling? Why did I think it was OK to wear black Converse with a dress to the Opera?

I emailed the talent behind Hemlocks the other day. Candace LaCosse makes gorgeous, long-lasting leather goods– shoes, totes, even a little carrier for your yoga mat. Here’s what she had to say about her Duluth-based operation.

Image from Hemlocks Leather’s website

Image from Hemlocks Leather’s website

What did you want to be when you grew up?

Creating has always been the most natural fit. My professional experiences have been in many sectors of various creative fields, but I couldn’t have predicted I’d be a cordwainer. Being open to opportunities, education, mentors and risk is how I got to be where I am now.  My early twenties were spent hitting conventional career goals HARD. My late twenties were spent traveling the world and taking giant leaps into the dark that felt right and had to be trusted. All of it has been chasing one version of a dream or another, and for the most part, it’s worked.

Who are your products for? What makes them unique?

Most of my products and designs are classic and uncomplicated, so they have a broad appeal. They are definitely made to last, and I think most people appreciate the richness of leather and a well-made, handmade product. People are really drawn to and seem to be fascinated by handmade shoes. They’re utilitarian, primitive and necessary, yet beautiful and tactile. I like to add unique touches like an angled cut or unexpected pop of color.

Image from Hemlocks Leather’s website

Image from Hemlocks Leather’s website

From where do you draw inspiration? What’s your design philosophy?

Most of my designs start as something that I want and can’t find. A certain dimension, or cut or color combination. Writing inspires my visual creativity so I’ll often start by making notes of what I’m envisioning. Sometimes I’ll sketch but more often I’ll just start cutting.

I’ve definitely been inspired by traveling, and by studying traditional shoe-making and leatherwork. I apprenticed with a shoemaker of a one-hundred-year-old family business deep in the woods of New Hampshire and became absolutely fascinated with the history of American manufacturing. I loved that I was learning to make a product the same way it was made one hundred years ago. It’s funny how young and fresh New England made Minnesota feel. It inspired me to make something to last, to build on tradition, but with modern relevancy.

I have a pair of leather shoes I wore all over a ten month adventure around Europe. They’re shot, but I can’t bring myself to give them up. Do you have a favorite pair of shoes— shoes that are sentimental? Where have they been?

Of course. Shoes (or any physical adornment) can be very sentimental. I have a pair of leather ankle boots that have been around the world with me and I still love them, even though I’ve worn the heels down a good inch. I also have my favorite pair of leather slip-ons that I designed and made. I liked them so much that I made an identical second pair. They’ve worn perfectly to my feet; it’s like wearing nothing.

Image from Hemlocks Leather’s website

Image from Hemlocks Leather’s website

How have your travels affected your aesthetic, or your approach to your business?

Asia was especially inspiring to me. I spent a lot of time in Seoul, and it is an amazingly fashion-forward and flawlessly curated city. When I think of my favorite boutiques and designers there I think clean, simple, minimalistic, flowy, natural and sexy – without actually showing skin – and a beautiful, neutral color palette. Many of the styles had a way of making the ankles and wrists the sexiest parts of a woman’s body; so elegant and mysterious. Men would wear full suits, slicked hair and horn-rimmed sunglasses with such swagger it would give you chills. I freaking loved that. Fashion was effortless, essential, and very cool.

As far as my approach to business, traveling made me more fearless and excited about the unknown. Being able to survive and function in a foreign culture and language is a lot like embarking on your own business – you might not always know what the hell is going on, but it’s fascinating and you’re probably not going to die.

What’s been the most difficult part of owning a small business?

What’s difficult about it is also what’s great about it – there’s no one there to tell you if you’re doing things right or wrong. It’s just me in my studio every day and sometimes it’s hard to know if I’m actually on the right path. But again, it all boils down to creativity, imagination, risk and trust. I work at getting better every day and as a reward I get to spend my days doing what I love. It can get a little lonely working by myself all day, though. Visit me.

Image from Hemlocks Leather’s website

Image from Hemlocks Leather’s website

Who are some of your favorite Minnesotan craftswomen and men?

There are far too many to name. When I returned to the States I apprenticed for nearly a year at the North House Folk School in Grand Marais. That was one of the most invaluable experiences of my life as it instantly connected me to this incredible network of ridiculously talented, kind, and inspiring people. Everyone that teaches there is brilliant and passionate.

What do you like to do when you’re not working?

I’m in my studio pretty much every day, and fortunately that doesn’t always feel like work. Also, I have to travel often for shows or teaching opportunities, so it’s like having built in vacations where I get to visit dear friends and enjoy some of the things that Duluth might not have to offer. What we do have, though, is Lake Superior and the North Shore. I greatly enjoy spending time outdoors here.

What are you looking forward to?

I’m looking forward to creatively expanding my business. I’m expanding my studio into more of a retail space and will feature other regional artists as well. Fostering creative community, and helping others to fulfill their creative goals is exciting, too. I’m also planning to teach more shoe-making classes in Duluth and to continue to travel to shows and craft schools around the country, and this September I’ll be bringing my A-game to the American Craft Exposition in Chicago, so the rest of this summer will be focused on making beautiful shoes to debut this fall.

Where can we find your products?

My websiteA ManoDuluth Coffee Company and more…