In the heart of Maplewood, there's a quaint little leather shop with a sign out front that reads, “Yes, it does smell good in here.” Venture inside and you will not be disappointed. There's wall-to-wall leather goods and accessories to fill your nose and closet. This is Sole Survivor. It's a family-run business with more than 50 years in the craft of leatherwork and it all starts with Steve Rye. His lifelong journey has brought Sole Survivor where it is today.
“It's been a long time. I started in '68 when I was 16 years old. I just decided that I was going to make leather goods, so I went out and spent $60 on the tools and got started. It's as simple as that,” Steve says. “By 1971, I had my first involvement in a shop on Main Street in St. Charles. From there, there were a lot of short-lived shops pretty much up to today. I met Kay, my wife, in '79 when I was traveling and selling at a lot of shows and festivals and she started working with me. We did wholesale, as well, for a number of years until the online space became more saturated and we decided to go back to solely retail. Then, eventually, we landed here.”
At their current location, it's a family affair with Steve and Kay running their store in collaboration with their daughter, Annie, who grew up in the business and continues designing and crafting alongside her father. Their son also worked with them from a young age and launched Sole Survivor online for the beginning of their wholesale website business. Steve sums up his business with his family simply: “I couldn't really tell you what it's like being a family business because it's just what we've always done — all of us working together.”
As for Steve's process creating the many accessories the business sells, it all starts with looking around to see what is out there and taking inspiration from that. He begins with a quote from Solomon in the Bible, “There is nothing new under the sun.”
“When you're creating something, you'll find that most things have already been made. Everyone sees things that they like and want to imitate. So, from there my daughter and my wife and I work together to come up with ideas and refine it until it works, and it works when it sells.”
From there the process is relatively simple. It's a matter of creating the pattern for a product out of cardboard. This is essentially a template for Steve to use for the cutting and sewing of the leather he has chosen for a given project. Then he cuts the leather to size and skives the areas that must be thinner for stitching. Finally, it's all sewn together and polished to perfection. Easy to describe but it takes a lifetime to master. That's how the family that makes up Sole Survivor creates the inimitable bags, belts and accessories that are available every day to the public.
To find out more about Sole Survivor, stop by and say hello or find them on Facebook, Instagram or their website, SoleSurvivorLeather.com. You can also visit them at the Best of Missouri Market at the Missouri Botanical Gardens, where they'll be unveiling their newest addition to their line of leather goods, custom leather footwear.