Meet Valerie Szarek of Breezy Mountain Leather. After 40 years in the business, she says, “I love what I do, and it shows.”
Valerie Ann Szarek has really only had one job since she was 17 years old, and that is leather crafting. Although her experience includes owning five leather goods stores, she considers designing and creating her most important work.
She recently spoke with ABI about a personal experience she had which indicated to her that after many years, she was a master at what she does.
“One day in the studio, something shifted,” Valerie says, “I felt a kind of out-of-body experience, in which I was watching myself work. My body knew intuitively what to do, and my creative energy went straight into the leather without thought.” She likens this profound experience to a kind of meditation, and it is how she works today. She reflects and continues, “I feel this is what sets me apart. I love what I do, and it shows.”
After many years of strictly retailing, she began to wholesale her leather bags, hats, and jewelry, and sells to stores around the country. She remarks on the difference between the two forms of selling. Valerie mentions that creating production work for wholesale can be restrictive, saying “You have to be true to your catalog of products,” yet she also believes it can give more creative freedom, in that “You have to push the limits within the constrictions that you have, to differentiate each piece you make.”
She’s been fortunate to work with some large accounts, and says that catalogs have been excellent customers for her, as well as resorts, particularly in mountain areas and in the southwest. Still, she truly enjoys the personal feedback from speaking directly with retail customers. They help her to know what’s needed, such as an extra pocket in a bag, and she can see which shapes and sizes look best on customers.
Her work isn’t trendy, although she does make some smaller bags for younger shoppers. Valerie’s biggest audience is the baby boomer generation, some of whom have bought her work for many years.
She tells the story of a woman who came into her booth carrying a leather purse which she wanted to replace with something similar. After examining the bag, Valerie realized that she herself had made it, many years before and in a different part of the country. It reinforced to her just how loyal her customers are and how much they appreciate her handcrafted work.
What she truly values in her business are those long-term relationships, with galleries and shops, and with individuals who appreciate quality crafted leather goods, from the hand of a master.