It’s Saturday morning in Downtown Los Angeles and we’re on quite the quest. We traverse a few blocks of lightly littered multi-lane streets lined with warehouses and historic theaters, among the city’s oldest. Some have been renovated recently, some not for decades. It’s here, in this incongruously revitalized quarter known as the Fashion District, that people make the accoutrements donned on tonier turf several miles west. One such soul is Chris Pak. We find him in his happy place, the lofty workshop, showroom and flagship store that houses his beloved leather goods company, Sandast.
Chris greets us with a smile and an espresso offer. A burly Korean-American of 40, he sits at a long, antique wooden table and tells us the story of Sandast, his baby. It turns out Chris fell in love with leather in much the same way you might fall in love with a particularly idiosyncratic person—slowly, and then all at once.
For a time, he recalls, he was a mere dabbler, a dilettante sewing swaths of hide together as a sort of side project. “I would have a vision for a bag I wanted to create,” he says, “but then when you get into the construction, it’s like science.” Humbled by a steep learning curve that took hours upon hours to mount, Chris began to get it, little by little. “It’s like a drug,” he says, shaking his head. “Once you create something you really like, you just get hooked.”
He shows us around the shop, where he and a handful of experienced artisans work day in and day out to hand-make every item worthy of the Sandast logo—an old spinning-wheel sewing machine. Handbags in mid-construction are strewn across a giant workbench flanked by stitching stations and supply shelves stuffed with yards and yards of gorgeous skins, shipped direct from his supplier in Chicago. “It takes eight or nine hours just to do the trim on the edges of this bag,” Chris says, picking up a roomy carryall and tracing its edges with his finger. “It’s really time-consuming.”
Chris assures us you cannot rush leather. It longs to be seduced, slowly, into a state of exquisite softness before it’s ready to hit the streets. He walks us through his surprisingly sensual distressing process. He begins with vegetable-tanned Horween leather, so by the time it reaches him, it’s already been spanked into submission. Once he gets his hands on it, the delicate work begins. First, he massages the skin, his fingertips plying it repeatedly, relaxing any rigidity. Then, he applies a special wax and lets it seep into the cracks. Paramount to a gorgeous subtle sheen, polishing comes next. Then, he breaks out the oil. Applied sparingly, artfully, tanning oils expose that covetable burnished patina, the hallmark of Sandast’s vintage aesthetic. Finally, Chris pulls out the big guns, taking a torch to the surface of the hide for a hot minute. The results are stunning. The supple skin takes on a kind of afterglow, its natural beauty beaming through.
“Watching that transformation before my eyes, it’s the best thing about my life,” he says. “Leather is like my child, and I want the best for my child.” It’s worth noting he does have two actual human children, a pair of small boys, one three years old and one four-and-a-half. They’re at home with their mother, two miles north in Little Tokyo, waiting for Chris to scoop them up for a family trip to the Rose Bowl Children’s Museum. But there is still time to squeeze in a few more adjustments to this week’s batch of bags before the family will be expecting him. “I don’t want to say I’m obsessed, but…” he trails off and returns to his work. We head back out into the city streets, leaving Chris alone with his true love.
Photography by Dylan + Jeni
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