Tuesday, February 26th, 2013...3:35 pm

A chat with Manimal founder Kristen Lombardi: On reuse, making miniatures and being a mom

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In 2004, Kristen Lombardi founded Manimal, her line of impeccably handcrafted moccasins and leather accessories. To hold one of her baby moccasins in your hand is to appreciate the skill and caring that goes into each piece — they’re perfectly formed, perfectly sturdy, and they’re lined with cushy faux fleece! My favorite part is that when I peek under the seams, I can see the lines Kristen used to trace her pattern before cutting it out.

I first discovered Manimal in 2008 when I bought a pair of her Ribcage Earrings at a boutique in Chicago. I learned then that her accessories were all made from scraps left over from moccasin-making. Several years later I was fortunate to be able to sell advance editions of her accessories in my online store, and this winter, I’ve worked with her to share more of her baby moccasins with the world.

Kristen has just released the Manimal Spring/Summer line, and as usual, the colors are beautiful. Those are the images you’re seeing throughout this post, and you can get each one in the Manimal online store.

And in my store, you can now get my three favorite Manimal baby moccasin colors for 15% off! They’re the end of last season’s collection, so they won’t last long.

Kristen is inspired by the American Southwest; by Native American costumes and forms. Here’s how she translates that wild spirit into one of my all-time favorite ethical fashion brands.

How did Manimal begin? 

I began a loose form of Manimal (I was trying things out — denim, bags and the moccasins) almost ten years ago, when I was 23! I graduated from Massachusetts College of Art with a fine arts degree, but concentrated on fashion design. I started out by selling at craft shows and had a job reworking vintage at two Boston thrift stores. My leather skills are totally self taught, though I have a natural inclination for making things and figuring out hand work.

I love how you seem to consistently offer a few staples — always ribcage moccasins and earrings — and yet you really mix up your color palettes and accessories from season to season. What’s your perspective on balancing a regular selection while still keeping it fresh? 

I like to offer a few of the same styles every collection in different color options — the styles that are the basics and my best sellers. Naturally, it’s important for me to include original work every season. That’s easily done when I have ever shifting ideas about what I want to be wearing and what I want my hands to be working on. That said, I’m still pulling on my double fringe boots from four collections ago every morning when I leave the apartment.

Can you elaborate a bit more on how you reuse your leather scraps? 

I began making accessories purely as a way to use up scrap from the moccasins making process. Now they are usually my favorite pieces each collection. It’s a good design challenge to come up with new forms with a limited material. Since I cannot bear to throw leather away I always have at least two boxes of scrap tucked away in my studio. (Ed. note: Kristen has said she keeps any scrap larger than a dime!)

And now you have a little boy and a baby line! How has that been for business? 

I began the baby styles about a year before I had my son and I’m so glad I did — the children’s styles are a really fun addition to the line for me. People seem to like the little moccasins, though I suppose it’s kind of hard to resist anything in miniature!

Has he changed how you look at your company and your career? 

It’s great to be a full-time mom — but the biggest challenge is trying to work full time as well. I’ve learned a lot in the past two years about getting good help I can rely on and being OK with a little less control. It’s been difficult but good for me. Creative work is just part of our day-to-day around here, so I include Theo in my work. Some days he sits at the table while I work on samples and I set him up with his own little sewing project, other days we sketch together at the museum. It’s not easy, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

What does your production process look like? 

This will be my third season working with a very talented couple in Maine. They handle all production for the adult line, while the baby pieces and accessories are made here in Brooklyn.

What’s your favorite piece you’ve ever designed? 

My favorite piece to date is a little folio from this spring collection.

“Manimal is a careful, quiet operation in Brooklyn, New York.”

 

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