Leather artist fashion’s unsung hero

NY Times News Service, NEW YORK

Sun, Nov 29, 2015 - Page 7

A hairy wolf’s head that doubles as a shoulder bag glowers from a wall at Jordan Betten’s studio in West Chelsea, New York. Striking it might be, but it is not for sale, said Betten, the 41-year-old founder of Lost Art, a leather goods company that caters pretty much exclusively to fashion and rock royalty.

Also on view in the loft that is both studio and home to Betten and Sun Bae, his wife and collaborator, is a crocodile cape fashioned for Rihanna; a python bag commissioned for Lenny Kravitz; and a sexy assortment of the woven leather jackets, capes, vests, flared trousers and suede bikinis that draw a steady stream of customers to the modest upstairs space.

However, what you cannot see, except in a handful of photographs, is evidence of Betten’s latest and arguably most eye-catching commission: the leather angel wings that Candice Swanepoel modeled on the Victoria’s Secret runway in New York this month.

Those wings will not see the light of day again until Swanepoel fans them out when the Victoria’s Secret show is broadcast on CBS on Dec. 8. Even then, not many fans are likely to be aware that they are viewing Betten’s handiwork.

“For a lot of the work we do, we are not credited,” the designer said.

Indeed, in the show’s program notes, Lost Art appears as a footnote, in a font so small it might best be read with a jeweler’s loupe.

Is Betten resentful? Not so much, it seems. In an industry that thrives on hype and self-promotion, he remains an outlier — one in a diminishing tribe of artisans working, mostly unsung, in hidden pockets all around the city — by chance or design, one of the style world’s best-kept secrets.

True, fashion insiders are well acquainted with his luxuriously rustic output. A fashion model turned bag designer, he made his runway debut as a designer more than a decade ago, when Anna Sui asked him to whip up some rocker-style jackets and trousers for her show.

He later collaborated with Thierry Mugler and Francisco Costa of Calvin Klein; and his work has been showcased in French and Italian Vogue, W and Elle.

“I have never had a PR person,” Betten said. “We are not doing seasonal fashion shows, because we cannot afford it.”

Nor are his wares sold in stores.

“As far as retail is concerned, we have not been able to make it work and keep our artistic cool,” he said.

However, word of mouth has thus far secured him the kind of deep-pocketed customers able to spring for an US$11,000 python jumpsuit or a vest made from a US$2,000 animal skin.

His clients, walking billboards for his one-of-a-kind pieces, have a hand in the design process, selecting skins from Betten’s artfully culled collection and consulting with him on color, fit and style.

His use of animal hides might raise eyebrows, but Betten attempts to sidestep controversy, saying simply that he treats every skin with love and respect. He tries to honor his conviction that, as he puts it, “leather’s got soul” by weaving, lacing and whipstitching every skin by hand.

There is no sign of a sewing machine in his loft. The only visible appliances are an old enamel stove and, tucked beneath his bed, a dusty-looking exercise machine.

Poised at the juncture of art and style, his snakes and alligators, along with his fringed and crystal-beaded suedes, have been shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. A forthcoming exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York is to highlight one of his designs, a pair of elaborately embellished leather trousers commemorating 9/11.

Betten is soon to be celebrating his 20th year in the trade, though he has no immediate plans for expansion.

“We are small, but we have influence,” he said.