If I’m being honest, I haven’t always been interested in leatherworking. Interested in Art, Design, and Engineering… yes. Absolutely. But it wasn’t until five years ago that I actually began to apply these interests to creating things in leather. I won’t drag you through the weeds of my first forty some-odd years (you’re welcome). Though let me just say that I’ve always felt compelled to create. Which is why I decided on a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts in Painting way back when. But the pressures of life persistently drove me towards choosing work that paid well (graphic design and web development) rather than work that I felt truly excited about. Essentially putting paycheck over passion. Which left me feeling like something was missing in my life. Like I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to be doing. Sure, I made a couple of course corrections along the way, but I never drifted too far from my so called career, and I would always wind up getting sucked back in. Until six years ago when I hit a wall and realized I needed a different approach.
In 2014, I was Creative Director / Director of Product Development for a tech startup in Hawaii that was rated amongst Forbes’ Fastest Growing tech companies in 2013. I’m tooting my own horn here a bit, but I wanted to convey the idea that by common standards, things were going pretty well career wise. I was earning really good money, but I was also working insanely long hours (weekends included) and the stress levels were soul crushing. That summer, I realized that within the past couple of years, I had gone to the beach a mere handful of times. Surfing even fewer than that. I hadn’t created anything in my Art studio. And what was perhaps most alarming… I hadn’t taken a vacation in five years. I was feeling cold and isolated while living in the middle of a tropical paradise.
So I decided to finally take some time off, and I wound up in Istanbul. A bit of a random destination choice, but it was on the recommendation of some close friends. A recommendation I will always be thankful for. I spent my days exploring the unfamiliar streets. Taking tons of photos and stopping often to sit and sketch in the blistering summer heat. For the first time in years, I felt happy. Really really sweaty, but happy. And not only happy, but excited to get up in the morning. A completely unfamiliar sensation. That’s when I knew I simply couldn’t go back to my life the way I was living it. I couldn’t go back to living paycheck over passion. Back to a job where the main goal was the accumulation of wealth. Money for clients, money for myself.
What is the point of a successful career if, at the end of the day, you can’t look back on it with a sense of satisfaction and meaningful appreciation? I realized that I had spent my entire adult life living to earn rather than earning to live. So I decided to restructure my life more heavily around creativity instead of around the pursuit of money. Once again, I was trying to choose passion over paycheck. But this time, if I wanted to make it permanent, I would really need to shake things up. I would need to throw myself into the life I wanted and find ways to make money around that.
Within six months, I had moved out of my apartment, given up my neglected Art studio, gotten rid of most all my belongings and moved away from Hawaii. And so, in March of 2015, I found myself standing in Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport, my Turkish at a rudimentary level at best, anxiously awaiting the train that would take me into the heart of the ancient city, with my entire life carefully packed away inside the three pieces of luggage crowded around my feet.
At first, my days were filled with excited exploration, but my nights were filled with pure panic. Lying in bed unable to sleep. Asking myself things like…
“What the hell are you doing?”
“What were you thinking?”
As the self doubt subsided over the next several days, things settled down and I got to settling in. I found a place to set up an art studio and began to make Art with no idea of where I would show it. My only concrete plan was to focus on the creative activities that have always filled me with a real sense of fulfillment – painting, drawing, photography. I traveled about Europe, with Istanbul as my base, rediscovering the creative drive that caused me to abandon Engineering for a degree in Fine Arts so many years before. It was during this time of exploration, inspiration and introspection that I discovered my love for leatherworking.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a serious obsession with vintage leather bags. I had thought about trying to make one a couple of times but never did anything about it. Until one day in Istanbul, I woke up and inexplicably decided to venture out to Gedikpasa (the shoemaking district in Istanbul). There I found everything I needed to get started, and I came home with a basic set of leatherworking tools and some leather. I had soon made my first couple of bags and I was hooked. Each bag I made gave me the inspiration to make the next one. And the next one. And the next one. Obsessing over every step in the process.
I still remember very clearly the flat I was renting in the Cukurcuma neighborhood of Istanbul. The tall ceilings, the hardwood floors, the four story climb (of course there was no elevator). The cold winter days spent working intently at a broad worktable designing my first bags. My excitement in exploring this new creative outlet was elevated by the fact that it combined all my interests in Art, Engineering and Design. I was extremely pleased to find that I was able to apply the same principles of design and functionality which I had honed during my many years in graphic design and web development.
More than this, and perhaps most importantly, I had found a creative outlet into which I could pour my heart without bearing my soul. You see, I have never been entirely comfortable placing a price tag on a work of art like a painting, which for me is very personal and emotionally intensive. This conundrum is extremely problematic for an artist trying to make a living off their Art. So leatherworking presented itself as a means of making a living without feeling as though I had to create “sellable” works of Art. I could effectively put passion over paycheck while at the same time trying to earn a living. Plus, it was something I could teach others and potentially build a small business around.
I decided early on that I would always make bags to last a lifetime. I used a 1956 Swiss Army leather case from my personal collection to reverse engineer how to make a sturdy leather bag that would last more than half a century. This meant designing bags with durability in mind and learning traditional leather working techniques like burnishing edges and saddle-stitching by hand. Furthermore, I would seek out the highest quality materials, and I would never cut corners. I had no interest in creating a brand that focused on inflated marketing prices. Nor did I care to churn out the same old designs you find everywhere else. My interests have always been and continue to be focused on quality, functionality, beauty and longevity. With a special interest in design and ingenuity.
Truth be told, I’m completely self taught. Countless hours of trial and error. Learning from every blister, blunder, cut and puncture. My borderline obsessive compulsive tendencies drove me to improve my skills with every item I made. Seeking perfection in each step of the process. Struggling towards efficiency in movement, consistency in results, and overall refinement of the final aesthetic. Striving for a level of design worthy of being cared for and passed down from generation to generation.
Eventually I started selling here and there as people saw me out-and-about using my own bags. In 2017, I decided that I would try to make a living out of it and I officially created Relje International. “Relje” is the old Dutch spelling of my family name “Ralya”. So it’s a nod to my own family heritage that, in search of a better life, migrated across Europe eventually crossing the Atlantic Ocean into what is now Canada and the United States.
Also in 2017, I relocated to the little town of Graniti in the mountains of Sicily to set up my workshop and to volunteer as the Vice President of Art Project Graniti (a non-profit cultural association in Sicily) and Artistic Director of GranitiMurales (APG’s subsidiary artist residency). I first visited there as an artist in residence in 2015.
Istanbul is amazing and I still love it to this day, but I felt like I was only there because I loved the city. I didn’t feel like my being there had purpose. On the other hand, in Graniti I found the opportunity to have an immediate and real connection to an amazing community that welcomed me with open arms. A place I loved and a place where I could have a purpose. Sold.
My goal is to grow the company into a small boutique design production studio, creating some local jobs to support myself and a small group of people. Spending our days designing and making beautiful objects that perform a function while maintaining a healthy rhythm of travel and work. I wouldn’t complain if it naturally grew to a large group of people, but what I’m really aiming for is quality over quantity. Fun over fame. Sustainable support over excessive expansion.
It’s still early days for Relje International so of course it can be stressful – I won’t pretend it’s all sunshine and unicorns. There are good days and extremely difficult days. However, my overall quality of life has increased tenfold. Regardless of the ups and downs (especially the downs related to the current pandemic), at the end of the day, I feel a great sense of satisfaction and fulfillment. I still work a lot, dividing my time between Relje, Art Project Graniti, and making my own Art. But I now look forward to getting up each morning, sitting down in my workshop with a hot cappuccino, listening to the chorus of birds outside and planning out my day. Making Art, managing the business, developing a new design, fulfilling orders creating bespoke items for clients around the globe.
After all the trepidation, self doubt and second guessing in my life, I’ve finally found a way to feel passionate about the means in which I earn a paycheck. Which, when it comes down to it, makes all the difference in the world.