With roots in Sweden, Iran, Italy and Canada – Nika Design, a tiny cultured microcosm, born from an elevator shaft in one of Gastown’s historic buildings, has grown up to become a haven of true artisanal beauty.
Nika Design has been inspired by many European styles and traditions. It seems to have its true roots though, in Sweden. Tell me about how your experience in leather making began?
Neda: We’ve both been back and forth to Sweden, as my family is there and have made men’s shoes for a long time. During that time, about 15 years ago, we both had government jobs as community counselors. I was working with my family here and there, leather making and I realized that I very much enjoyed working with my hands. Dino became interested in the craft as he saw me working with my family. He also loves working with his hands. We both became very good in a short enough space of time. We were travelling back and forth between Vancouver and Sweden and decided to open up our own shoe design and repair store here in the city. Dino really saw the potential in Gastown for our business.
Dino: After a few years, we turned the labour of it into shoe repair rather than shoemaking, as that’s what people were constantly asking for. Shoemaking takes a lot of time and effort and it just didn’t make sense. It evolved into what Nika is today. Actually – for the first three or four years – I would put the shoes needing repair into a backpack, then hop on my motorbike, travelling over the bridge, to a warehouse in the North Shore where I had all my equipment. None of it would fit here in our little Gastown store. We needed some more staff, so we eventually reorganized the space in the store and somehow fit the machines in.
Where did the business idea for Nika come about?
Neda: Dino came up with the name Nika for the business – named after our daughter.
We thought of opening a business in Sweden but then I became pregnant and wanted to raise our family here in Vancouver. So we settled here and decided to name the business after our daughter so that there would be something here that she could be proud of when she grew up. She was born in 2006 and we opened up in 2007. At the time, it was challenging because this tiny little space was a location that no one would imagine trying to turn into what we have here today.
Dino: So true. Before we took it over it was a small hair salon. It’s actually the original elevator shaft for the building and it had a huge spiral staircase at one point. It’s not even 400 square feet.
How is it, that for a tiny little space, you can create such beautiful, well-made shoes and leather crafts? Is the life of a cobbler an isolated, almost archaic one in which great detail, craftsmanship and hard work are the absolute necessary ingredients to success?
Dino: Good question. We don’t think too much about what we do. The way it happened for us is – Nika was born and we wanted to do more with our lives and our carreers and we thought about what we really enjoy doing. Originally, we were thinking about food actually – about a breakfast place before we opened this place. So we went for it – for the shoe store – and as it turned out, we love it and it has become our life. We don’t think too much about it – we just do it.
Neda: It takes time. Everything takes time. It’s hard work but worth it.
The methods you’re using are not fully automated. These really are ways of crafting that go back 100 years, aren’t they?
Dino: I have a tool here that is made out of a bandsaw blade. My hammer was made by a man who has been making the exact same hammer for the last 300 years. This old Singer machine is over 100 years old. I had electric sewing machines and I sold them all because this does far more beautiful work. I bought it in Sweden along with the cutter over there. We use them every day.
Neda: Once you have the foundation you can then create your own method from it. The material changes, the customer’s perception changes and as a result, you forge your own creative way of working in the environment. Dino’s mind is very artistic and my mind is very mathematic. When you put both those parts together (it took five years and almost cost us our marriage), we eventually became a very strong team. He’s very artistic so that when you bring a pair of shoes to us, he doesn’t look at just how to fix them; he looks at how to make them look good, how to prevent further repairs and how to make them look new again. I’m thinking about what material needs to be used, where am I going to source it and other such things.
You have a customer base that is rock solid. Where are they all coming from?
Neda: We have many customers that have been with us from the beginning. Many local customers come from White Rock, all the way to Mission. Many of our customers are from small towns around the Lower Mainland. We have customers from as far as Chicago and always visit our store during their stay in Vancouver. Christopher Plummer, is one of our regulars, has come to the stoe many times and loves our men’s shoes line from Sweden . We also have many customers from the community around Hastings and they are always welcome to our store, receiving the exact service we offer to everyone else. Our unique leather products and quality craftmanship, have brought us many satisfied return customers.
You have been in Gastown for almost 10 years now. Is this neighbourhood the true home of Nika Design?
Dino: I love the location, the trees and everything else about Gastown. We moved into the neighbourhood to be close to the store. Whenever we look at other places where we could do business we always say: Thank God we picked Gastown.
Neda: When we look around, we know we made the right choice. As a business owner, when you’re succeeding, you’re thinking about expanding and possibly into other areas. But no matter where we go, we know that Gastown is our home and best place for Nika. The variety of people coming through here is what I very much appreciate.
Dino: Gastown vibrates at a lower frequency. It’s almost like being in the hills in Nelson B.C. or a little Italian Village in the Alps, or up in the North of Iran. People aren’t buzzing with anxiety, looking to get to the next place or thing as quickly as they can. It’s more down to earth. Everything has a synchronicity to it. I don’t think Gastown has really been thought out either – it’s just something that was once born and has now evolved – and in its evolution, it’s mistakenly becoming one of the coolest places around. It doesn’t have a big finger over it saying: This is the way it should be. It’s up to us to create Gastown – as the stores, the people, the neighbourhood, the community.