May 2009

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Arvin Scott

Reviving the craft

Irvin Alhadeff keeps his family’s leather-working tradition alive just steps from the Arch

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Reviving the craft

Photo by: Andrew Davis Tucker

It pays to do what you love. Just ask Irvin Alhadeff (AB ’71), owner of Masada Leather & Outdoor, who has turned his interest in leather-working into a successful retail business for more than 30 years.

As a leather craftsman, success means being able to “change with the times,” says Alhadeff, recalling the leather-fringed halter tops of the 1970s, the Western wear craze of the 1980s and the sophisticated European styles that are popular today.

Change has also meant selling outdoor apparel and footwear from brands such as The North Face and Patagonia alongside Alhadeff’s custom handmade leather products, including belts, handbags and sandals, at the downtown Athens store.

Masada’s floorplan combines Alhadeff’s leather workshop and traditional retail space, allowing him to observe new trends first hand.

Customers can watch as Alhadeff “tools” a design onto a leather belt (a process that involves striking a thin metal stake with a wooden mallet) as they shop. Alhadeff can design, cut, stitch, oil and dye a complete piece—from hide to handbag—in as short a time as 45 minutes. Some take several hours.

Visiting the workshop is a nostalgic, sensory experience. You hear the rhythmic click…click…click of Alhadeff’s mallet and smell the buttery soft English calfskin.

A framed photo of a 1982 Sports Illustrated cover featuring Herschel Walker wearing blue jeans and one of Alhadeff’s custom belts hangs near an old-fashioned stitching and finishing machine.

Alhadeff enjoys sharing his craft with others.

“It’s in my blood,” he says. Literally. Alhadeff’s ancestors were Jewish immigrants who brought the leather trade to Atlanta in the early 1900s.

Alhadeff earned his bachelor’s degree in history at UGA and was pursuing a master’s degree in medieval history at Florida State University when he sought an apprenticeship with a leather belt- and sandal-maker in Tallahassee, Fla. It was there he developed an interest in his family’s craft.

He gave up his dream of a life in academia—and the offer of a post-doctoral appointment at Duke University—to pursue leather-working as a career.

His first job was hand-tooling leather belts, wristbands and wallets on the streets of Gatlinburg, Tenn., but it was not long before Alhadeff returned to Athens and opened the small 500 sq. ft. “70s hippie leather shop” that became Masada, which is named for a historic battle site in Israel.

Since then he has been a fixture in the ever-evolving downtown Athens retail mix, serving as president of the Downtown Athens Business Association.

In the future, Alhadeff plans to open a studio separate from Masada to allow him space to work on new designs and continue his age-old craft for years to come.

—Kali Justus is a freelance writer living in Atlanta.