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Leather manufacturer Sandast opens shop in their Downtown factory

By Sonali Kohli
Published: Monday, May 28, 2012, at 08:19AM

Milan Franeta opened a showroom for his leather bags and accessories in Downtown on May 17.



Roll up the door to one factory space on South Hill Street, and a showroom of handmade leather bags and accessories, mounted on handmade wooden and iron displays, will greet you.

Peer through the glass on the right, and you can watch employees bend and shape leather, softening it until it reaches the dark, worn shade that Sandast bags are known for.

Sandast, a local vintage leather company, moved into the 4,000 square foot factory and storage space a few months ago, said creative director Milan Franeta. They opened it to the public as a showroom and store on May 17, incorporating Franeta’s pieces with others from clothing, jewelry and even sunglass designers going for the same handmade style of workmanship.

“I’m impressed,” said Orlinda Parris, who has worked down the street for 20 years, and hasn’t seen a store on this block. “It’s usually more industrial and factories.”

The space, and the brand, weld together Franeta’s personal and professional paths, starting with the name itself. “Sandast” is a combination of the names Sandra, Danilo and Stephanie – Franeta’s three children.

“My wife was complaining in the beginning … I couldn’t fit her name.” Sandast said. “But then I named a bag after her.”

Franeta grew up in Montenegro, and left in 1987 as war was beginning to escalate in the small Mediterranean country, he said. He and his wife first came to Los Angeles to visit her family, and they decided to stay, he said.

He started off in a coffee shop, then took advantage of his eye for fashion and worked to export vintage jeans and import Italian designers, finally settling on designing and leather.

Franeta’s first attempt at leather manufacturing was a reality check, though.

He bought a 5,000 square foot factory in Vernon, but knew nothing about production or manufacturing.

“I lost a lot of money,” Franeta said.

But owning the factory did help Franeta develop the skills to create his own products.

Franeta had learned how to hand stitch from his grandmother in Montenegro. Watching the workers in his factory taught him how to use the dyes and machines to work with the leather.

When his employees left each day, Franeta would close the doors and work on his original designs, often for one or two hours, and sometimes past midnight. He’d listen to hip-hop music while he worked, crafting belts and bags to the beats of Snoop Dogg and Outkast.

“At the time, I was into [hip-hop]. It’s full of energy,” Franeta said. “Music is really a part of my creation [process].”

After that venture failed, Franeta moved to more humble digs, scaling down to a 500 square foot space on 9th Street, where his only company was the few machines he’d kept from the big factory. He worked his way back up, designing for private labels, until he and a business partner decided to launch Sandast independently, leading to today’s space.

Franeta has scoured the U.S. to find old machines that will create vintage leather products. One of those machines had the primary purpose of making horse saddles, and another that he uses for splitting leather is more than 100 years old.

“Our goal is to make stuff like people used to make 50, 60, 100 years ago,” Franeta explained.

Right now, foot traffic yields about 20 visitors a day, Franeta said. This isn’t an area that attracts many Downtown shoppers, and he doesn’t expect a lot of individual visitors to the store right now.

Ultimately, Franeta envisions a space that is even more multi-functional than it currently is, adding organic juices and hard-to-find foods, and hosting events for charity organizations or private parties.

He wants the showroom they’re in now to feel like a home to visitors, somewhere they can be comfortable. While shoppers browse his purses (priced anywhere from $150 to upwards of $1,000), Franeta uses his coffee shop skills to whip up a cappuccino at one of two bars in the store.

The space exudes quirky and vintage all the way to the bathroom, which Franeta has constructed as an ode to Vincent Van Gogh, his favorite artist.

Items like a antique cash register and an old typewriter pepper the showroom floor, and on a trunk near the entrance, one of Franeta’s $450 bags stands on a weathered trunk next to rusted nails.

“I put a lot of love into this,” he said. “We want to be different than other shops.”

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