In his Provincetown studio, Victor Powell creates custom leather goods with Old World techniques.
Steps away from Provincetown’s Lobster Pot Restaurant, a simple sign comprised of the words “THE WORKSHOP” and a large wooden sandal draws curious visitors away from the commotion of Commercial Street down a quaint alley.
A set of wooden stairs at the alley’s end leads up past a wall covered with morning glory vines to a beautiful view of the ocean and an unassuming workshop with the Rolling Stones playing softly from a back room.
“I’m in what’s known as a destination location,” says Victor Powell, who has been working in this space since 1999. “Once you come past the bikers and the funk in the alley, you reach this oasis up here.”
Victor Powell has been designing and creating high quality leather goods since 1967, and legions of notable buyers from around the world have traveled to The Workshop to have pairs of his famous leather sandals fitted, fashioned, and signed as unique, wearable art pieces.
In 2006, fashion designer Michael Kors commissioned Powell to make all of the footwear for his spring menswear 2006 Collection, which was exhibited at a runway show during New York City’s Fashion Week. Three months later, Vanity Fair pictured Nicole Kidman wearing a pair of Powell’s sandals. Even Cardinal O’Malley of Boston purchased a pair of his sandals a few years ago.
The artisan’s studio is chock-full of an eclectic mix of leather materials, shelves full of tools and journals, rows of finished sandals and belts, and collections of hand-stitched briefcases, bags, agendas, organizers, and portfolios.
Powell moves smoothly through his workspace, reaching instinctively for leathercraft tools. He epitomizes an artist’s cool, standing tall yet relaxed in jeans and a casual button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up. A checkered scarf is wrapped artfully around his neck and tucked into a soft black vest. He wears glasses that give him an air of erudition, and he has a head of short, shocking white hair and a small goatee. Sparky, his large affectionate canine trots freely around the studio.
Originally from Cocoa Beach, Florida, Powell learned how to make leather goods shortly after he moved to Boston in 1967. He is self-taught, having enjoyed the craft as a hobby before deciding to make it into a career. After a brief return to Florida, he came back north, eventually moving to Provincetown in 1974—a time when leather artisans were found everywhere.
“There were like 21 leather shops with everyone doing their own work, more than in Boston,” Powell says. “I mean it was kind of absurd, but that’s how popular it was back then.”
These days, however, Powell is one of only two such artisans left in this Outer Cape community. Despite the diminished number of these leather artisans, people still yearn for this kind of genuine leather work and are excited when they learn about Powell.
Throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, Powell ran a high-end leather retail shop called SKIN with a storefront right in the path of the shoppers on Commercial Street. Now, in the relative seclusion of his current workspace, he says he can work and communicate better with his customers.
Visitors are often so impressed by Powell’s creations, and the individualized level of attention they receive, that they often leave The Workshop with sandals and bags not only for themselves, but for family members and friends as well.
The craftsman’s designs are wonderfully simple without being archaic. He integrates modern twists into many of his designs, and his works maintain a traditional quality while fitting in well with modern fashion.
Powell explains, “A lot of people around who look at my designs can say that I’m a throwback to the ‘60s. While really I do have a lot of classic designs, and some of them go back before Christ, I have a lot of my own contemporary designs.”
Powell’s method of making sandals requires precision. He begins by making a tracing of the customer’s foot, meticulously marking where he will position the leather straps. He also marks the length and height of the arch to wet-mold the sole accordingly—this provides customized support that makes the sandals extremely good for your feet.
Powell then punches in slots with simple tools, cobbles the sandal, and buffs the edges. Setting the sandals up to this stage takes about a day. Then the customer returns, and Powell fits the straps right onto the foot.
While it’s best to have the artist fit the sandals directly to a customer’s feet, Powell does take orders over the phone, molding the sandals based on the information he is given. He explains that people can make tracings of their own feet and send them in if they wish to have their sandals fitted from a distance.
To make his sandals, which typically cost between $200 and $400, Powell uses the highest quality leather from all over the world—England, France, Italy, the U.S., and elsewhere. He also has a taste for unusual materials. “I like using all of these exotic skins, like these real alligators I get from Louisiana,” he says. These high-caliber materials make for durable luxury pieces that customers can wear for 30 years or longer.
Powell produces about 300 pairs of sandals a year, mainly in July and August. In slower months, he focuses on other projects like hand-stitching his gorgeous, one-of-a-kind leather bags. He uses ostrich skin, elk skin, and even deerskin stenciled to look like leopard.
As Powell says, “You just can’t get this kind of thing anywhere.” The artist also dabbles in sculpture, having displayed his works in gallery shows on the Cape and Long Island. He has created a few experimental shoes with outlandish heels and some sample furniture designs, too. In his studio sits a life-size lounge chair in a modern, bendy style, which he created.
While Powell pursues excellence in his work, the artisan stays true to the “work to live, not live to work” mentality. “I’ve got people wanting me all the time to open a factory and hire people, but I’m not doing it,” he says. He loves his simple artist’s life on the Cape: “When the tide’s right, I’ll take my boat out, I’ll go fishing in the morning, and I’ll bring my boat to work . . . I’m happy doing this. And you’ve got to be happy.”
Victor Powell is a man who follows his passions, and his leather creations attest to a life lived authentically, well off the outside world’s beaten path.
Lindsay Oliver is an editorial intern at Cape Cod Life Publications.
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