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Duluth shoemaker pivots Lincoln Park studio into dual retail space

Her business grew. She hired a few employees, and soon Candace LaCosse will release rounds of ready-to-wear styles — a departure from her previous custom-only model.

Woman makes a shoe.
Candace LaCosse works on a shoe in her Lincoln Park business Wednesday. LaCosse’s shop, Hemlocks Leatherworks, has changed, too, from a studio to make and sell her leather goods to a curated space with clothing, jewelry, ceramics and more by 100 makers and artisans across the U.S.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — With her building on the market, Candace LaCosse is considering her options.

If she moves, it’d be nice to have a larger collaborative space with other working artists. “Production is a little tight,” she said.

Still, she said, “I’m hoping to stay.”

Couple examine a shoe.
Tracy and Jason O’Higgins look at a shoe in Hemlock Leatherworks, Candace LaCosse’s Lincoln Park business, on Wednesday.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

A lot has changed since the shoemaker relocated her retail and handmade leather goods operation Hemlocks Leatherworks from the former Electric Fetus to Lincoln Park.

“When I moved in, OMC was under construction, and there was Frost River, Bent Paddle and Damage. Great businesses, but people didn’t come here to shop, right?” LaCosse recalled.

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Two women shop.
Shari Johnson, left, and Robin Pierson look at clothing in Hemlock Leatherworks on Wednesday. Candace LaCosse diversified her custom leather shoemaking during the pandemic by beginning to carry goods made by others.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

That was 2016.

Today, her shop, located at 1923 W. Superior St., is among the craft district’s business boom, which houses the Duluth Folk School, DLH Clothing and Love Creamery, and recently saw the opening of Hungry Hippie Tacos, 190 Coffee & Tea and Goat Hill Market.

LaCosse’s shop has changed, too, from a studio to make and sell her leather goods to a curated space with clothing, jewelry, ceramics and more by 100 makers and artisans across the U.S.

Four women shop.
Cedar Fischer, from the left, Belle Pennings, and Mia Zaffuto shop in Hemlock Leatherworks on Wednesday.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

The tourism and heavy foot traffic in Lincoln Park has made this a successful shift for the shoemaker, who had to cancel a year’s worth of high-end craft shows and shoemaking classes during pandemic-prompted shutdowns.

“I didn’t know how I was going to make ends meet,” LaCosse recalled.

She focused on updating her website and custom orders, and soon, she pivoted her studio into a dual retail space. Her business grew. She extended shop hours and hired a few employees.

Now, her “second home” is flush with guests and an array of art and handmade wares. “I love interacting with customers and introducing new artists to the Duluth area and supporting other artist friends I’ve made," she said.

In summer 2020, LaCosse approached Cassandra Quinn about selling at the store.

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Quinn’s “ old school, analog collages ” have been among the featured items since, and having her work at Hemlocks has been a cool way to stay involved in the artistic community.

Items for sale.
Some smaller items for sale at Hemlock Leatherworks sit displayed on a mirror Wednesday.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

“During the pandemic, it was all social media, so it’s really nice to have representation at a brick-and-mortar, where people can find me alongside, or because of, other really cool artists and artisans,” Quinn said.

Through the shop, Quinn has been introduced to Minnesota-based Peter Witrak’s mobiles and Duluth's Fond of That’s earrings. And for the other artists whose works Quinn had been following online, she said, Hemlocks is the first place she has been able to see them in person.

“Just looking through the window feels like an inspiration to me,” she said of the shop.

Women in a shop.
Hemlock Leatherworks store manager Sam Levine, from the left, waits on Shari Johnson as Robin Pierson tries on a pair of shoes Wednesday.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

A pair of Quinn’s framed collages lined the wall at Hemlocks Leatherworks. A steady stream of people filtered in to pour over the bright and earthy hues throughout the space.

Hot-pink orb earrings by Belle Isle Design Co . Neon yellow candles mimicking a snake’s movements by Viisiionss . A shelf of spays, bottles and polishes with a note, “Unapologetic self care.”

A mist of incense smoke drifted up from its source near the till. LaCosse bounced her 7-month-old, Rowan, on her knee as shop manager Samantha Levine helped guests.

LaCosse’s sewing machines are in the back, and her other tools — the awls, lasting pincer and a set of in-progress pieces rest on a worktable in the front.

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Workbench.
Candace LeCosse’s workbench.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

LaCosse is a cordwainer — a shoemaker who uses raw materials. Not to be confused with a cobbler, who fixes them. She’s drawn to creating simple, classic and minimalist styles.

LaCosse used lasting pincers to stretch heathered olive fabric before hammering it in place with shoe nails.

“It’s like making a tiny sculpture,” she said. “Then, you have to make an identical one.”

This summer, LaCosse will release rounds of ready-to-wear styles — a slip-on mule, a lace-up Oxford and more. This means folks can try them and buy them upfront, which is a departure from her previous custom-only model.

This creates a more accessible price point for people who want locally handmade goods that will last, she said.

MORE BY MELINDA LAVINE
"I’m not the first trans person you know, but I'm probably the first out trans person you know," said Aleana “Ana” Kruger of the "The Transgenda" podcast.

Melinda Lavine is an award-winning, multidisciplinary journalist with 16 years professional experience. She joined the Duluth News Tribune in 2014, and today, she writes about the heartbeat of our community: the people.

Melinda grew up in central North Dakota, a first-generation American and the daughter of a military dad.

She earned bachelors degrees in English and Communications from the University of North Dakota in 2006, and started her career at the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald that summer. She helped launch the Herald's features section, as the editor, before moving north to do the same at the DNT.

Contact her: 218-723-5346, mlavine@duluthnews.com.
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