Baby shoes that get the lead out
Local mom’s hand-crafted mocs are a healthy hit
When Katerina Buscemi took her daughter Olivia for her one-year check-up, the tests revealed a high amount of lead in her blood. Thankfully, it turned out to be a false positive—but by then Buscemi was already reeling and had begun examining her environment to find the culprit.
“One thing I discovered was how abundant lead is in our everyday lives, even in a brass door handle or the snaps on your clothes,” she explains over lattes at Spot Coffee. “Then, I started thinking about her shoes because I had just bought her a pair of moccasins—if lead was in [some] dye and printer ink, was it in the dye of the leather? The pivotal moment for me was starting to analyze different aspects of her environment. You can kind of drive yourself crazy doing that.”
Through her research, Buscemi learned that traditional leather is often tanned using chromium salts, a process that transforms raw animal hide into the finished leather used to make shoes, clothing, and furniture. While there is some discrepancy over whether the chromium salts used for tanning are toxic, the devastating consequences of mainstream tanning for the environment and those living near tanneries are well documented. Lead, mercury, and other harmful compounds have also been found in some leather products.
Unable to find an alternative for her kids, Buscemi decided to create her own shoes using vegetable-tanned leather, which employs tannins derived from trees or plants and natural dyes. After a lengthy search process, she finally found veg-tanned leather in Europe and placed her order.
“My first pairs were horrible,” she admits. “Definitely, if you want to make a handmade product, you shouldn’t get discouraged with your first few efforts.” She perfected her patterns over several months and received such an encouraging response that in June of last year she opened her online-based business: Lex&Liv Footwear, named for her children, six-year-old Alex and Olivia, who will turn three this summer.
Today, Buscemi sells more than twenty styles of handmade leather moccasins for children in sizes from newborn to three years old and in a variety of colors. One style—available in forest green, burgundy, red, and navy—features a hand-perforated argyle pattern, while another, named “Brown Bear, Brown Bear,” includes a double row of fringe. Other adorable styles feature a hand-painted animal print pattern, a subtle, hand-stamped star motif, and a snowflake design.
“I feel like some of my better designs have happened accidentally, just playing around with the leather,” says Buscemi, who trained as an architect at Cornell University and drafts her shoe patterns similar to the way an architect would draw up building plans. “I get inspired by adult shoes—like loafers—and by translating an adult shoe into a baby shoe that is functional and practical,” she says. “There are a lot of people making moccasins, so with every style I do I try to do something I haven’t seen.”
And, so far, people have liked what they’ve seen from Lex&Liv. In her first year in business, Buscemi was selected as a finalist in Martha Stewart’s American Made competition, and her moccasins were featured in several design and parenting blogs and even in Vogue. Over the holidays, Moda Operandi—a popular online retailer for straight-off-the-runway fashion—featured Lex&Liv in its gift guide, which Buscemi says opened many doors for her budding brand.
“I’ve shipped all over the world actually,” she says. “Africa might be the only continent I haven’t shipped to. With Instagram and things being so accessible to everyone, it’s fun to send them far and wide.”
Buscemi is now expanding her product line to include gift boxes that will feature her shoes, as well as other eco-friendly or organic products from U.S.-based companies or her own imagination. “They’ll each have different themes, so one is going to be a bath-time box, with a terrycloth hooded towel, wash cloths, a bath toy, and some bunny slippers I’m making,” she says.
All of this comes out her North Chili home, where Buscemi works in her morning room alongside her two inspirations, Alex and Olivia. “I used to sew at night, and I just found I didn’t like that—I’d rather just have them in there with me,” she says. “It’s kind of cool actually. My daughter says, ‘So, what shoes are you making today, Mommy?’ She knows that shoes are going to another little child. Or sometimes we’ll whip something up for her. She likes pink, so that usually involves pink in some way.”
For more on Lex&Liv Footwear, visit lexandliv.com.
Matthew Biddle is a freelance writer based in Buffalo. Tweet him at @matthew_biddle.