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creative:impact - A leather artisan’s journey

Arbor Trading Post co-owner Isabel Wang.
Doug Coombe
Arbor Trading Post co-owner Isabel Wang.

Creative industries in Washtenaw County add hundreds of millions of dollars to the local economy. In the weeks and months to come, host Deb Polich, the President and CEO of Creative Washtenaw, explores the myriad of contributors that make up the creative sector in Washtenaw County.

Creative Washtenaw CEO Deb Polich at the WEMU studio.
John Bommarito
/
89.1 WEMU
Creative Washtenaw CEO Deb Polich at the WEMU studio.

ABOUT ISABEL WANG:

Arbor Trading Post co-owner Isabel Wang.
Karen Tuttle
Arbor Trading Post co-owner Isabel Wang.

Isabel Wang is a self-taught leather designer and maker, and founder of Arbor Trading Post. Born and raised in Jiangsu, China, she gained early exposure to traditional arts, including Chinese calligraphy and silk embroidery. She moved to the United States in 2000 to pursue higher education, earning a Ph.D. in Biochemistry from Stony Brook University. While working in biomedical research, Isabel cultivated her passion for leatherwork as a hobby before transitioning to it full-time in 2019.

Isabel employs traditional leathercrafting techniques and modern design to create leather items that are elegant, functional, and durable. She exclusively uses premium, environmentally sustainable leather that reflects the highest standards of quality and sustainability. She believes her creations tell the unique story of each person who carries them. Her dedication extends to repairing, restoring, and upcycling leather pieces for clients who value the timeless beauty of handcrafted goods.

Based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Arbor Trading Post serves customers across the Metro Detroit area and online. Having made Ann Arbor her home since 2014, Isabel finds joy in contributing to the local creative scene and sharing her expertise in leathercraft. When not working, she enjoys spending time with her husband, two children and their cat.

RESOURCES:

Arbor Trading Post

Arbor Trading Post on Facebook

Arbor Trading Post on Threads

Arbor Trading Post on Instagram

Arbor Trading Post Contact Info

TRANSCRIPTION:

Deb Polich: This is 89 one WEMU, and you have tuned into creative:impact. well I'm doing it again. Matt. Sorry. Making me do it twice. This is 89 one WEMU, and you have tuned into creative:impact, our weekly showcase, introducing us to the artists and creatives who make our community one of Michigan's most vibrant cultural destinations. I'm Deb Polich, president and CEO of Creative Washtenaw and your host. I'm really excited to welcome our guest, Isabel Wang, to the studio to hear her story. Isabel is a leather designer and maker. She founded the Ann Arbor Trading Post. Isabel, welcome to the show!

Isabel Wang: Thank you, Deb!

Deb Polich: So, your journey to leather making is a fascinating one. Could you take us on a couple hops of the journey that you've taken?

Isabel Wang: Yeah. I was born and raised in Jiangsu, China, the eastern part of China. Early in my life, I was exposed to traditional arts and crafts in that area, specifically in the traditional Chinese calligraphy and silk embroidery. Since then, I've been working on different types of crafting until year of 2000. I came to the United States for higher education. Leather was something I picked up gradually in that process, and I did it as a hobby while I was working as a medical researcher at the university until 2018. And 2019, I decided to take the big step and transition to leather making as full-time, just because I wanted to focus on improving my skills and to spend more time on designing and producing.

Deb Polich: I want to emphasize that you went from a Ph.D. in biochemistry and working in that field and decided to move on to become an artisan. What did people think when you made that decision?

Isabel Wang: A lot of people were surprised, but people around me were actually happy for that decision just because they know how much I enjoyed doing it. And also, it didn't happen overnight.

Deb Polich: Sure.

Isabel Wang: Because I've been preparing for it. I've been talking to people around me. And my husband was also very enthusiastic with the leather designing and the leather making. He makes leather too. He was actually involved in the early stage of my business.

Messenger bag from Arbor Trading Post.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Messenger bag from Arbor Trading Post.

Deb Polich: Well, that exposure to the traditional arts, obviously, stayed with you and fed your soul to some extent. May I ask you? Is studying the traditional arts part of the tradition of your community in China, or is it something that you just happen to be exposed to?

Isabel Wang: It was in the community. In my hometown, in that area, Jiangsu, we were known for a long history of producing silk--silkworms and freshwater pearls and silk embroidery.

Deb Polich: Okay. So, it was something that--

Isabel Wang: Yeah. And there were a lot of small businesses started by entrepreneurs even back then.

Deb Polich: So, leather making, of course, is an ancient tradition dating well, you know, B.C, way before B.C., or whatever. But today's consumers are familiar with the goods--you know, the belts, the purses, the jackets and those--but many of us have no idea about the art form or the creation of those were. I was interested to read on your bio that you use premium, environmentally sustainable leather. I was interested to read that you use premium environmental sustainable leather that reflects the high standards of quality and sustainability. From where do you source your leather and what makes it environmentally sustainable?

Bifold wallet from Arbor Trading Post.
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Bifold wallet from Arbor Trading Post.

Isabel Wang: Yes. So, all these leathers we use has a feature called full grain leather, which means that the full thickness of the leather has been retained. That makes it high quality and very durable.

Deb Polich: Okay.

Isabel Wang: And it's the most natural form of the leather. We source from the most renowned tanneries. One of them is Wickett-Craig in Pennsylvania. They have a history of over 100 years, and they process leather using traditional techniques such as dyes and--not dyes, sorry--the tree bark extracts and the plant extracts to process the leather. That way, they avoid harsh chemicals. That is better for human health and better for the environment.

Deb Polich: I see.

Isabel Wang: All these processes can take months to complete. And it was always carried out by skillful artisans.

Deb Polich: Sure, sure, sure. And do you buy a whole hide or do you choose by color and pieces? How does it work?

Isabel Wang: At current stage, we buy hide because we already scale up as business, so we have the demand. At the beginning, you can also buy just the panels with different colors from the suppliers. They have their authorized suppliers where you can buy. It even has a small leather maker. Another supplier in Utah, they actually provide leather from Tuscany, Italy.

Deb Polich: Oh, nice!

Isabel Wang: Also other tanneries with a long history.

Deb Polich: 89 one WEMU's creative:impact continues with leather designer and maker Isabel Wang. So, Isabel, is there a distinction between a crafted leather good and and one that's mass produced and manufactured? In other words, as a purchaser, can I tell the difference or not?

Tote bag from Arbor Trading Post.
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Tote bag from Arbor Trading Post.

Isabel Wang: You can. I believe that usually people know what they are looking for, so they would look for a specific feature and the type of the leather goods they want--under the price range, I want to say. And so many times, my customers came to me, and they would say that I've been looking for leather goods made of high quality leather. I couldn't find it very easily. And I like handcrafted items. Those are people who appreciate handcrafted leather goods using traditional skills. They can tell.

Deb Polich: And do you design and make everything yourself, or do you have people that help you?

Isabel Wang: Right now, it's mostly myself. As I mentioned, that early stage, my husband makes and designs, too.

Deb Polich: Okay.

Isabel Wang: He has an MBA. He works in the finance area, so he now is the supporter. I keep his designs, and I make most of it.

Dopp bag from Arbor Trading Post.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Dopp bag from Arbor Trading Post.

Deb Polich: And you also restore leather. So, I'm going to put you on the spot. I'm actually, in your honor, wearing my favorite leather jacket. It's a pink, I guess, smooth leather.

Isabel Wang: Nice color!

Deb Polich: Thank you! Thank you! But it's old. And it's worn. I mean, the cuffs are worn. And I also snapped my jacket in my seat belt and tore it. Could I bring this to you and have you restore it?

Isabel Wang: Yes! I have done that for many people--mostly briefcases, bags, purses. I haven't done jackets, but we do that whenever, customers bring them to me.

Deb Polich: I might just give it to you on the way out the door. So, you have a website. But do you also have a store. How do we find you?

Isabel Wang: On my website, I have a list of events where we are. We actually are at multiple arts and markets and local farmers markets in Ann Arbor and other towns--Chelsea, Dexter, Canton. And I also list the big crafts shows and the art fairs. The next big event is the Ann Arbor Art Fair!

Deb Polich: Okay, okay! That's great! So, that's good to know where you are. But that's also a tough life to have to go to shows all the time and pack all that stuff up. And so, what does a week in your life look like?

Isabel Wang: The weekdays: I design and I think about did the ideas and I make. And on weekends, we go to the different markets. In the next few years, I hope that will have a physical store in this area.

Deb Polich: And on the store, I should mention, because I had a good chance to look at the website, there are goods that you sell--I mean, you sell purses or belts or others, but you also take custom orders.

Isabel Wang: Yes, yes. Regularly. Customers come to me with an idea or, more often, an item they have used for decades, and they loved. It's beyond repair. I usually offer to repair or fix--

Deb Polich: You said, "beyond repair."

Red belts from Arbor Trading Post.
Arbor Trading Post
/
arbortradingpost.com
Red belts from Arbor Trading Post.

Isabel Wang: There is a stage when you say something can be beyond repair. Yes.

Deb Polich: Well, I suppose part of the other sustainability of something that's leather is that they do last so long.

Isabel Wang: High quality leather lasts very long.

Deb Polich: And how good to know that there's somebody here right in our local neighborhood that we can bring things to for those of us that may own a piece or two. So, that's awesome!

Isabel Wang: Thank you.

Deb Polich: So, it's been 5 or 6 years since you left the world of biochemistry. How has it been? And do you look back? Are you happy you made that move?

Isabel Wang: I'm very happy that I took that step and do the leather work, because this is a new chapter, and it's very exciting. And I still stay connected with my friends and colleagues in the area--in the research area. I want to say that it was a very nice transition.

As she promised during the interview, Deb Polich hands her favorite jacket to Isabel Wang for repairs.
Mat Hopson
/
89.1 WEMU
As she promised during the interview, Deb Polich hands her favorite jacket to Isabel Wang for repairs.

Deb Polich: Well, I will tell you that now we know that there's someone like you that we can work with if you want to and that you are a source for leather and leather goods and repair. And I want to thank you for being on the show!

Isabel Wang: Thank you for having me, Deb!

Deb Polich: That's Isabel Wang. Find out more about her and the Arbor Trading post at wemu.org. You've been listening to creative:impact. I'm Deb Polich, president and CEO of Creative Washtenaw and your host. Mat Hopson is our producer. Please join us every Tuesday to meet the people who make Washtenaw creative. This is 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti. Public radio from Eastern Michigan University.

If you'd like to a guest on creative:impact, email Deb Polich at deb.polich@creativewashtenaw.org.

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Polich hosts the weekly segment creative:impact, which features creative people, jobs and businesses in the greater Ann Arbor area.
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