Tough as Leather

For nearly fifty years, Nedim Kurban has been crafting leather in Istanbul's Kadikoy neighborhood

By / February 2016

“This sound is music to me,” says Nedim Kurban. He punches a pedal with his foot and the needler on his sewing machine begins to pound at a piece of black leather. In three hours Kurban and his son, Fatih, can craft a pile of limp black folds into a smart, tailored leather jacket fit for a motorcycler or a fashionable Istanbulite.

Roy Deri (King Leather), Kurban’s small leather-working atelier, peeks out from the basement of a four-story concrete apartment building in Istanbul’s Kadikoy neighborhood, a five-minute walk from the Bosporus, the strait that separates Europe and Asia. The place is sandwiched between a shoe repair shop and a secondhand furniture showroom. En route to Bahariye Avenue, the main pedestrian thoroughfare on the the city’s Asian side, an Istanbulite in a hurry could easily pass by it without noticing.

Inside, cigarette smoke hovers over racks and racks of tanned leather jackets. The sewing machine, a 35-year old Pfaff model from Germany, sits in the back of the shop under a dangling fluorescent light. Kurban’s leather comes from Konya, Elazig, and Erzurum. The sheep in these inner Anotalia provinces grow thick wool. As a result, their skin stays supple as they mature.

Kurban came to Istanbul in 1969. He was thirteen years old. He was short and nervous. He had only just finished elementary school in Gumushane in northeast Turkey, but it was time to leave his stone and mud home on the small family farm to help earn money for his family. He lived beneath the stairs in a cold concrete apartment building. His uncle set him up running tea deliveries to offices and shops in an office building. Six months on, his boss forever changed his life by convincing a nearby leather shop owner to take him on as an apprentice.

Photograph by Daniel Smith 2Fatih works with his father at Roy Deri in Istanbul. Photograph by Daniel Smith

“I kept running tea on Saturdays for years to pay back my former boss who did that favor for me,” Kurban says. But Kurban says his work ethic brought scorn from the other more experienced workers in the first shop. They were all related and didn’t want an outsider showing them up to the boss. They sent Kurban on pointless errands and made him clean everything in the shop again and again.

When I asked him if they ever slapped him around, his bushy eyebrows shot up. He opened his rough hand and waved it in a circle, the Turkish gesture for “You have no idea!”

The experienced workers refused to teach him, so he eventually learned the ancient craft by observing each process as he spent time in the noisy workshop. Over the years he mastered stitching a seam, sewing in a zipper, pressing a snap, and arranging the leather so the imperfections disappear within the underarm and the smooth skin shows on the front. Nearly a half century later, Kurban owns his own leather shop and has raised 28 of his own apprentices, including his son.

Kurban says it takes fifteen years for a craftsman to fully master leatherwork. In triple that time, he has honed his skills to the point that Mashad Leather, a respected Iranian company, has recently hired him to mentor their own craftsmen. Mashad found Kurban by simply asking around Istanbul leather shops for the most experienced leather master in the city. They then flew him to their factory in Iran last year to train their artisans in both design and craftsmanship.

Kurban was honored, but the experience wasn’t quite as he expected. He says he’d like to see Iran and the region become more stable before he commits to spending significant time there. But Istanbul doesn’t offer the perfect environment for his trade either. Kurban laments that most of the shops in Istanbul merely imitate European designs. “No one creates anymore,” he explains. “They just copy.”

Kurban works with Fatih, his 30 year-old son and last apprentice. His most successful pupil went to design and cut leather in a workshop outside of Paris. Most of his other apprentices have given up leather working, unable to earn enough doing it on their own to survive.

Kurban blames materialism. He says people have traded the value of handmade wearable art for brand recognition or just cheap clothes. “People want something for nothing,” he says. Big clothing companies split a rough cut of leather into three sheets and add a backing of tweed cotton. This trick triples yield, multiplies profit, and creates an inferior product in the process. Now much of Kurban’s income comes from repairing these inferior leather products.

The leather scene in Istanbul used to be comprised of several shops like Kurban’s—one master and a few apprentices producing and selling original products from a small shop. Beyoğlu and Beyazit, near the Grand Bazaar, were and still are leather centers. Now there are large stores and even some chains known as the best place for leather. Small shops might sell the real thing or might try to pass off a Chinese import.

“What people don’t understand,” Kurban says, putting another piece of leather into position on his sewing machine, “is that the peace of the world begins in the workshops of the hard-working.”

Roy Deri
Bahariye Süleymanpaşa Cad.
Hürriyet Apt. No 25 D 2
Kadıköy, Istanbul, Turkey


Ryan Wolf, a contributor to EthnoTraveler, lives and writes in Istanbul.