Regina Kazanjian of Taiga Goods was 3 years old when she made her first pair of shoes. She vividly recalls seeing an image on TV and then hiding in her family’s basement, tinkering away with paper for many hours before emerging proudly with a pair.
“I kind of always knew that I wanted to be creating something with my hands,” she says as she sits in her studio surrounded by bits of leather, Vibram shoe soles, sewing machines, needles, thread and warehouse lighting.
Before running her own studio and business, Kazanjian stumbled into the shoe-making world shortly after graduating from the Industrial Design program at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning (DAAP).
After a brief stint visiting her hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan, she returned to Cincinnati and worked for Smartfish, a local shoe company owned by fellow DAAP grad Alisha Budkie.
Kazanjian walked into Budkie’s store with the hopes of learning more about the craft. After a few years, she was ready to launch her own business, one that had her own ethos and story behind it.
In 2019, that officially came in the form of Taiga Goods. Her studio, which she shares with other artisans, is on the second floor of a warehouse in Cincinnati’s West End.
Her brand specializes in handcrafted shoes that are made one pair at a time. During the initial process, clients have several one-on-one fittings with her, after which she spends hours stitching the leather, gluing the soles and molding the toe box into the perfect shape. Every step is crafted with care and thoughtful attention to detail.
“(Before) I would have said, ‘I’m going to create highly sustainable, highly fashionable, really boundary-pushing stuff,’ ” Kazanjian says of her initial goals. “But then, because of who came to me and who saw value in what I was doing, I shifted (my focus) based on the people who approached me, which I think is my favorite part about the practice of design. It’s really about creating something good for somebody else.”
Even if it means she’s not maintaining her aesthetic dreams, her end goal has always been making something that is useful. Though acquainted with the concept of sustainability in fashion, she has wrestled with finding a balance between ethical footwear and affordable prices that, budgets aside, allow her to create a “good” product for clients.
The focus on customizing each pair of shoes to an individual client’s needs is what sets Taiga Goods apart. Kazanjian has been able to create quality products for those who are often overlooked in the world of high-end footwear. In particular, she holds a special place in her heart for athletes.
It was in May of 2017, while managing Smartfish, that she met Sarah Lima, who would later give Kazanjian her first taste of designing custom shoes that accommodated more specified needs. Last year, Lima, who participates in roller derby — a sport that comes with its fair share of nasty foot injuries — asked for a pair of shoes that could also be used for trail running. Though a strange and difficult request, Kazanjian took on the challenge and made a pair for her twice, until she got them just right.
“The cool thing about custom footwear for normal use is that it’s not harder to make something for ‘weird feet’ than it is for ‘normal feet’ because the measurements are going to be custom either way,” she says.
Kazanjian’s client list has since grown through word of mouth. As a result, she’s moved to trying new sustainability practices. Originally, she used only upcycled leather in her designs and experimented with vegan leathers.
“It’s really hard to guarantee the durability of (upcycled leather) because you don’t know all the details of where it came from and you don’t know what part of the hide it came from,” she says. “So, you don’t know if it’s going to stretch or how it’s going to respond to different conditions. Also, all the vegan materials I’ve worked with so far are not biodegradable, and leather is.”
Only oil-tanned and vegetable-tanned leathers are biodegradable, so Kazanjian is moving to exclusively using oil-tanned leather that’s raised in the U.S. She currently purchases it from California-based company The Hide House, which she admits isn’t perfect. (If specifically asked, she will use vegan leather.)
“It’s interesting, you can actually track this big leap in human evolution when we started using leather for footwear,” she says while waiting for glue to dry on the body of a boot she’s currently constructing.
Ideally, she’d like to source leather more locally, but says it would be “so much more money” — a cost she would have to pass on to the customer.
In terms of the next steps for Taiga Goods, Kazanjian imagines having a tier system in which customers would be able to select the level of quality based on their budget. They would still be getting custom-made shoes, but the materials would be tailored to their price range. If vegan leather, oil-tanned or locally raised leather is high on one’s list of priorities, Kazanjian could design a shoe and price it accordingly.
From her early days crafting paper shoes to her current-day leather masterpieces, Kazanjian has created a custom-focused brand that’s entirely her own.
“I am really just in the ‘doing it slowly’ mode,” she says, grinning as she sits down at her stitching machine, a desert boot in hand.
Those interested in Taiga Goods shoes can place orders/book appointments through her website, taigagoods.com. Booking deposits start at $35. Follow her work on Instagram @taiga_goods.