With its deeply rooted love of country clubs, traditional dressing and all things that are solidly, firmly and oh-so established and square-jawed, moneyed Main Line Philadelphia seems like an unlikely home for Waltzing Matilda, an artisanal company that produces rather rustic-looking handcrafted and often repurposed footwear, bags, accessories and jewelry that are proudly 100% made in the USA.
Yet, the tony suburb of Wayne, PA is exactly where the brand, which takes its name from the Tom Waits song that’s allegedly inspired by Waits’ visit to LA’s Skid Row and/or a very messy alcohol-fused night in Amsterdam, is based and lovingly produced.
Owner and designer Mike Balitsaris officially launched Waltzing Matilda in 2013 but says he really started it 25 years earlier in the back of his VW bus when he began making sandals for friends. The label’s men’s and women’s products have since been picked up by high-end specialty stores across the USA.
Balitsaris opened the label’s first standalone store in this past May in, of all places, Wayne. Here, he explains what makes his shop, brand and home base special:
You recently opened your brand’s first standalone store. Why did you do it and why now?
There were a few reasons for opening a store. The first was to have a studio with natural lighting close to home. I’m able to ride my bike to work, my kids can stop by after school and often do their homework. So much of my inspiration comes from stories from friends who pop in all day long. The second goal was to have a showroom to exhibit and merchandise the pieces as mini collections. It’s much easier to tell the story around the piece when you can actually see the related pieces that go together in the “capsule” collection. With the store we can control the vibe and stimulate the senses: the smell, feel, look, and the sound of us working on a piece right in the store. For me, it’s about more than just a store.
What is the shop’s overall vibe?
The store is like what I imagine a Colorado ranch to be like–filled with authentic vintage flavor. When I’m out, I’m always instantly drawn to the real vintage pieces versus the items that are new and made to look vintage. In that same manner, our place is authentic. My friend and I made one of the walls with old barn wood from Lancaster, PA. The only thing that separates the workshop from the store is a countertop that usually has a bottle of whiskey on it meant to be shared, there’s always good music playing and everyone that walks in stops, takes a deep breath and comments on how great it smells. The pieces are mixed in with vintage cases and trunks as well as tools from 1900 that we actually use to make our products.
How do find being a retailer versus being a designer?
I don’t think of myself as a designer or retailer. I am fortunate to have found an outlet that allows me to be creative and inspired and happy in my work–I’m not sure what you’d call that, but I dig it.
What are some of your key pieces and bestsellers?
Men really seem to gravitate toward the vintage leather cuff bracelet, but also the double wine carrier, portfolio sleeves and vintage belts.
Do you expect to open more stores in the future?
The potential is there. It’s all about finding the right space and people for the brand.
Who is the Waltzing Matilda’s “typical” customer?
We see him as someone who drives a beat-up pick-up truck to a black-tie wedding and gives the valet an extra $20 because he used to be the valet. He always walks around and opens the passenger door for his wife of 25 years, who has aged naturally and beautifully, and they walk into fancy ball just as confident as if it was the local bar.
What’s the fashion scene like in Wayne, PA?
Ha ha. The fashion seen in Wayne revolves around a blue golf shirt and khaki pants.
You offer custom orders at the store. Please explain what some of those might be and how long they take to execute.
We do a lot of custom pieces. Oftentimes someone will come into the store with an idea or a piece of their own material to repurpose and create. Right now I have a piece of material a friend brought in, tacked up on the wall until we come up with the right design. About once every ten days he’ll stop by and we’ll sip some whiskey and talk about design ideas. Once he decides what he wants, we can turn it around in about a week or so.
What’s the price range of your products?
There is certainly a range of prices at the store, however much of what we have is a one-of-a-kind piece. The shop is our studio and vice versa. We like to make something and get it on the wall and get reactions from customers. Helps us to make a better piece each time.
What’s next for you?
We are working on several collaborations with other brands and boutique specialty shops. I’m excited for these new ventures.
What’s the best part of having your own store?
The best part of having my own store is the freedom to express myself in the most authentic way I know how–it’s my fort.
What is your all-time favorite item that you have ever created?
Honestly, my favorite piece is always my next one. Almost all the original pieces I make start from recycling material from something vintage like a boot or ammo case or a saddle. I get much of my inspiration from the material I am using and get engrossed in the project. I try to learn as much as I can about the history around the vintage piece I am repurposing–I imagine where the guy was who put the patina on a pair of 1950s spats that I am deconstructing. I put my heart in each piece and make it as if it’s going to be my go-to bag/bracelet/sandal etc. I take what I learned from the thing I made before and build on it and try to make my favorite piece every day.