Headwaters

total madness

Milen hand-tooling an eagle design on a custom motorcycle seat.

BY KIANNA GARDNER

I t’s a sunny morning in September and the Krastevs are in high gear, working among the organized chaos that is their garage-turned-studio in Whitefish. There’s an assortment of animal hides, sewing materials, machines, design pages, and projects. The smell of the space is inviting, reminiscent of a western saddle, freshly broken in.

Jenny Krasteva is sketching a garment at her drawing desk and Milen Krastev is pacing between a sewing machine and his work table, curating a patchwork shearling coat from several warm-toned skins. Naturally, they are clad in their own creations. Jenny has on a sleek black jacket and boots hand-dyed, molded and stitched from vegetable-tanned leather. Milen is sporting a button-front vest and ashen pair of leather pants. Each piece is leather, and each piece is inimitable.

“Leather doesn’t repeat itself. That’s the beauty of it,” Milen said, running a crocodile skin through his hands to demonstrate the unique scaling and pattern. “Sometimes someone will send me a picture and say ‘I want something exactly like that,’ and I’ll say, ‘But who wants to wear the exact same thing as someone else?’”

This concept, that clothing and boots should be as unique as the people who wear them, is the vision behind Milen and Jenny’s latest venture: Mad Leather. The name is a spinoff of Mad Tailor, the moniker Milen has worked under since the early 2000s. The name also nods to their refreshingly unfiltered personalities, the results of decades spent immersed in the lavish, yet gritty and demanding, fashion industry. They’re somehow both approachable and tangibly feisty, or as Jenny said, “super chill, until we’re not.” And their passion is evident in their creations.

“There are plenty of people who know how to put things together and make this or that, but they have no feelings toward it,” Milen said. “You should be able to look at a final product and say, ‘Wow, that is really something special.’ That’s the difference.”

This concept, that clothing and boots should be as unique as the people who wear them, is the vision behind Milen and Jenny’s latest venture: Mad Leather.

 

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Milen and Jenny Krastev

Although Mad Leather is in its infancy, the two have experienced enough throughout their careers to fill several lifetimes. Jenny, fresh out of design school, once created a wedding gown for actress Kristen Stewart to wear in “Twilight: Breaking Dawn.” In 2018, she created the spring/summer collection for Hugo Boss, one of several she helped produce while vice president of design at the company.

Milen has created sultry leather lingerie for Kourtney Kardashian and “Game of Thrones”-inspired pieces for Jason Momoa. Recently, he started crafting a knee-length jacket for Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner, otherwise known as Sting.

But those big-name projects didn’t just fall out of the sky. Both Milen and Jenny come from humble roots and have put in significant legwork to achieve their professional success.

Growing up in Varna, Bulgaria, teenage Milen hand-sewed his own budget-friendly snowboard gear, complete with a forged Burton logo. He turned his talents into what he now acknowledges (with a sense of humor and nostalgia) as a counterfeit fashion business—and an incredibly lucrative one—outfitting his neighborhood peers in high-fashion lookalikes. If a friend wanted a Champion coat but couldn’t afford one, Milen would stitch one up in a matter of hours with material sourced from the thrift store. Same with a replica of a Subwear jacket another friend saw on a Backstreet Boys music video: there was Milen, crafting a look-alike from a paused VHS tape image.

Jenny’s path to the fashion industry began with flipping through Vogue as a teenager in Valier, Montana, planning to someday design the outfits on the pages.

“I knew I wanted to do something different every day and I wanted to exercise my creativity.” Jenny explained. “I figured fashion could let me do that.”

She enrolled in the notoriously rigorous School of Fashion at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, where Milen had turned his under-the-table skills into a legitimate career and was teaching courses in cutting, draping, flat pattern and sewing. Although they met through the California program, their student-professor relationship didn’t evolve until their paths crossed later in New York, where Jenny relocated after graduation to launch her career in design.

Milen eventually made the move to the Big Apple as well, in small part for his career and in large part for Jenny. Over the next decade, they followed their upward trajectories, working in some of the highest echelons of fashion in the states and abroad, until they decided to step off of the fast track in 2019 and move to Whitefish with their three children.

“Our careers have taken us so far, but what we want now is to really bring something special to this community. If I’m being honest, I’ll be fine if I never see a celebrity again,” Jenny said. “We want to serve the people in this valley and build a loyal customer base of people who understand the value of this type of work.”

Plans for the immediate future involve moving Mad Leather into an actual store, ideally a quaint “Italian cobbler-style storefront,” where customers can see the process unfold and connect with the people behind the goods.

“I think people don’t realize all of the hands that go into making a piece of clothing or a pair of shoes,” Jenny said. “This process can take days and as artists, we become invested in them as well.”

Above all, they hope to use Mad Leather as an avenue for telling their community’s stories. And for the Krastevs, there is no tale too tall, or too complex, for them to convey through their crafts.

“There is a lot of work that goes into telling someone else’s story and it’s our job to make something magnificent out of it,” Milen said. “When a customer puts on something we create they should feel comfortable in it, like it was hand made just for them. They should look fucking striking.”

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