Photographs by Bob Rozycki
There’s an air of thoughtfulness about Brian Toohey.
Set to meet the designer for a chat about his work, WAG is touched that instead of having to search out his booth in the SoNo MarketPlace on a recent afternoon, Toohey is waiting at the entrance.
He offers a quick tour of the emerging European-style market – a primarily weekend destination about a mile from the heart of South Norwalk where artists, artisans, merchants and food purveyors have been attracting an audience since it opened late last year.
He offers a coffee, grabs extra chairs to settle into his space and makes sure the surroundings are warm enough, too.
While it’s the gracious way most would love to be treated, we know it’s not always the case these days.
And that attention to detail seems quite genuine, an approach that is more than reflected in Toohey’s collection of made-in-America fine leather belts for men and women.
Toohey, a south Yonkers native whose business is based in Port Chester, has been showcasing his luxe designs in the SoNo market the past few months.
“I came here to do the Christmas-holiday thing, and I said ‘I’ll stay and see how it works,’” he says.
Those early days proved valuable, a learning tool that continues through today.
“It became for me like a laboratory where I was able to see, with discussions with the customers, what they love, what they want, their level of appreciation and understanding,” he says. “It was inspiring.”
Our visit finds him just returned from a showcase at the Palm Beach Fine Craft Show in West Palm Beach, Fla. The show, a Crafts America sister event to the Westchester Fine Craft Show, was a roaring success.
“In my booth, it was a feeding frenzy,” he says.
As with the local edition, which has found Toohey exhibiting in White Plains, the juried event draws many a customer with a discerning eye.
And Toohey is used to the routine when a potential customer spots his belts.
“The first reaction is they stop,” he says. “They just stand there, and they look at it, and they say ‘Wow.’ Then I put it on them. I walk them over to the mirror, and it’s done.”
Toohey has the right amount of confidence in his art, one backed by a hands-on history in so many aspects of the fashion and beauty industries.
“I really started designing, I hate to say it, but it was at Woodstock,” he says with a laugh.
By the mid-1980s, he was styling hair at the Roger Thompson Salon at Barneys New York, working closely with the fashion industry and meeting so many in the fashion business.
While at Barneys, he says, “It was there that I introduced a belt collection.”
Toohey’s ensuing years would include design work with Bill Blass, having designs carried in stores such as Bergdorf Goodman and designing handbags for both private labels and under the Toohey Dodge label.
“I bring a very special sense of shape and balance, so the impact is true,” he says of his work. “It catches your attention.”
And it caught industry attention as well.
In 1993, Toohey was presented with Accessories Magazine’s “Trendsetter Award.”
Three years later he was branching out into jewelry.
“Again it was all about shape, balance.”
The past five years have found Toohey returning to concentrate on one design aspect.
“Right now, I’m really focusing on the belt collection,” he says, though he is selling pieces from his inventory of jewelry and is working on new handbags. Both segments will be more integrated later this year.
In addition to the SoNo MarketPlace, Toohey’s belts are featured at La Malle in New Canaan.
The belts, with designs for both men and women, offer a timeless look.
“Any customer can wear this at any age,” he says as he holds up one design, a look both classic on a mature client but more cutting-edge on someone younger.
“I do have a bit of an equestrian feel, but I do have a bit of an industrial feel,” he says of his collection.
“I create shapes that are true. They’re not generic. Everything I do is carefully designed.”
And that design process never ends.
“For me, it becomes internal,” he says. “I’m waking up in the morning and the shape will appear.”
Toohey has the ability to watch and nurture his creations from sketch through to finished product. He says with the work all being done in America, it’s a rewarding process on many levels.
“This creates work for people in this country. Period.”
His leather is brought in from Italy, and his belts, for both men and women, feature straps handcrafted with top-grade Italian calf leather, both inside and out. Designs often incorporate a larger number of holes to allow the belts to be worn cinched at the waist or at the hip.
Toohey has a proprietary plating process, which finishes each buckle in rhodium. That prevents tarnishing and also does not require polishing.
Those quality elements certainly play into his success, but it’s the design that takes it all to another level.
“I have a real background in finely executed style and shape,” Toohey says.
Look no further than his belts for proof.
For more on Brian Toohey, visit briantooheydesigns.com. For more on the SoNo MarketPlace, visit sonomarketplace.com.