HARLEM — As a teen, Darrick Leak designed T-shirts that were so popular at his Brooklyn high school that he planned a career in fashion.
But after college, Leak, 28, decided he wanted work that would guarantee a steady paycheck, so he started working in criminal justice. He spent his free time designing accessories for himself, like leather pocket squares. When a friend saw one, he asked Leak to make him a bow tie.
"I told him that I had never made a bow tie," said Leak. "He said, 'Darrick, you can do anything you put your mind to. If you make me a bow tie, I'll wear it at my wedding.'"
Leak bought a bow tie and took it apart to see how it was made. After some trial and error, he made leather bow ties for his friend and his groomsmen, drawing compliments. Leak knew he was on to something and decided to launch a company, Dleak Leather Bow-Ties.
"I thought my friends were just being nice when they said how much they liked the ties. But everywhere I wore one people asked 'How can I get that tie?' That's when I felt I needed to do this for life," he said.
He crafts the ties in his design studio — one half of his home kitchen, which is littered with needles and pieces of leather.
Leak's hand-made leather bow ties come in different colors, textures and sizes. One tie is half black leather, half black suede. Another, in camouflage, was made from the cut-off leather sleeves of one of Leak's jackets. A white leather tie has three lines of gold studs in the middle.
Spending about an hour on each tie, Leak makes the accessories in limited editions of five, while a few of the most popular styles have unlimited runs. There are even smaller bow ties for kids in his collection. The men's ties run from $75 to $100 a piece, while kids' ties cost $30 to $50.
"Bow ties will never go out of style," said Leak. "But I want the individual wearing the bow tie to feel like I made something special for them. The type of guy that wears my ties wants something different. Because it's custom, it's not something you will see everyone else wearing."
Heather Jones, 26, owner of Trunk Show Designer Consignment on 113th Street off of Frederick Douglass Boulevard, carries Leak's bow ties and says customers love them for themselves or as gifts.
The first time Leak approached her about carrying his line, Jones says she thought the ties were "genius" and put them in her store's front window.
"Darrick's design aesthetic is classic but hip. He takes classic men's motifs but makes them appeal to men today, because they have that contemporary twist," she said. "And with all the different styles of his bow ties, he has something for everyone."
Leak said his designs are often inspired by how he's feeling that day. A pattern may set off an idea. And then it's about little details to make the tie stand out, like the rhinestone studs on the canary yellow tie.
"I love details. It's not what you wear, but the small things that make your outfit pop," said Leak.
One detail Leak didn't overlook was the difficulty of knotting a bow tie.
For those who don't know how to tie a bow tie, Leak has solved that problem by fashioning an adjustable strap that makes the bow tie easy to put on. At first, Leak's bow ties were held on by a piece of leather that made them uncomfortable.
Searching for a better way, Leak thought of women's bra straps and how they are adjustable. He disassembled a bra strap to figure how it worked and created a new adjustable fastener for his bow ties.
Things are looking up for Leak and his company. The designer recently held his first New York Fashion Week show, "The heART of the Bow Tie" with the Hummingbird HIV and Aids Foundation.
"It was a good feeling," Leak said of having his first New York Fashion Week show champion an important cause. "You have a goal and a dream that you aren't sure will happen and then it does."
Over the next couple of years, Leak plans to leave his criminal justice job to focus on fashion full-time. He sees himself launching a full fashion line, specializing in stylish menswear like suits, shoes and tuxedos.
He still wonders about the detour he took. Looking back at his high school yearbook recently, Leak had forgotten the career his classmates chose for him.
It said 'fashion designer' in big black letters," said Leak. "I realized the bow ties are just me getting my foot in the door."