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Meet the Diamond Duchess
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On the afternoon of August 1, Leah Miller was home recovering from foot surgery when her phone started buzzing. The messages weren't typical "get well soon" wishes but they certainly made her feel a lot better; Ty Law and Robert Kraft were busting a move – yet again – and this time they were wearing flashy Air Force 1s customized by Leah.
"I literally don't remember anything about it [the surgery] because I was so excited about the shoes," she recalled, explaining that friend and client Bianca Wilfork was sending her videos from the ceremony. "I didn't care about the pain. I didn't care about not being able to walk. I only cared about seeing the shoes."
Ty had specially commissioned the now-famous sneakers for his Hall of Fame induction ceremony, asking Leah to make almost-matching pairs for him and Mr. Kraft in what would be her first foray into men's footwear. Each shoe was embellished with red, white and blue Swarovski crystals – 25,000 of them for Ty's pair – and the Patriots Flying Elvis logo beneath the laces. It was an "intense" project even for Leah, who has spent 15 years making custom clothing and accessories with an NFL twist.
Known as the Diamond Duchess, Leah started embellishing sports gear back in the late 1990s, when her husband Jim was a quarterback for the Chicago Bears. At the time, there wasn't much out there for fashion-forward female football fans. Read
So Leah, an art school graduate, set out to create statement pieces that allowed her to look good and support her husband at the same time.
Soon enough, word spread about Leah's creations and her hobby began to turn into a real business venture – somewhat to the dismay of Jim, who fell victim to his wife's sparkly experiments.
"At the beginning he'd complain," she revealed. "I was testing a lot of products, so I'd make something and then see how it would wash. There would be crystals throughout our washing machine and dryer – the most sparkly ones you would ever see. I remember he had red Swarovskis on his underwear and the guys were pointing them out in the locker room."
Despite the minor domestic mishaps, Leah's company, Bella Artistry, got off the ground, and Jim's 2004 season with the Patriots proved to be pivotal for the fledgling business. It was then that Jen Andruzzi asked Leah for a custom jersey – the very first one she made – and soon after, when the team reached the Super Bowl, lots of other wives and girlfriends followed suit. By the time the next Super Bowl rolled around, word had reached the west coast and Leah was charged with customizing more than 30 jerseys for Seahawks significant others.
Although she now has nine employees, back then Leah was a one-woman show, doing everything from designing the pieces and purchasing fabric to hand-setting crystals and sewing on embellishments.
"We've come a long way," she said. "The ones we do now are so much more time consuming. Now we're altering them, we're changing necklines, we're changing sleeves, we're adding skirts, we're adding leather. One piece could now take 40 hours, where back then I was just adding some crystals and sewing some lace at the hem."
Although women of the NFL – including Bianca Wilfork and Linda Holliday – continue to be some of Leah's most loyal clients, her fame has started to spread to other leagues and in fact, beyond the sports world as well. She is now planning to move Bella Artistry's studio out of her house in Michigan and into a nearby space with a storefront. The idea, she insisted, came from Jim, who has become one of her biggest supporters.
Reflecting on the journey from her first simple T-shirts to her first show-stopping Air Force 1s and now the upcoming store, she can hardly believe how far she's come and credits her faith for getting her there.
"I look back on it now and I can see all the steps where God was grooming me and moving me in that direction, but back then I had no idea," she said, sincerely.
"I always wanted to do something in art but I never thought it would be Swarovski and I never thought it would be sports related. Never, never in my wildest dreams would I think that this thing that I absolutely love would be my livelihood and that it would be where it is today. Never in my wildest dreams."