The gym is packed with people lifting weights, running on treadmills and pedaling bikes. Apart from the crowd stands one man, easily identifiable by his 1990s retro fluorescent clothes and shock of blonde, almost white hair. Damp with perspiration, he finishes his final lift of the day and lets the barbell clatter to the floor, then rises to stretch his back and expose the sturdy but appropriately stylish lifting belt around his waist. He is Artem Biziaev, owner and maker of Northlift Belts, living his dream.
A lifelong love of fashion, coupled with a burgeoning passion for weightlifting, led Artem to the unique position he now finds himself in. Northlift Belts occupies an 830 square foot workshop located on the west side of Edmonton in Alberta, Canada, arriving there after a years-long journey that started in his father’s basement.
“I made my first weightlifting belt in 2013, and bought my main sewing machine in 2014,” Artem says. With college taking up much of his time in the day, he could only operate his new business on the side. But during the summer lulls he could devote his full attention to Northlift, and after graduating in 2020 he embraced his new profession as a full time leatherworker.
Throughout that period Artem moved his shop no fewer than eight times, sometimes working in places as small as 80 square feet. But every move was somehow a step forward.
Before ever touching a leather tool, Artem’s passion was lifting. He was introduced to the sport by a friend just a few years before and was quickly taken by it, receiving certification as a trainer in 2012 and shortly thereafter pursuing a degree in Kinesiology. As his gym career progressed, he soon found himself looking for a proper lifting belt. These belts are specialized to “aid in more efficient force transfer through the torso.” In layman’s terms, a good belt can potentially allow a person to lift a heavier weight than they could otherwise. Finding little variety on the market, he took what he could get.
“I really hated it,” he says, simply. “So I hopped on my dad’s sewing machine and stitched four layers of upholstery leather together to make my first weightlifting belt. I didn’t even have a buckle, I used wall hangers as a clasping system.” It worked, even if it left a lot of room for improvement. Artem knew he could do better, so he sought the advice of experts. As it happened, some were conveniently close.
“My dad was a leatherworker and had his own shop in 1980s Russia. When we moved to Canada he switched trades, but he purchased a small industrial machine again around 2010.” This would be the same machine that Artem would use to make his first belts. In addition to his father, Artem could also call upon the experience of his stepmother, a seamstress and fashion designer with over 30 years in the trade. Together they acted as consultants, helping him refine his designs and improve the quality of his workmanship. Through this iterative process, Artem learned the core of his new trade.
“The vast majority of my skill set was self taught, through a lot of failures and product testing by myself and some athletic partners. One of my biggest sources of learning in terms of small goods was Valerie Michael’s Leatherworking Handbook. It was published when I was born, and the techniques and skills in there are still so applicable to the modern craft.”
By now an experienced powerlifter, he soon found himself coaching several other prominent competitive lifters who proved to be an eager audience for his goods. “I’m a pretty social guy, and with my coaching and socializing my reputation kept growing in the city and in Alberta, so a lot of my sales were driven by my name and people just knowing about what I do.” His transition to a full-time operation allowed him to begin wholesaling his products and reinvest that income into his equipment and shop. Gains, if you will.
It is easy to see what makes Artem’s belts desirable. Beyond the general air of strength and durability evident in their construction, all of his products carry a striking visual flair that seems to spring from Artem’s soul. “I’ve always felt expressive, so Northlift is really just a mouthpiece for my artistic spirit. Everything gets a sprinkle of me in there,” he says.
Skimming his portfolio is like taking a step back in time and experiencing the distinctive aesthetics of the ‘80s and ‘90s all over again. Fresh doesn’t even begin to describe it.
Pink, teal and white feature prominently in much of his inventory, including the unforgettable ‘Jazz’ pattern that has enjoyed a new wave of popular nostalgia. One of his best-received pieces is a white fanny pack (of course) with blue and fuchsia streaks on the outside. ‘80s hair metal gets a frequent nod as well, including one belt that reads, in meticulous hand painted red helter-skelter letters, “I DONT CARE WHAT YOU USED TO LIFT.” Despite the dichotomy of the two styles, they feel at home together in his shop.
Artem isn’t exactly sure how his aesthetic taste ended up here, but he suspects it may have to do with working in a thrift store in the early 2000s. “I got a lot of really colorful, 90’s neon clothes and linear designed boomboxes, bikes, and more that I had cheap access to.” For a non-conformist without a lot of money to spend, it was perfect. “I have a massive VHS and tape collection that I started when I worked there and add to every so often. My vehicles are always quite old, so I have access to a tape deck to sing my throat out to Rick Astley, Firehouse, Boston, George Michael, Corey Hart, Journey, Van Halen, etc. Except my current ‘92 Toyota. The trim level is so low it only has a radio.”
Having such bold aesthetics opens his repertoire to a lot more than just belts and straps. Artem enjoys making bags of all kinds and small goods such as wallets, journal covers and other personal accessories, every one a blank canvas. “I love that I do so many different things. It keeps me interested and motivated to improve my skills.” Switching between the categories keeps him inspired and motivated.
Beyond serving as a creative outlet for him alone, he treats his business as a platform to promote Canadian labor and creativity in general. “I have seen a lot of companies come and go over just the last ten years, almost all of them importing products that exist at the intersection of ‘cheapest’ and ‘good enough’,” he laments. Like almost every other aspect of his life, Artem and Northlift Belts stand apart from the crowd.
When asked how he came to select that name for his company, he is quick to answer. “I love Canada,” he says. “And I love to lift.”