Thin (king girl’s) Lizzy

Not quite “Live and Dangerous”, yet. But here’s a sneak snapshot as we unpack it fresh from the workbenches of Florence.

Lizzy is a new take on our larger Margot bag, with the added option of an extra long strap to wear it across the body. It also has a zip fastening, which on a small bag is a must for any thinking-girl-about-town.

By the way, not named after any celebrity, but after my old neighbour/friend in Bath, the very smart Lizzy Morgan.

Lovely Lily and the Leap of Faith

Sometimes a new customer will contact me with concern over how to look after vegetable tanned leather. The most common question is: I’ve got a scratch on the leather.. what should do?!

Well, surface scratches are very easy to rub away on vegetable tanned leather. Technically, all it takes is gently massaging the displaced oil back into the scratched area with your thumb. A quick rub with a soft cloth (a hand in a thick wool sock will do) for larger areas or, if the leather has got a little dry, a good polish with a water-based cleanser …

but the thing about vegetable tanned leather is largely to use it and let it develop it’s own character. This takes a little hurdle of faith, the time between a bag being “box fresh” and becoming part of who you are. Give it that time and, before you know it,  the bag will start to get a very personal patina.  After a couple of months, and some of those loving polishes, and it will start to have its very own ‘glow’.

(You know sometimes you see someone with an old leather item that you can tell they have used for years, maybe decades -it may even once have been their dad’s –  and yet it looks fantastic. You know you can’t buy that personality… that’s vegetable tanned leather.)

The owner of this Overnight Cabin Bag is one such customer, asking within a week how to keep his bag mark-free. As you can see, a couple of months later and he, or rather his beautiful daughter, is really taking the leap of faith and “loving and living” this bag!

(thank you, Simon, for the very special photo… but keep an eye open… I can see that bag disappearing into her wardrobe before you know it!)

Financial Times loves bags that team-work

Two of our designs have been featured in the Financial Times in an article about women’s bags that ‘work, rest and play’. They were looking for bags that work in tandem to deliver function, flexibility and a certain fabulousness.

The FT chose our Amelia (packed with pockets and lots of room while remaining elegant and sleek) and our Clem Clutch, for carrying your essentials on hand in the office, out at lunch, or at the check in desk.

As you can see from my well-used bags below, the Clutch is designed to fit perfectly in the Amelia’s central pocket, while leaving loads of space for a laptop, a pair of heels, and your other daily essentials. (I find it a particularly useful combination when traveling).

For a limited period, we’re offering £100 off when you buy the two together…. select 2 bags in the colours you want, then the £100 will be deducted on the checkout page.

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Visiting the Top Brass in Florence

dsc00093.jpgI have just got back from a trip to Italy, where I visited the family business that hand-makes our solid brass hardware. Here’s a few shots of the experts at work; forming, welding, and polishing the brass into shape. We have some really beautiful new hardware coming through on new designs over the next few weeks, and like our other hardware, it’s all made here in Florence.

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What is “vegetable” tanning, exactly?

tan-tote.jpgI was recently asked while introducing a novice to the huge Lineapelle leather show, how, out of so many tanneries, do I choose which leathers are the best?

Here’s how I tried to explain the difference between vegetable-tanned and other (namely chrome, synthetic and corrected) leathers.

Much like our British bracing cups of tea, the term leather ‘tanning’ comes from an ancient process of steeping animal skins in a brew of leaves, bark, nuts or other vegetable-based extracts… which release tannins.

Using ‘recipes’ tried and tested over centuries, and with the ‘brew’ carefully made stronger and stronger through the process, the tannins penetrate to the very structure of the fibres in the skin, permanently altering their chemical structure to create leather.
It is an incredibly involved and precise skill to get it right that can’t be rushed (it takes over four weeks to vegetable tan a hide), and there are many other processes that are performed before and after to bring us the material we know as leather.

But, in essence, it is this chemistry between vegetable extract and flesh that creates vegetable tanned leather. It is still made today by some specialist tanneries, mostly around the Florence area of Tuscany, and wherever possible I like to use it for my designs because

  • It has the most amazing look, touch and smell.
  • It is 100% natural.
  • It gives the leather a rich depth of colour.
  • Each hide has its unique character enhanced, that is otherwise eliminated with other methods.
  • And, unlike chrome-tanned leathers, it ages beautifully.

A hand-stitch in time… getting Autumn’s collection into work

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Me hand-stitching with two needles, linen thread and veg-tanned leather…

… and not forgetting G, helping me out here with a men’s attache design…

img_2029.jpgI’ve just had another ‘fix’ at Val and Neil’s leather workshops up the road in Tetbury.

I’ve been working on some bag designs to go into my SS08 collection and, with the factory so busy making the new Autumn collection, I’m finding it more timely to hand-make these samples myself.

And so incredibly rewarding…
Val and Neil were very kind about my stitching, which is apparently much improved since I first took up the needles (you use two simultaneously) a couple of years ago. They’ll make a master-craftswoman of me yet.

And I’ve got muscles in my hands I never knew I had… you didn’t think those popping veins were anything to do with age, did you?

Next week I’m off to Seville and Florence to review what’s in work there and make final changes.

I love this time of year!

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Where to get a good tan

cimg1144.jpgYears ago, when I was the designer at Mulberry, I remember showing some important customers around the factory in Somerset. One of them was fascinated by the fact that the leather wasn’t supplied on an endless roll, like fabric would be. Of course, she quickly realised the impossibility of this but, with the fashion industry all about fast and seamless (no pun intended) production, I can see how she was thinking in this way…

I recently took an MD from the fashion world (for a company I’m doing some consulting for) to a leather trade fair in Milan. He was stunned by how many tanneries were showing, the scale of the leather goods industry, the vast selection available. And bowled over with how to choose one from another (and this was a tiny fair compared to the main one!)

So with such a specialist material, the huge selection and endless suppliers where do you start when choosing a leather?

After 18 years I know quite a lot, and I like to think I know what’s good. I certainly know what I like and why I like it.
But the tanneries themselves are the real experts. For me, the skill of turning a by-product of the meat industry into a beautiful leather is akin to turning water into wine.
It is, when done well, a kind of miracle.

And just like wine, a good leather is not just about the type and colour of the raw ingredients, but also the water, the climate, the people, the preferred taste of the region. Those little ways of doing things that make something individual.

So, the first secret is knowing the ‘good’ tanneries. What’s good for you may not be good for someone else, of course. But you need to choose your tannery to supply the look and feel, the signature, you are after. And then developing a trust that what you are buying is really going to age well and, if you are after a ‘vintage quality’, get better with time.

A lot of countries have a tanning history but Italy, for me, still has the best selection, the most creative craftsmen, and a genuine love for making something special still intact.

I always like to get a trip in to the tanneries near Florence when I can… not the prettiest Tuscan experience, admittedly. But there is something wonderful about the making of a beautiful leather out of these ancient processes…

And what’s lovely is you can see and feel, and even smell, this history in the character of the finished bag. It’s part of it, wherever it travels.

A heaven made in Marrakesh

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A while ago I mentioned a visitor who I later found out was an artist living in Hawaii. We keep in touch every once in a while, and she updates me on the building of their dream home amongst acres of steamy tropical forest.

Well, I’ve recently had another lovely visitor on the diary.

Maryam dropped by and left some very nice comments, and (you know me) I had to take a look at her site.
And would you believe it? Maryam is also building her dream home. This time in acres of olive groves, just outside Marrakesh.
It all looks amazing. I’m not surprised she has been nominated for a best blogger award either, and asked by The Guardian to write an article on the Best of Marrakesh in an upcoming guide. Her blog is a fascinating and fun read. Even better, she is also building a guest house to rent…just look at the plans!

By the by, instead of asking Vogue and GQ and other lovely Conde Nast publications for some nice write ups, I wonder if I should instead be targeting builder’s supplies magazines – The Tropical Tiler’s Telegraph, and Marrakesh Masons Monthly – instead? I have a sneaky feeling that is what is really piled up on your bedside tables, dear readers?

January Blues and a Busman’s Holiday

The upside of starting your own business is the freedom to do things your way. Every day is an adventure in possibility. There’s always an opportunity to follow or an improvement to be made or a new design to try out.
The downside is that you never find time to book a holiday and you rarely see your other half. (Unless, of course, you’re in it together).

Just as well, then, that G had booked us both onto a leather course sometime back in September. Of course, he knew I couldn’t resist. (quite canny, really).
As a result, we’ve just come back from a superb break. Although not quite the same as a week drinking gluvine in the Alps (sorry, G), it was at just the right time of year, when you’re feeling a bit jaded and worn down.

workshop.jpgI absolutely love the courses that Val Michael and Neil McGregor hold in their workshop in Tetbury.
Val and Michael are the most inspiring leather craftspeople I’ve met in my 18 years in the leather industry.

As well as their courses, they have a healthy business making hand-stitched designs of their own, as well as commissions for rock-stars and royalty, restoring antiques, and providing knowledge and expertise to museums and shows. Modest to their roots, they don’t mention any of this on their website.

Their workshop is bliss. Not a machine -or computer, for that matter- in sight. Everything is hand-stitched and crafted. Peace. Calm. And lashings of tea and cake just when you need it.
As well as an education for the novice it is also a reminder for the experienced designer what leather, and honest, no-fuss quality, is all about. I came away inspired and full of renewed love for what I do (oh, and G, of course!)

I quite often get emailed from people wanting to know how to become a handbag designer, what’s the best fashion degree etc. My advice would be to get onto one of Val and Michael’s courses before you do anything else. You will learn more about leather, how things are made, and the endless possibilities that come not just from creative thought, but from the marriage of that with working with your hands. And for any die-hard designer like myself, it’s a wonderful tonic to start the new year. Plop,plop, fizz!

Every bag has a silver lining…

snapshot-2007-01-07-07-55-21.jpgOn Friday I had a customer ring in overjoyed with his Overnight Cabin Bag. Yes, he liked the style, and loved the leather, but here’s why he took the time to call:

He wanted to tell me that he’d driven from Bonn to London and on getting out at the other end, tired and in a hurry, threw the debris from the passenger seat into his bag. This included a styrofoam coffee cup, that he thought was empty.
When he came to unpack the bag the next day, he was horrified to see the cup on its side, dribbling coffee into his bag. Carefully removing his other possessions first, he saw that coffee was sitting in bubbles on the lining. With a bit of kitchen roll he dabbed it up. Absolutely no stains.

He just had to ring to tell me as he thought it would be good to put in the diary. (How nice is that?)

I have the lining made in Italy, by a family-run business based between Milan and Lake Como. Lovely people, and a superb product. The Herringbown lining is a jacquard weave of 50% cotton for a natural, tactile handle, and 50% polyester for strength, durability and a certain amount of stain resistance. The bit you don’t see is the water-resistant layer that has been applied to the back of the lining. Yes, it costs more, but it’s nice to know it’s worth that extra effort.