As a country blessed with a long and illustrious history of outstanding craftsmanship, from the tweed weavers of the Isle of Harris to the shoemakers of Northampton and the potters of Staffordshire, British makers are riding the wave of this new consumer interest in expertly handcrafted goods. Subject to potentially decades of use by their owner, leather accessories have become a particularly popular part of the craft movement, which is centred on creating quality that lasts. “The UK has a long-established culture of excellence in craftsmanship, and craft is the backbone of the luxury sector,” explains Mark Tallowin, the driving force behind his eponymous leather accessories brand, which handcrafts handbags, wallets and portfolios using the finest leathers. “True luxury is about time spent – time spent considering, creating and appreciating.”
Following an unconventional route into business (previously working as a tree surgeon and an artist), Tallowin found himself increasingly captivated by leather and its remarkable properties (“It’s an incredible material – strong and flexible, resilient and refined”), and driven by a burgeoning obsession, he invested countless hours in teaching himself to make handbags, before establishing his brand in 2012. This single-minded dedication continues to be demonstrated in the brand today, with Tallowin devoting his undivided attention to every stage of the creation of his products – from the design and development through to laboriously hand-stitching each piece of leather. “All my work is hand-stitched from start to finish, with no sewing machines – every stitch is pulled by hand,” he explains. “Perhaps there is something of the Luddite in my mentality, but it’s very meditative to work in this way. It’s the part of the process that I look forward to the most. When you’ve been working on a project for a week or two and you know that one slip of the awl could ruin everything, it tends to keep your mind crisp.”
Working as an exclusively one-man operation may mean a Tallowin bag takes longer to create than its mass-produced equivalents, but the result is a considered, expertly crafted product with a personal connection with its creator. “For me, it’s about having absolute responsibility for the finished piece as I hand it over to the customer,” explains Tallowin. “I take great pleasure in working on a product from start to finish, from selecting the hide to boxing up the completed item. It’s about dedication to the total process.”
Keeping operations small-scale also affords Tallowin personal communication with his clients, who can track the progress of their product through an online portal. “In a time when people are increasingly divorced from the source of their belongings, it creates great value for a customer to be able to see their work in development and to write directly to the designer with any questions,” says Tallowin. This personal connection continues in the product itself, in the form of a 24-carat gold-plated disc which is stamped with a unique sequence number and attached to the bag as it nears completion (a duplicate of which is presented to the recipient in a commission box when they place an order). The same number is also inked, along with the client’s name, on to a small slip of parchment, which is then dropped into the lining of the bag with the final few stitches. Thus, each made-to-order handbag is established as an heirloom – a deeply personal creation which, as a result of Tallowin’s attentive craftsmanship, should serve the owner for a lifetime.
BUILT TO LAST
Crafting a product that will retain its quality for decades is a passion shared by Gillian Tusting, who heads up the historic leather goods brand Tusting alongside husband Alistair and his brother William – the fifth generation of the family to lead the business. “We want our customers to continue to be surprised by their bag after they’ve received it,” says Gillian. This philosophy stems from the remarkable qualities of the leather itself which, under Tusting’s craftsmanship, continues to improve with age. Having started life as a leather tannery, the brand benefits from a vast legacy of expertise about its material, a topic the family expounds upon with enthusiasm. “The strongest parts of the leather are on the outside of the animal (the grain side) and the inside (or flesh side),” explains Gillian. “If a slice of leather doesn’t have the grain side or the flesh side attached, you won’t have any inherent strength in the material.” Tusting exclusively uses the grain side, treating it with very little surface pigment or plasticised coating, in order to retain the original character of the leather and its durability. Keeping the leather as natural as possible allows the material not only to endure damage well, but to thrive on it. “What happens in the life of a Tusting bag tends to enhance it,” says Gillian. “It acquires character – it will start to shine with use, developing a beautiful patina on the surface.”
This durability represents a crucial point of difference between Tusting and other brands that disguise a poorer standard leather through imitation. “The exposed top side (where the grain side has been removed) will be pressed and painted with coatings and dyes before being printed with something that looks like a grain,” explains Gillian. “By the time a customer looks at it, they wouldn’t know that the original grain wasn’t there any more. The products look immaculate until you scratch them or the plastic coating begins to crack.” By contrast, the organic qualities of Tusting leather mean the brand’s products remain in use for decades, often passed from one family member to the next. “Customers frequently order a new bag because they’ve passed the old one on to their son for them to take to university,” says Gillian. “The son doesn’t want the new one – he wants the bag that’s done a few circuits of the world, because it has the cool factor.”
Like Tallowin, Tusting represents an antidote to fast fashion – everything is made by hand in the company’s Buckinghamshire factory, with each bag tested by Gillian herself to ensure it is functional as well as stylish.“It’s not until you actually use a bag that you discover that some aspects could be improved,” she explains. Remaining in the UK also means the brand can offer full transparency about the provenance and manufacture of each of its products. “There is so much that purports to be British that is not actually made in Britain,” says Gillian. “Thankfully, I think customers are becoming more knowledgeable about the difference between a British brand and a British manufacturer.”
A commitment to manufacturing in the UK is also a pillar of Globe-Trotter – a Hertfordshire-based luggage company dating back to 1897. Senior designer Charlotte Seddon has the weighty responsibility of keeping the brand modern, while also incorporating its heritage. “Globe-Trotter’s production processes have changed little since its Victorian beginnings – we use many of the same methods and materials more than a century on,” she explains. Central to the brand’s designs is the vulcanised fibreboard that forms the core of each product, cut to size on a guillotine and heated into the correct shape. On to this, hardware is added and the distinctive moulded leather corners that have become a visual signature of the brand, combining to form a lightweight, durable product with a vintage look. “They epitomise the glamour of travel,” says Seddon.
Like Tusting, Globe-Trotter lays claim to a long history, and Seddon relishes delving back into the brand’s extensive archive to inspire new design ideas. “I came across one case and was amazed and excited to see a beautiful montage of travel stickers completely covering the inside lid,” says Seddon. “We traced the case back to the British Airways Museum, and then to the original owner – a British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) air stewardess called Miss Hilary Farish – who had flown with the airline in the 1960s.” This story became the starting point for the brand’s SS17 collection, which featured a pattern lining that replicated the montage of stickers that Seddon discovered on the original case. “I’m still in touch with Hilary and she attends all our launches and tells me new stories about her adventures,” says Seddon.
Customers can choose between off-the-shelf, made-to-order products (which offer adaptations for lining, metal fittings and colours), bespoke (where everything down to the stitch colour can be specified) and design and build, where the end product is a complete one-off. “We’ve had some unusual requests, but by and large anything is possible,” says Seddon. At Globe-Trotter’s flagship store in Mayfair, a ‘collaboration wall’ showcases the creative possibilities available, from an Alexander McQueen case secured with silver skull padlocks to a James Bond 007 Skyfall edition, featuring a handle made from a rifle viewfinder. Ultimately, Seddon identifies that British-made luxury and its attentive approach to manufacturing means each customer leaves with something to treasure.“People aren’t interested in buying mass-produced items any more,” she concludes. “They want something special and unique.”