Blending Tradition with Innovation
Determined to keep the finest leather artisanship alive, John O’Sullivan set up Gladstone London
Article by Steven Edwards of Edwards London
Tucked away between Piccadilly and Curzon Street is Shepherd Market, a charming little square lined with restaurants, pubs and boutiques. It is here that you will find Gladstone London, a small but prolific leather goods company rooted in tradition but all the time evolving to fulfil the needs, both stylishly and practically, of today’s modern man. It’s here I meet the two Johns: the company’s founder and driving force John O’Sullivan and John Morris, a master craftsman now retired.
John Morris’ life in the leather trade is a fascinating one, harking back to a bygone era which sadly no longer exists, “My first job was after I left school, for a company called L.S. Meyer who at the time had the Royal Warrant. One day a week I would attend Cordwainers College where I learnt clicking, cutting and pattern making.” John spent five years with the company before joining the Beaton Brothers, working from the basement of a Victorian townhouse. “It was great. You could work from the basement and nobody knew you were there, and all the time you were making things by hand.” It was only as John got married, grew older and started to consider the future that he decided to make the move to leather goods manufacturer Tanner Krolle, where he spent close to 20 years of his career, during which time he saw the takeover by Chanel, and later Dunhill.
So how does this connect to the Gladstone of today? It dates back to 1984 when John O’Sullivan was working for Harrods. It was here that he discovered his passion for artistry and craftsmanship, as well as developing a keen eye for detail, “When you worked for Harrods you really saw the very best that was on offer. The buyers then, as I’m sure they are now, were at the top of their game and would fly all over the world to bring back what was demanded of them by the customers.”
Before long John found himself working for the exclusive Harrods Private Service Suite, a member’s club to which access was by invitation only (one of the conditions of membership being a minimum annual spend of £1,000,000). Its distinguished clientele included Royalty from across the globe, as well as the likes of Michael Jackson and Madonna. With an ever growing (and enviable) client list, it was here that John managed the department’s private commissions, working closely with Tanner Krolle to fulfil the orders, “We made a set of travel cases in ostrich and crocodile for the Sultan of Brunei, along with a case to carry a Van Gough.”
Inevitably John made a permanent move to Tanner Krolle. It was here he began to recognise a problem within the industry which was highlighted upon a chance encounter with an elderly couple who came to have some luggage repaired, “The bags weren’t made by Tanner Krolle, but I was intrigued, as one of the bags had a buttoned-in lining I’d not seen before. A retired craftsman and friend of mine told me that the buttoned lining meant it was a linen laundry bag. In the Victorian age, one would unbutton the lining and the laundry and inner bag would go to be washed, then everything would come back clean.” This insight from the past fascinated John leading him to question why so many beautiful bags had been lost over time. His conclusion was summed up in one word – retirement. “Obviously people need to retire, I understand that. But what comes with retirement is the loss of narrative and the loss of skills. In today’s modern market, when companies are chasing margins, they are having to constantly review their lines. When they recognise that a particular range is not selling they will retire it, and everything associated with that range becomes retired hardware. Lost forever.”
It was after that chance encounter, and upon discovering an old book filled with designs and templates from brands that had long vanished, that John saw the potential to revive traditional bag designs, created with the skill and craftsmanship of the past, but relevant for today’s modern man. With this vision in mind, and after negotiating with a number of makers with whom he had strong relationships but who at the time were producing thousands of pieces for luxury brands, he managed to secure the production of handmade pieces made in small quantities. “I didn’t want to position myself in the luxury goods market,” John recalls. “My intention was to service the domestic client who wanted to invest in handmade quality. I wanted a product that was iconic in style but with a modern aesthetic. I had the makers, I had the exclusivity to some of the best materials. But I realised I didn’t have a name!”
It was only after John had received so many enquiries from clients regarding the model known as the Gladstone that he began to look further into the its history. It had been made by multiple companies to memorialise William Ewart Gladstone, Prime Minister to Queen Victoria, who at the age of 88 died while still serving in office – he never retired. And thus, with the theme of non-retirement such an important element of what John was trying to achieve, Gladstone London was born.
The company is built on the quality craftsmanship of the past while always maintaining relevance to today’s market. “We scoured the old design books to find designs we loved,” John says, “then we asked how designs were made, what did they do 50 years ago to achieve this quality?” What John produced is a range of products that demonstrate the subtle elements of the design; that actually show the competency and skill of the craftsman, rather than simply producing a “label” that the customer buys into.
So, what is Gladstone’s point of difference compared to other companies? John Morris puts it simply, “The quality. There are a number of brands who, in the past, have not been known for producing leather goods and they don’t really understand the process. They have the range of products but they don’t have the skills.” John also laments the loss of apprenticeships and the investment in people, sadly a familiar aspect not exclusive to the leather goods industry.
Not something for which Gladstone London can be accused of. Now in its third year the company is thriving while always sticking to the principals upon which it was founded. In the next month John will be launching a re-imagining of the original Gladstone bag, managing every aspect of its production, a production limited to only 10 pieces. You won’t find something that is mass-produced, or that can be found in any old luxury retail establishment. For John this is a highly personal project, pushing his suppliers to get him not only the very best materials, but also something that has a story to it. Investing in a Gladstone bag means an investment in people, in a story, and quite possibly an investment in a piece of history that has been slowly fading over time but, with people like John in the industry, can be revived. Gladstone London is proof, if ever you needed it, that quality and craftsmanship will never go out of fashion.
In November 2017, Gladstone was awarded Emerging Brand of the Year at the Luxury Briefing Awards.
Enquiries: Gladstone London, 11 Shepherd Market, Mayfair, London W1J 7PG / 0207 4930664 / https://gladstonelondon.com/