The Sweat Behind the Skin
An Aladdin’s cave for leather operates out of the back streets of Hoxton
Article by Rupert Watkins Photography by Andy Barnham
A small and anonymous business centre in East London may be a far cry from the gleaming streets of Mayfair and their slick inhabitants. Yet out of this small premises pours forth a veritable flood of the finest leather goods that can be seen on those gilded streets further west. There has been a leather factory in this business estate since 1997, though there are several leather and skin wholesalers that have been in the area for longer. Five years ago, Simpson London was bought out by William Asprey of William & Son and now the firm makes all of the enticing and exceedingly desirable leather accoutrements the Mount Street purveyors is famed for.
There is the strong feeling of being in “a curiosity shop not a production line”. British leather-based craftsmanship is expensive and indeed somewhat eccentric – the values and standards that drive it are so much more personal, intimate and timeless than mere mass produced goods. Perhaps only in the Italian leather factories do you find a similar level of obsession. It is a small workforce of 12, though with planned refurbishment, this will rise slightly. Given the small and tightly-knit nature of such a firm, finding the right person is not simply a case of looking to their actual skills but also how they will fit in with the rest of the team and how they react to the standards and precision required. Over the past few years the average age of the workforce has dropped, though it still ranges between 18 and 74. Retention is good.
Walking into the factory, you are hit by the aroma of leather as you walk past the storage shelves laden down with leathers and skins. The firm keeps a core spectrum of raw materials and colours – a specific bespoke requirement would be ordered in. Bridle leather, case hide, upholstery hide and carbon print leather (a geometric patterned leather) form the kernel of what the firm uses for its core, non-bespoke, ranges. Within the UK though, sourcing bridle leather is becoming ever trickier. Saddlery manufacturers buy up much and Japan is an enormous market hoovering what it can up in bulk. At some tanneries, due to these commercial pressures, the skins are not always being hung for long enough which is an added quality problem.
That said, the more obscure skins are rarely an issue. If money is no object, both Simpson London and William & Son have excellent contacts to source the unusual. Despite its wonderful qualities, little pig skin is used in the William & Son products produced in the factory due to the religious and societal issues of much of its clientele.
The firm has had a laser cutter installed for the past 18 months which has allowed a more precise utilization of the hides. However, beyond this high-tech toy, lie the workbenches and traditional tools of the leather artisan – looking today no different than 80 years ago. Chatting with the craftsmen, you can sense both the pride – and the frustrations – as they seek to produce and replicate perfection in all the tiny processes needed. Everyone found different aspects of mastering their art a struggle, one commenting she had taken time to become truly proficient at fine edging, another telling me it was, “learning the different methods” to produce differing goods. Time has slightly less meaning once inside this temple of leather, a small William & Son travel case taking almost two days to create from scratch. That said, chatting with Wilhelm, one of the younger artisans and a keen horse rider, he had still managed to make his own saddle on the side – even though after eight months it was still only 60 per cent complete.
A number of the younger workforce have come to the factory from Capel Manor College in Enfield, which offers a saddle, harness and bridal making course. At the other end of the spectrum, many of the older artisans have been absorbed as other leather-makers have sadly been forced to give up the struggle. One, Nick – an ex-Dunhill worker – is deaf and both he and the firm are supported through Deaf Umbrella who offer signing assistance for him.
Out of the 12 strong workforce, only two specialise in bespoke commissions though here the sky is the limit. Chatting to Tony, the senior craftsman and bespoke specialist, his most remarkable creation was a bespoke case with hidden compartments and individually created locks which took him a month. Despite this remarkable skill level available, several of our courteous guides commented the trickiest problem is being able to get the customer to precisely visualise what they want – as with so much in the bespoke world, almost unlimited options allied to uncertainty in the customer’s head as to their specifications, can make the process quite fraught. As such, even in the modern luxury market, those incredible craft skills are perhaps somewhat under-played.
Riddle’s visit coincided with the start of a period of substantial refurbishment. A new factory layout is planned to take advantage of newly acquired space and new machines will aid in reshaping and refining production processes. Ever more customers are choosing to visit the factory to see their items being created. As with many traditional artisan firms, what strikes you most is the spirit of innovation and open-mindedness that goes hand in hand with a desire to keep alive the very best of traditional methodology and skills. The future is bright for Simpson London; with William & Son a careful owner and custodian of its traditions and artistry, what shines through is, as one of the younger craftsmen Charlie put it is, “the joy of creating something remarkable from start to finish”.