A Leather Soul
The desire for the finest quality runs throughout the DNA of Whitehouse Cox as the Walsall leather firm continues to produce beautiful items that will truly stand the test of time
Article and Photography by Andy Barnham
When did you last replace your leather wallet? How much did you pay and how is it bearing up? Did you paid in the region of £100 and five years later is it starting to look a bit shabby? So if I were to suggest to you to check out Whitehouse Cox and spend £200 or more, the chances are you’d say who and how much?
Whitehouse Cox is based outside Walsall, an industrial town in the West Midlands which became famous for its leather trade, which explains the nickname of the Walsall Football Club, The Saddlers. Established in 1875 by Mr Cox, a saddler from Stirling with investment from Walsall local Mr Whitehouse, Whitehouse Cox has been hand making leather goods for over almost 150 years and has made for such brands as J Crew, Hackett, and Ralph Lauren. Having produced under their own label for the last 15 years, the company has been focusing on export until now (they’re big in Japan) and today is looking to re-establish themselves in the UK.
Having moved from the centre of Walsall and relocated three miles north east 16 years ago joint owners Lucy Duffing and Stephen Cox, grandson of the founder from Stirling, lament the leather industry isn’t seen as attractively as it used to and that industry in Walsall, as well as the town itself literally, has sunk. Built on limestone which was mined to supply 18th Century blast furnaces, the mines under the town began to fail and collapse in 1987 and though many have been stabilised with concrete as no records or maps exist of the mines, the issue of subsidence is still a risk.
Despite the move, the majority of the work force remained with the company, with Whitehouse Cox only losing those who resided on the far side of Walsall, preferring not to endure a multiple bus- ride commute lasting 90 minutes each way. As a result of this loyalty, the company can boast of having staff members with 50 years’ experience – the longest serving of whom has served for 51 years and has refused to retire, though has decided to stop working Fridays. Today Whitehouse Cox employs 84 staff and are looking to increase numbers by an additional 16 and have full orders books up until next April. To help fill this gap, Whitehouse Cox run an apprentice scheme in batches of four to six trainees, who practice on rejected leather, taking approximately six months before their skill levels are high enough to produce a sellable item.
So what’s the ethos at Whitehouse Cox? “Quality, consistency of quality and then reasonable price,” states Stephen. Having developed relationships with small, UK specialist tanners, Whitehouse Cox works with artisan leather ensuring all their leather is vegetable tanned, which unlike chrome tanning, creates little pollution in the process and is biodegradable. One such tannery is J&FJ Baker in Colyton. Bought by the Baker family in 1862, it is believed the tannery dates back to the Roman era and is the only oak bark tannery in production where dried bark from oak trees is ground and goes into the tanning solution, the process taking a year to complete.
Stephen admits working with Whitehouse Cox can be a challenge; not only is leather inspected on arrival, every delivery will have sample parts cut to check if it is appropriate for their items to ensure the appearance and performance of the leather on completion is the same as it is when it enters the factory. This is no mean feat when the average items consists of 27 pieces which undergo a variety of processes. In an industry where normal practice states if you cut into a delivery you buy, not until all tests are complete on the samples will a delivery be accepted as sometimes faults appear during the production process. As such, Whitehouse Cox has rejected £35,000 worth of leather this year, though Stephen is keen to stress the supplier- manufacturer relationship is symbiotic and he works hard to ensure it is mutually positive and productive; he recently accepted an order rejected by a luxury brand. Having asked the tannery to replicate a 200 year old tanning process, it was declined on the basis of it being “too rustic.” Needless to say Whitehouse Cox snapped up such a historical leather for their own purposes.
The desire for the best possible quality runs throughout the DNA of Whitehouse Cox; every process on an item’s work order is signed by the employee responsible. Everyone is accountable and, Stephen believes, this helps promote pride and ownership in the work. The result are items that have heart, soul and provenance which are clever and beautiful. For example the leather belts take 16 minutes to stretch and hand platt. Machine made belts in comparison don’t stretch the leather, which lead to them being made longer and thinner when used by the end client ie you or me.
When making for other brands items would regularly be marked up to as much as 600 per cent. Needless to say Whitehouse Cox have not followed this equation, but admit it’s a challenge to sell a wallet online with a starting price of £200. While they sell 30 – 40 items a week in Japan online, breaking into their own domestic market is taking time. People want to touch and feel the quality before committing to a purchase.
So if you’re not convinced by a handmade item consisting of leather from the top five per cent of the world’s leather, try this. When used daily, the leather is burnished (ie polished through rubbing) which means the leather improves with age and use and Whitehouse Cox are confident their items will last nine to ten years of daily use. If this isn’t enough, Whitehouse Cox offer a free refurbishment service, they recently had a wallet sent back to them 15 years after purchase with the owner requesting the original panel requiring replacing be sent back. The panel in question had a wine glass ring stain from being used as a place mat, when the owner set down his glass as he proposed to his wife; hence every time he used his wallet and saw the stain he thought of her and that evening. The refurbishment process often takes time as new panels often have to be aged to match the old item, time that could be spent making three or four new wallets.
When looking, holding and smelling a leather item from Whitehouse Cox, it is no surprise that Stephen’s definition of luxury is; “An appreciation of a beautiful item that will enhance your life and offer pleasure” and he compares Whitehouse Cox to a 2* Michelin restaurant. So next time you purchase a wallet have a think, do you want to use the equivalent of a greasy spoon or fine dining daily for the next decade?