Will Sackville - 19th January 2020
Charlie, are you the lone UK survivor of traditional leather craftsmanship, or is it alive and well?
There are a few leather brands still manufacturing here in the UK but not nearly as many as in the past. Really, it’s only the top end that has survived. Most of those operating in the mass market have gone out of business.
When I did my apprenticeship, I was lucky to be taught by highly skilled craftsmen, some of whom had been in the industry over 50 years. I was awarded a bursary from the Worshipful Company of Leathersellers’ who have supported me and many young leatherworkers. Thanks to their support, leather craftsmanship is making a comeback and more young people are choosing it as a career.
Charlie in his studio in Deptford, SE London
Was there a moment when you suddenly thought, “I want to make a living doing this”?
Well, I originally wanted to be a saddler and did 2 years training, but found myself getting more and more interested in small leather goods and accessories. I made the decision to switch in 2011 and started an apprenticeship with a manufacturer in East London which specialised in attaché cases for high end brands around the world. There really couldn’t have been a better place for me to start.
Is Charles Laurie London the Rolls Royce of its market or the BMW?
Neither! I'd like my products to be considered like an E-Type Jaguar: modern, and contemporary at the time it was made, enjoyed by the original owner, but also something that can be passed on to future generations as a timeless classic of quintessentially British craftmanship.
How important is the quality of leather, stitching, lining and zips – and can customers tell the difference?
This is one of the most important things of my craft. I aim for perfection down to the last stitch and I hope people can see that in my work. When you buy a Charles Laurie London product it is an investment and due to the leather and materials I use, I truly believe that they get better with age. That’s the joy of working with high quality leather.
Strap-cutting a belt out of bridle leather
Hand-stitching an attaché case handle
How does the manufacture of one of your briefcases differ from that of a luxury brand like, say, Mont Blanc?
I can’t say for sure but it is likely that Mont Blanc products are produced on a larger scale production line with people focusing on individual parts of the job. That’s not to say it is not made well, but it's very different to how we work in my studio. My colleague Sheena and I work on each piece individually from start to finish.
Currently a lot of my commissions are made to order so the customer gets a bespoke service. The joy of this is that they can have the piece tailored to their individual requirements. They can ask for a different colour, or a particular type of lining, or a specific buckle or zip, and if they want to tweak the design during production, that’s not a problem. This result is that they get exactly what they want, and something totally unique.
What's the most unusual request you’ve had?
A few years ago, I was asked by a chef to make a small filing cabinet out of shargreen (stingray leather) to hold his recipe cards in his kitchen. I can’t imagine there are many stingray recipe boxes out there! The weirder and more wonderful the job is, the more enjoyable it is for us to design and make.
What’s been your favourite commission?
When I was an apprentice, I was given the opportunity to restore one of Winston Churchill’s cigar boxes. I used to wonder as I was working on it what stories that box could tell.
I've also done bespoke commissions for Hollywood stars and senior members of the Royal family, but they have to remain confidential!
Which countries and culture most appreciate handmade British design?
The Japanese are especially appreciative. During my apprenticeship, I went to Tokyo and saw for myself their eye for perfection and quality. It is a fascinating place and definitely somewhere I'd like to take my products in the near future. Also, I believe the British have rediscovered their innate taste for craftsmanship and quality design. 'Made in Britain' means something again, and there's a renewed passion for manufacturing .
Zips for The Weekender bag
Card cases in different colours
A personalised message in a wedding gift
What’s the most pleasurable part of your job?
The most satisfying part, and the bit I enjoy the most, is the bespoke work. I love it when a client comes to me with an idea for something they can’t find on the shelf. I’ll collaborate with them to craft a one-off piece that’s entirely unique and tailored to them. I always like to hand-deliver my bespoke work. I get a buzz when I see someone’s reaction and the joy it brings them when I hand over the finished article. That’s something you can’t beat and why I love what I do.
And the least?
I’m a hands-on creative, so the least enjoyable part of my work is general admin, invoicing etc. I try and get the bulk of my admin done first thing in the morning then for the rest of the day I’ll be at the bench working on the current project.
Charlie (photo by Alun Callander)
Where would you like Charles Laurie London to be in 10 years?
I'd like to have built up a team of highly skilled craftsmen and women, for the brand to be synonymous with quality British design and manufacture, and for our products to be selling all over the world.
I've just added another Master Crafter to the production team – Sheena's very talented and has over 20 years experience in the industry. We're working on a new collection of small leather goods which we'll be launching very soon, so we're moving in the right direction!
That’s the plan. Hopefully it will take me a few steps closer to owning an E-Type Jag!
Thank you Charlie!