April 27, 2016
Last October, as part of its Geometry collection, Alice Made This launched a series of leather belts and bracelets centred on a precision milled buckle from its Aerospace factory. Inspired by architecture and the graphic line, each buckle is precisely machined using a process that is normally used to make aeroplane parts – creating a clean and refined focal point for the belts and bracelets.
Whereas the foundation of Alice Made This lies with honest metals and raw materials, today the attention turns to the leather used for the collection. Alice Made This speaks to Minh Phan, CEO of Mowbray Leather Goods, to discuss the leather, the history of the factory and the struggles facing the British leather industry.
We are proud to make all our products in Britain and so, when we decided to expand our collection to include leather belts and bracelets, it was pivotal to work with a leather manufacturer that shares our core values. Mowbray Leather Goods are one of the few remaining leather factories that can genuinely claim to be ‘Made in England’. They have a respect for process and history, while also embracing new design opportunities and experimenting with more contemporary projects. I wonder whether the history of the factory and obstacles within the industry have led to such a future-facing outlook.
“Mowbray Leather Goods was started in 2011 by a group of floor managers from a reputable belts and leather goods factory in Northampton,” Minh tells me. “Through a series of bad investments the Northampton factory was forced to close, but our management team recognised that the loss of jobs would mean that decades of experience in making leather goods would go to waste. We put together a small fund to buy whatever we could afford from the liquidators and started up in smaller premises in Melton Mowbray. We worked tirelessly to get the factory to full working standards within one week and passed a supplier audit from a major international brand the following week.”
“Our goal from the start,” Minh continues, “has been to secure and create jobs for the craft of making leather goods in Britain. The British leather industry, and British manufacturing as a whole, has become a niche on the global scale. We have maintained a reputation for high quality and craftsmanship, heritage and nostalgia, however this perception is being eroded by a combination of increasing quality from European and Eastern manufacturers and certain English makers trying to compete on price with sub-par products. There are leather belts on the market that are branded as ‘Made in England’, but have only been assembled here - imported buckles are attached to imported straps. Although legal, this practice is corrosive to the public perception of genuine ‘Made in England’ goods. Mowbray has made a conscious decision not to use imported straps or half finished products in our production – making us makers, not assemblers, and ensuring that the skills of our workforce do no wither away.”
By saving the skills and techniques from the Northampton factory, and dedicating itself to British Manufacturing, Mowbray Leather Goods is able to pride itself on an exceptional workforce and portfolio of products. Before we start designing any Alice Made This collection, Alice will go and visit the factory to learn about their processes and the materials they work with. Mowbray Leather Goods was no exception. Alice spent time with Minh learning about the different leathers, the tanning process and which options would be best for us to design with. I ask Minh about the start to end process that is used for our Alice Made This belts and bracelets.
“One of our core strengths is the ability to make a variety of design styles, from raw, rough and casual to refined formal dress looks,” Minh begins. “Our Technical Director, Paul, spends a lot of his time experimenting with different techniques, drawing on traditional methods like burnishing edges with a wood slicker but also researching the latest equipment and approaches used in leather craft and other industries. Since everything we make in production starts from Paul developing a prototype, we are able to capture the customer’s required look and feel.”
“We really love the clean, minimalist look of Alice Made This’ products,” Minh continues. “The project is a good example of the factory’s adaptability. We’ve not had a customer request to produce a minimalist belt before. In some ways it’s very difficult to take elements away whilst maintaining function. Most belt customers that we have made for have designed products with a lot of construction. We have put in extra work to give the Alice Made This pieces a clean, finished look.”
“As with all the products we make though, we start with the leather. We source and use the best vegetable-tanned leathers from Italy - unfortunately there are no tanneries left in the UK that can make this type of leather anymore. For some products we are able to use bridle leathers from Britain, however this is normally very stiff and limited in terms of the products we can make from it.”
“Our unique offering is then based on our collective knowledge and skills, which enables us to scale up the prototype into a viable batch production. We offer something of a balance between small workshop (making one-off pieces) and large factory production. We adapt to customers’ designs, meaning we start from scratch rather than pushing existing products and essentially just rebranding. We are always willing to work with new designers and startups that have a serious approach to their business. It is important to us that a new generation of designers are given the opportunity to make their products in Britain.”
It is this attitude towards future-proofing valuable industry skills and modernising traditional approaches that we admire most about Mowbray Leather Goods. We were able to work together to take genuine vegetable-tanned leather and refine it to incorporate our geometric Aerospace hardware and clean design aesthetic. It is factories like this, with the willingness to push their boundaries and work with innovative, young designers, which will secure the longevity of British manufacturing and survival of declining skills – taking a fresh approach to old ways of working.
Learn more about Mowbray Leather Goods here.