When we began planning the exhibition range for Bags: Inside Out we knew we wanted to focus on style, sustainability and craftsmanship – and who better to combine these values than Village Leathers, a family owned company trading and manufacturing leather goods right here in London. From their extensive vintage leather archive they have created a beautiful classic crossbody bag, a slimline clutch, purse and key ring exclusively for the V&A shop.
I sat down to chat (virtually) with Candy from Village Leathers to talk about their working process, what it was like designing for Bags: Inside Out – and how they’ve adapted to working through the pandemic.
Village Leathers began in 1974 – what’s it like working for a family business with such an established history, how do you keep those traditions going?
In a way, it’s like being adopted into the family! So much of our day-to-day workings are dependent on our legacy, so it’s almost impossible to not keep traditions going. Both our shop in Covent Garden and our workshop in North London are the same premises that Village Leathers has called home since the mid-1970s, so the walls breathe our heritage. We’ve used the original machines and tools (with a few new additions) from our inception and are always uncovering dusty belts and bags that have been here for twenty or more years!
Bags: Inside Out tells the history of how certain bags came to be renowned, but also how they were designed and manufactured. Could you tell us more about the tools and machinery that you use to craft your leather goods?
At Village Leathers, we are in an unusual position as – over the years – we have accumulated many different machines and tools that do all kinds of jobs. These, combined with a lifetime’s experience, means that we pride ourselves on handcrafting timeless, investment pieces that are affordable for everyone. Our machines have all developed unique ‘quirks’ over the years; sometimes knowing just the right way to use the machine is the hardest part of the job!
Tell us more about the range you’ve crafted for the V&A, and how it came about?
Over the years our workshop has amassed various leftover hides from all kinds of projects and fashions. After discovering more and more unique vintage hides, we decided the best way to appreciate the longevity of this versatile material was to repurpose it into sustainable, unique mementos of a time gone by. For example the shape of the crossbody bag itself was an original Village Leathers design from 1976; we used the original knives to cut the leather, and the shape lent itself perfectly to use of the vintage hides.
The V&A range uses off cut and archive leathers – how does Village Leathers champion ‘slow fashion’ and sustainability? Why do you think it’s important?
As well as making the bags for the collection, we also made some purses and key rings, which meant we were able to use up all of the offcuts, meaning nothing was wasted. Sustainability and ’slow fashion’ are immeasurably important to Village Leathers, from both an environmental and economical perspective. We are all aware of the fatal damage we have done to our planet, and we always try to do our best to mitigate our impact as much as we can. Leather is a biodegradable by-product of the meat industry; by being repurposed into belts and bags it is redirected from landfill. In addition, seasonal, ‘fast fashion’ trends lead to waste. Last year’s now ‘untrendy’ but functional apparel ends up thrown out as we are encouraged to replace it with the latest fashion. This is why Village Leathers creates classic designs that outlive fleeting trends; our products are timeless, only getting better with age.
Are there any designers or bags that inspire you?
I love practical pieces that have cleverly thought-out details. Like this 1926 handbag by Finnigans from the V&A Collection: the curved handle, combined with angular structure, complement each other beautifully. I definitely have a sweet spot for more weird and wonderful pieces too; I love the Horse Chestnut bag by Emily Jo Gibbs that can be seen in the Bags: Inside Out exhibition.
How has it been keeping the workshop going through the Covid-19 pandemic and adjusting to a new way of working?
It’s been really tough, as it has for many small businesses. Our shop is currently shut due to the national lockdown, which means our income has virtually vanished. Thankfully we have a modest amount of online orders which is keeping us trudging along, and we’re hoping our usual work in theatre and film costumes and props might restart in the spring. We are lucky to have a large enough workshop to be able to give each other space to work, and we are all very adaptable. So we’ve got everything crossed for a more hopeful 2021!