Kickstarting the next 50 years

Celebrating its 50th birthday this year, the country's oldest satchel manufacturer is launching a Kickstarter campaign to spur growth for the next 50 years. We spoke to Keith Hanshaw, managing director and master craftsman at the Leather Satchel Co. to find out more about the family run business...
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03.08.16
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The Leather Satchel Co.’s story began in 1966. Experts in handcrafting beautiful and sustainable leather satchels, The Leather Satchel Co. was the only remaining satchel manufacturer in the UK during the 1980s, after many of the manufacturing industries were dismantled and production moved abroad. Being a family business, the Leather Satchel Co. pulled together through tough times, through grit and determination, and a sheer love for the craft, and came through the other side.

Today, the Leather Satchel Co. is launching a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign, which will fund a cutting-edge customisation tool that will allow customers to design their own unique satchels.

Tell us the story behind the Leather Satchel Co. How did you begin?

During the Second World War, my Grandad learnt some basic leatherwork, like making belts and strops for his razor, which in turn he passed on to his son – my Uncle Steven. My uncle loved the idea of making things, especially with leather, and he developed this into his craft.

After leaving school at 15, he set up a workshop in my Nan’s shed in Old Swan in Liverpool, which is still there today. It was small and hard to work out of, so sometimes he’d work in the street as there was more space. He soon realised that working outdoors was the best advertising that he could do – so he set up a streetside workshop, and sold leather goods to neighbours and passers-by.

He’d travel to football matches, festivals, or country fairs – wherever there was a lot of people. He put out a blanket, set up a workshop and displayed his products. In London for the World Cup Final in 1966, a teacher passed his stand, picked up a bag and asked Steven if he could make enough for a school. That got us started.

By the 1980s we were the last remaining satchel manufacturer in the country, but we’ve stuck at what we do, and preserved those skills. Now we’re seeing a renaissance in peoples’ interest in goods that are handmade, made locally and made in Britain, and are vintage and sustainable.

That’s our story.

A high percentage of your satchels are exported overseas now – how valuable is the Made in Britain badge?

If we were made in Bangladesh would we be as successful? We could probably source similar types of leathers and train people to have the same amount of skills, but would we sell as many bags?

Goods from overseas are usually unbranded and there’s very little care or pride taken in creating them, because there’s no need for it. There’s no comeback – no-one’s going to return it, they’re never going to be asked to repair it if it’s faulty, so they’re never going to deal with the consequences of producing poor quality goods.

With British made there’s an expectation of quality straight away, we take pride in our work. The value of that is hard to determine but with all the marketing, we would only be half as big if we weren’t made in Britain.

How receptive are different markets worldwide to heritage products?

It’s interesting – initially we found that the British satchel isn’t really known outside central Europe, as they don’t have that style of leather work. So, when you start going into the likes of Asia, we found that they’d never seen the product before. There’s a lot of nostalgia with the UK market, that just isn’t there with an overseas market. The Made in Britain status makes it classic, it makes it timeless – the style of leatherwork we do is very definitive and we’re one of the last workshops in the UK that’s producing it.

When we go to places like Asia where our products are being sold, the style of leatherwork is very distinctive. I see that as our style – that’s the Leather Satchel Co. style. There are a lot of other companies who use that style who are probably bigger and more well known than us, but fundamentally that’s our style of leatherwork – the classic style works well abroad.

Places like Japan and Indonesia manufacture and produce goods, but you tend to find that they don’t want to buy luxury items from their own country. If they can get something from Britain, they know it’s rare and exclusive because there’s so little manufacturing left in the UK.

Why do you think that there has been a resurgence in the demand for handcrafted, sustainable goods as opposed to mass produced goods in recent years?

Because of austerity, there has been a huge resurgence in people making things themselves to earn money, which in turn brings a greater passion for crafts. People have started to appreciate the crafts that we have lost over the years, including many of the British manufacturing industries that we no longer have.

There has also been a massive surge in vintage; people are recycling old clothes, and the challenge is the fact that there are a lot of clothes that have survived, but not many luxury handbags. If you’re looking to buy a vintage handbag, then it’s starting to cost more than a new handbag. Something from Topshop in the 1970s in near immaculate condition, would be more expensive than buying a new one from Topshop today. It’s the same with satchels; you could buy a vintage satchel on the internet for around £200 – we’re making new satchels for much cheaper.

How are your satchels made and produced to ensure their sustainability?

The way that we cut satchels is very ecological and that means that there’s very little scrap. The satchel is a well-evolved piece of sustainable kit, it works, it’s simple, it’s low scrap. The leather we use is a by-product of the meat industry; we never use exotic animals, we only use animals that are used for farming. All of our satchel leather comes from dairy cows once they’ve died or gone to slaughter.

With handbag manufacturing, the industry average on scrap is around the 25-75% mark – traditional handbag manufacturing would produce around 75% scrap. The Leather Satchel Co. comes in way below the industry average at around 15-20% scrap. This is because the satchels are so well designed – there are big pieces, there are small pieces and there are long strips. It’s a perfect jigsaw that enables us to make the most of every piece of leather we use.

Our satchels are sustainable, and they’re repairable. You get a five year guarantee with each product, but even 20 years later it can be fixed; because it’s such a lovely simplistic design, it’s easy to fix.

The problem with very complex handbags, is that once you’ve dismantled all the different compartments and all of the different linings and pockets, it’s actually quicker to just cut a new one. Complex products become unsustainable once they fail, and they end up in landfill.

The beauty of a satchel is that we can fix it really easily – it’s actually cheaper to fix than make a new one. And that’s where you start to get the heirloom products; they last for decades, because there’s a lifetime repair policy, at that point you’re starting to add real value to the product.

That’s how we should be living – we shouldn’t be living in a disposable community where we’re destroying everything. That’s one of the charms of our satchels. If in the future everyone bought bags like this, we would have a much more sustainable model than we do now.

How important is it to stay true to your mission and values as the demand for your product increases?

With a lot of companies it’s very easy to stray away from values at the temptation of money.

We’re a firm believer that money doesn’t make you any happier, so for us it’s about doing things right, it’s about making enough profit to make sure that we’re not struggling, but we don’t need to charge £600 for a bag when we can sell it for £200.

Really good value is key for us. Our company values are established by the team. They’re not the family’s company values that are then dictated to the team, they are the values of the accumulative efforts of the team.

Slow growth is more important to us than fast growth – fast growth could mean us having to make compromises on the values of the company. I don’t think that you can grow that quickly and retain your core values, because you haven’t had time to analyse the consequences of the decisions you’re making.

The next stage of growth for us is teaching people all the different techniques. We don’t want to turn into a factory line, we want to teach people skills that will be around forever. You can’t learn what we do here at university – there isn’t a course. We take on people who are eager, smart, keen, show initiative and are good with their hands, and we teach them leatherwork.

If we hadn’t survived, where would those skills have gone? I’m sure they could have been learnt again, but all that internal and secret knowledge would have been lost. I think that’s one of the reasons why our satchels are the best in the marketplace, and that’s the consumer’s opinion, not ours.

We’re passing on those skills. That’s bigger than us and that’s part of our values – to pass those skills on and make sure that they don’t get lost, because they almost did.

Can you tell us about some of the customers who get back in touch with you over the years?

We recently started offering a lifetime repair policy; we would always repair satchels but it wasn’t part of the purchase deal. Last year, we were contacted by a customer who has been using one of our satchels for 27 years.

It’s lovely to see the bags again, because they’ve been on a journey. They come back and they’re scratched and worn and the way they age is just gorgeous, I love them when they get scratched and battered, that’s when they start getting character and personality, that’s the beauty of them.

We polish them up and send them off with another 20 years of adventures in them before they probably need another little repair. But that’s what it’s all about, that’s part of the beauty of the longevity of the product – the story that the bag takes as it goes along.

Part of what we are doing at the moment, is trying to record that journey of the bag, and create an infrastructure with that to go on. It will be beautiful to be able to look at a bag, type in a password and view its unique history. It adds so much character to the bag which means that people cherish it more. That’s why people come back, that’s what the repair policy is about – it’s about keeping things on their feet for as long as possible, we’re a health service for bags.

You’re about to launch a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign, what are your hopes for the outcome?

We’re at a bottleneck – there’s tonnes that we can do here that people don’t know about. It’s hard to show people just how unique we can make our bags: exactly what we can do to personalise each individual bag; how we can make them perfect for your lifestyle. We can do whatever people want – but we can’t explain that in a very simple graphic.

So, we need a crafting tool, and the purpose of the Kickstarter is to raise funds so people can go online and start designing their own bags. Every bag we make here can be completely different, that’s the way our workshops are set up. We’re not line-based, where there’s 1,000 products going through and they’re all exactly the same – we’re a skills-based team that has little crews of people trained up on cut out, on detail stitching, on form stitching, finishing and hardware.

Each bag we make tells its own story, because of the unique way it ages. But this will make each one so distinctive; a completely bespoke bag for its owner. Our satchels last for years and age beautifully. The Kickstarter campaign will really help that idea of a story come to life, with each one telling its own tale about the life and adventures of its owner.

Update: Leather Satchel Co. reached it’s target of £50,000 after about 20 days of the campaign, and went on to raise more than £87,000 towards its new design tool. The tool is due for launch in Autumn 2016.