Hell for leather at London Craft Week

Spotlight shines on one of capital’s oldest crafts
Stepping up: Photo by Paul Underwood, (inset) a Whitaker Malem piece

From upholstery in Shoreditch to boat building in St James’ Market, London Craft Week has arrived in the Capital; a five-day showcase of the best and brightest of British craftsmanship.

While the 230 events offer a unique opportunity to meet our makers across a wide range of specialisms, it is also a chance for us to look back at the original craftsman, represented today by many of the City of London’s 110 livery companies.

From gold jewellery at the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths to bookbinding at St Bride’s, Britain’s strong heritage of craft will be on display at livery halls throughout the City, including the newest, which also happens to be home to one of our oldest craft traditions – leather.

The Worshipful Company of Leathersellers will celebrate the opening of their brand new hall with a showcase of the country’s finest independent leather artisans curated by leatherwear designer Bill Amberg.

The renowned craftsman has handpicked a unique selection of 15 saddlers, sculptors, bag makers, bookbinders, cordwainers and clothiers for a display of more than 100 pieces that explore the techniques and applications that define its unique history, as well as informing the modern craft.

“I wanted to bring together the best examples of every different leatherwork discipline – bookbinders, shoemakers, furniture and interiors, bag makers, saddlers,” Bill says.

“We’ve got two from each discipline, one representing traditional methods and one that might be really pushing the boundaries of modern techniques of working with the material.”

David Santa-Olalla, clerk to the Leathersellers Company, says the exhibition is a unique opportunity to promote the new hall – which will be officially opened on 16 May – but also the leatherwork industry as a whole, one of the overall aims of the organisation.

“What’s left of the industry is highly profitable, and part of our objective is to try to help grow that through our support of young designers,” he explains. The Leathersellers helped establish the Institute for Creative Leather Technologies at the University of Northampton, and provides grants and funding for students who demonstrate excellence in leatherwork at the London College of Fashion, Central Saint Martins, De Montfort, and Nottingham Trent Universities.

“There is such a variety of crafts that involve leather and a great deal of innovation.” Case in point, the City’s other leather-based livery companies have also jumped on board to support the exhibition, among them the Worshipful Company of Cordwainers, represented by designer and soon-to-be liveryman Georgina Goodman.

“Britain leads the world in footwear design,” Cordwainers clerk John Miller says. “It’s heritage is stronger in London than anywhere in the world; Jimmy Choo did all his training in London, Manolo Blahnik has their headquarters in London, so many of the top designers are all British-based.”

The Cordwainers also support the leather and footwear industries through awards and university grants, and John maintains Britain still holds a leadership position in the design, selling and marketing of leather footwear, despite losing a lot of the manufacturing at the lower end of the scale.

“People like high quality, they aspire to it; this is an area that Britain will continue to have a presence, and I’m confident might grow a bit.”

Bill agrees: “Leather was a bit under-represented at last year’s London Craft Week, and one of the things that has struck me is how many people are asking about techniques, how we work with the materials, some are even interested in careers.

“Craft is coming back – more and more people are interested in how things are made, and they really want to see quality and excellence in everything.”

Fine Leatherwork curated by Bill Amberg is on from 3 to 7 May at Leathersellers’ Hall,
7 St Helen’s Place EC3A 6AB. For the full programme of London Craft Week events, visit londoncraftweek.com