The Art of Luxury Leathergoods with Robert Ettinger
For the better part of a century, Ettinger have been meticulously crafting some of the world’s finest artisanal leathergoods - pieces that elevate everyday items through exceptional construction and considered design.
Ettinger has been part of the Crane Brothers offer for a decade now, and today we’re thrilled to be able to speak with the brand’s chairman and CEO, Robert Ettinger, about their incredible history, the complications of their craft, how they’re approaching sustainability and his favourite pieces from the new collection.
Can you give a short overview of the brand’s history and what makes it so special in the leathergoods market?
The business was started in 1934 by my grandfather. They in fact came over from Prussia, which was then part of Germany, where they were military tailors. They had a business a bit like Gieves & Hawkes, making uniforms and suits - that sort of thing. They came over in the Thirties and I suppose they were making things. They didn’t go into tailoring in the UK but they started a small factory in London. In those days, like in most cities, there was a whole area of London dedicated to leather manufacturing from the middle ages and beyond. In London, that was between Smithfield and the Angel Islington. When I was a kid there were still 25 or 30 factories making leathergoods. Mostly they were specialised - one would make suitcases, another wallets. Leather was made in that area because it was near the Thames and the river was good for tanning, and Smithfield was a meat market so that’s where you get your leather.
About 25 years ago the area became gentrified - London was moving out and it became offices and shops and that sort of thing. We decided to move the business and we bought a much larger manufacturing business in a town north of Birmingham called Walsall, which was a much bigger manufacturing town than London. The factory was built as a leather factory in 1890, and we’re still in the same building. Typically for factories in those days, it’s a very long, narrow building with lots of windows, so they had light to work with as they didn’t have electricity when they first opened. We now do have electric lights I’m glad to say! It’s a great place, it’s got a lot of history and a lot of people who work in the company have been there for generations. Our two general managers, their parents and grandparents worked in the same factory making leathergoods. So it’s a wonderful place to go and see and we’re very proud of it and what we do.
If we think about Ettinger in terms of aesthetics and craftsmanship, what would you say the brand’s fundamental philosophy is?
Our fundamental philosophy is to use the very best ingredients. We source the finest leathers and linings and everything to make high-end, very high quality leathergoods. We’ve always been at the top end - we do believe we’re the highest quality and that’s partly achieved by people’s attitude. It’s not just the knowledge of making the product, you have to have the right attitude. It’s got to be a sense of mind, you have to care what you do and be proud of what you do. That’s what we instill into everyone in our business - then you’ll create a wonderful product.
You obviously grew up around the business - what was it that made you want to make it your own?
I went and lived in Germany and Canada as an apprentice in various companies learning about business. When I came back in my early twenties I then decided I wanted to be a ski instructor. So I went up to Scotland and did my exams and I was a ski instructor for a few years. But my father sat me down one day and said “look, what do you want to do Robert? You can be a ski instructor but there is also a business.” And I decided then to join the family business. And I must say that now, many years later, I’ve really enjoyed what I’ve done. I look forward to coming in, designing products and working with customers. It has meant a lot to me and I hope I’ve instilled that into everybody working in the business as well.
Well we’re not high fashion. If we were making handbags then we’d be competing with all the other manufacturers and you can do crazy things with handbags, but with purses and wallets and the sort of things that we do, you can’t reinvent the wheel. They’ve still got to hold certain-sized things and be practical. What we do is take British tradition, but try to make it a little bit quirky. Like our Stirling collection, the products are black leather on the outside but when you open them they’re orange or turquoise on the inside. It’s a bit like a city banker - he does wear a dark suit but then when he opens it he might have a pink lining. That’s very British. Let’s talk a little more about the production process. You obviously pride yourselves on exquisite production and a lot of talent that’s worked with you for many years or generations.
What makes that so special and how does that translate into the product?
As I said earlier, you’ve got to have all the right ingredients - the leathers and linings and so on. But it also takes up to five years to train someone in our factory to make the product up to the standard and speed to make it viable. I think our turned edges - that’s where the leather is turned over on the inside and skived down and then stitched - is a very important part of it. That shows how well and finely-made a product is. When you turn it over, you turn it over much wider than that and then you need to put a card between the top piece of leather and the bottom and cut it down even slimmer. That is a highly skilled job because if you press the knife too hard, you just cut into the leathers below. I’ve tried it and there’s no way I can do it. I’ve ruined more than one piece in my life!
What is it about supporting that production and those skills that’s so important to you and the business?
We are supplying a lot in Asia, and more than anywhere else, they expect that level of quality and they wouldn’t accept anything less. I think that’s why in Japan and Korea, we now have our own stores and we’re selling to over 180 retailers throughout Japan at the moment. They have a very high expectation - the highest in the world, in terms of quality. So if you can make it for these countries, you can really make for anywhere. For some consumers, they perhaps look at a wallet or small leathergoods as an afterthought.
What is it about elevating these small, everyday products that speaks to you?
All men have a wallet, but quite a few men now have their everyday wallet that they put in their back pocket, but they might also have a nice wallet for when they’re going out for a special occasion, a meal or even to the bar. It’s important to have some things that are a little bit special. It just makes one feel better. Our products are repairable. We get purses and wallets back that we made 25 years ago. Yes, inevitably some of the corners or the stitching has come undone and we will repair it, we’ll put a new back on or re-stitch it. These are not throwaway items. You buy it and you’ve got it for life - or longer. I use my grandfather’s attaché case and it looks like new and it's 85 years old.
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