A most-wanted craftsman15 May 2015
On a pleasant spring day at a studio in west London that is crammed with leather curiosities, Leather International catches up with Bill Amberg before he leaves for his other studio in Somerset, to discuss his brand's exclusive leather goods and large-scale installations around the world.
Leather International: What initiated your interest in leather and what brought you to this point?
Bill Amberg: It started early as a hobby, as a boy, and then I did a lot of apprenticeships - mainly in Australia - in the early 1980s. When I returned to London, I got a little studio in Rotherhithe and started making bags. I wasn't doing bags beforehand in Australia; I was doing more sculpture and jewellery. So when I came back to England, bags seemed to be an obvious way of turning my leather knowledge into some cash. Then I started designing my own line and sold them very quickly - they were picked up by Paul Smith and Joseph.
I did that for many years. Under the Bill Amberg name, I then started to export to Japan mainly, which is still my biggest market for bags. We have interiors projects in Gstaad and Hong Kong, and a couple of yacht projects in Spain and Germany. The US is strong architecturally, where we're doing some interesting work.
Is the leather you use for these yacht projects in Europe very specific to that kind of environment?
Well, these yachts are pretty massive; they're pretty far removed from the elements. It's more about how they're going to handle the air conditioning than anything else.
What about space constraints?
Yes, in terms of proportions and skin types, you have to look at that fairly sensibly.
Was it important early on to establish your name brand?
I just naturally put my name on it. There was no strategy. It was just an evolution. So then I had two businesses: a products and interiors business, and a bag and accessories business. I licensed the bags and accessories business in 2008 and, in fact, I have the licence back now, so I can start to look at running the bag business again and revamp the website, probably from September, with just the Bill Amberg site, and you'll be able to go through the homepage to Bill Amberg Accessories and Bill Amberg Studio.
Do you have retail shops as well?
I did but not anymore, so it's now just online only.
You align the Bill Amberg name with brands like Leica and Dunhill. What other collaborations are you involved with at the moment?
We did one for Yamazaki whisky. About 30% of what we do is product design in leather for luxury brands. So we'll design and develop for brands like Leica, Champagne Mumm, Grey Goose, and then we'll do private designs and specialist products as well like a leather tube for a New York architect's designs, for instance. It's an interesting bit of the business and we enjoy it.
I think the luxury drinks market is getting increasingly crowded at the top, so we provide clients with the opportunity to do something different and find uniqueness. We dig deep into the brand to understand the message they want to convey. We do that before we start to design anything.
Does that force you to look at leather differently?
Well, we look for leathers that are appropriate to the brand. That's really important.
When we were just in Dubai for Leatherworld Middle East, we spoke with people at the Al Khaznah Tannery, who work almost exclusively with camel hides. Is this something you work with as well?
Yes, I went to their tannery last year and they're doing very interesting work. We're actually using them in a couple of projects in the UK. One is in a big building in Hatton Garden. I like the grain texture on it. One of the things we always quote to designers and architects about leather are the variables. And that's what we try to get people to understand. Leather isn't just about car upholstery and sofas.
The variables are a scale of proportion; a scale of the skins themselves. That's the kind of reference you can draw from. And then there's colour - either pigmented or full aniline. Then there's texture - whether it's full-grain, embossed, laser-etched, shrunken, cracked - whatever the case. You can play with textures on many levels. And finally finish, so you can go from matte to shiny to waxy or oily. It's important that architects and designers understand that they have this wide range of variables and they can be adjusted.
Is that what you find exciting about leather, that it has infinite possibilities?
Yes, and when you start to dig deep, you understand what's possible, and that's just the material alone. Then there is technique. One thing we do here is I always employ a saddler, a bookbinder and a case-maker so we can apply any technique within the leather industry as a whole into what we do.
Do each of those disciplines overlap to a certain extent?
They all inter-train and cross-reference, so, for example, bookbinding is usually quite small and intricate, but we can extrapolate on the technique and do things on a much bigger scale. We can be as ambitious as we want. It's very interesting.
What skins do you prefer or enjoy working with the most?
It's not so much that. I think we tend to use different tanneries we work well with. They're mostly in the UK, Italy, Scandinavia and Spain.
Consumers are becoming more attuned to where materials are sourced. How important is traceability in terms of the tanneries you work with and where they source their raw materials?
I think by the nature of the tanneries we're talking to, you end up with an understanding of traceability anyway. And by the nature of the fact we use so much vegetable-tanned and aniline or semi-aniline hides, you can't hide that. It has to be sourced from quality raw materials. You can't fake a full aniline shoulder.
And in terms of animal welfare and proper workplace conditions?
You don't have to look far among the beautiful tanneries we work with to see the love, care and attention that goes into production, and to know that they operate within a safe and regulated framework. So there aren't going to be children there working into the night. You just see people who are passionate about making very beautiful leather.
Do you follow global hide prices and fluctuations?
Only indirectly, and certainly some of the big projects we work on where they might take four years to come to fruition. So how you quote and how long the quotes can stand for becomes very relevant.
How do you see things as they stand?
I fear that prices will go up; it seems to be the way at the moment. Certainly in the high end; there it seems to be increasing. I think it's partly because of the tanneries and partly because of access to high-quality hides that it is going to be more difficult. I think the Chinese influence of purchasing the best production from so many tanneries is also skewing the market heavily.
We see a lot of warning signs about a skills gap broadening in leather; that many campuses for leather craftsmanship are closing so there are fewer people coming up to take over from the old guard. Are you experiencing that dilemma at all?
No, and quite far from it. We get so many requests to work here and we're very busy at the moment. In this business, I don't see that as an issue, but the industry on the whole is getting more automated. You don't need as many tanneries and certainly not as many people these days.
Do you see a lot of interest or trends for less-pristine leathers, where blemishes, brands or insect bites are part of the finished look?
I think it's more about getting people to understand the difference between a full aniline hide and a damaged hide. It's important to appreciate the natural character of the hide.
From that view, do you see leather as an empirical material, not just for looks and feel, but smell and sound too?
Acoustically, leather is very interesting indeed. Right now, we're doing a big project for a lecture theatre with David Chipperfield and the acoustics are really important.
You say you're as busy as ever. What are your plans to expand?
In addition to our international projects, we have a lot of projects in London. For example, one for the Leathersellers' Hall where we replicated the pattern on ceramic tiles for the back of the building onto a shrunken shoulder, which will cover the main three-storey staircase. It's quite a challenge doing it there specifically since it's right in front of my peer group. There's no escape.
Concerning the bags and accessories arm of the business, how do you mitigate against illicit goods and counterfeits, considering it's your name on your products?
Since I licensed the brand, I haven't been massively focused on the accessories side; more on the high-end interiors side where most of the business is, and there's not really any worry there. But now that I have the licence back, I have to be more conscious of what's going on out there and controlling the IP of our business. So I'm not sure exactly how we're going to approach it, but we'll have to do something.
You have a London studio loaded with a massive vinyl collection where you can withdraw, listen to music, and develop new ideas and concepts for the business. Would you describe yourself as 'analogue', so to speak, or are you equally excited by the pace of technology?
Yes, I'm very interested in it and I think for us what's really important is to mix up technology - digital, CNC routing, scanning, laser-etching - and traditional techniques and see what we can do. We use a lot of that already, but it's interesting with some of these technologies, like rapid prototyping and laser technology, in that people tend to use them simply because they're there rather than actually needing them or improving things.
We do a lot of handrails and a lot of walls using these techniques, but I still think if we're going to hand-stitch something, we don't need to pre-drill holes with a laser. What's the point? It sounds good in the brochure, but it doesn't mean anything. Someone who's trained in saddlery, who can hand-stitch beautifully, can use an awl just as accurately, and you have the flexibility of what happens when the material stretches out of place or you have to mould it around a certain shape. You're in control, but I'm very happy to use it when it's necessary.