Meeting like-minded people is always a joy, even if it’s “just” by email. For me Charlie Borrow is one of those people that just hits the Zeitgeist. He gets it. The young designer maker from Brighton has managed over the past couple of years to establish a timeless British brand that concentrates on simple, functional design and traditional techniques using locally sourced materials and crafting his products until he is happy with the result.
He’s not interested in a deadline- and profit-driven copy cat business but is a craftsman through and through who started off studying bespoke tailoring at London College of Fashion before designing his first leather tote for a friend… and the rest is history as they say.
To find out more about his background, his passion, what drives him and what his future plans are I managed to sneak some questions into his busy schedule and discovered a humble designer / maker who wants to grow his business organically and give back to the community by taking on an apprentice in his future combined workspace and shop in the East End of London.
One of the things I found most fascinating was his description of the laborious 14-18 months process of getting his locally sourced West Country leather just right. If I was a cow
which I may have been called on one or two occasions I’d be absolutely thrilled to continue life as a tote for the next couple of hundred years on the arm of a fashionable urbanite.
In fact, Charlie is so sure of the quality of his hand-made manufacturing technique that he offers repairs for life so make sure you mention this to your offspring when passing on one of his heirlooms.
Now, over to Charlie…
What’s your background and how did you get to design / make bags?
I first studied, fashion and textiles from the age of 16-18 at college just outside my hometown of Brighton. After completing the course I moved to London to study bespoke tailoring at London College of Fashion. It was short lived, I dropped out after about 8 months. University didn’t quite click with me. I started working for the fashion brand Paul Smith in their suit department doing customer fittings and then later started doing some alteration work from my bedroom for friends and clients. The bags came out of nowhere really.
The first bag I made was a gift for a family member. A basic leather oversize tote bag made from some leather I found in a bargain bin in the basement of a shop on Brick Lane. It had a good reception so I decided to make another. Not long after I started making them for my parents shop in Brighton. And from their it kind of grew quite organically.
I saw that you documented the process of turning raw hides into smooth leather on your Instagram. Could you talk us through this on here?
The process takes between 14 and 18 months. It starts with the raw hides. A waste product from the local meat industry. The cows are bred and culled in Somerset the neighbouring county, then delivered to the ancient tannery established around the time of the roman invasion with the hair on and salted to preserve and prevent rotting. The first step once arriving at the tannery is to lime the hides. This is a process where the raw hide is soaked in a lime solution to loosen the hair and excess flesh. Once this process is complete the leather can be de-haired and fleshed. A final de fleshing is done by hand with a final inspection.
The hides are now ready to be cut into their sections. A hide can consist of a few variations but the basic break down is a shoulder, a pair of butts (double butt) and a pair of bellies. Once the hides are cut they suspended from wooden rods and soaked in deep pits containing spring water from the local river and a sustainable source of oak bark chipping from the local countryside.
The tanning room consists of around 28 pits each with a different concentration of tanning fluid (oak bark and water). The batch of hides are moved from pit to pit on a monthly basis for 12 months, once complete they are left to dry and they can now be called leather.
The leather can now be selected for what it will be used for. Shoe soling, bridle leather, harness leather, heal blocks etc. The leather I use is the full grain bridle, meaning scars, growth marks and imperfections are present or what most will call natural characteristics.
The hides at this point will start the curing process. Each is hand stained to the preferred colour and left to dry, then a hot solution of bees wax and mutton tallow is applied by hand to protect the leather and increase strength in the fibres.
It’s then ready to dispatch.
What makes your bags different from others? Why do you chose to work with those particular hides? What other materials do you like working with?
I think the process and the materials are the most unique thing, the products are pretty classic and simple. Many inspired by bags I’ve sourced at markets but adapted for modern day life or to feature a material or component I’ve sourced.
I only work with tradition UK manufacturers when sourcing my materials, I think the youngest company I work with was established around 1880, so not exactly a start up. The thing I love about them all is their devotion to manufacturing and producing high quality product in the traditional way, this can come at a high financial price but the end result is far better with a lower environmental impact.
I continue this ethos when the materials arrive on site at my small workshop in the east end of London. For example all the leather goods are cut by hand and stitched by hand, not one machine is used at any point in the process. I believe in making a product for life so I offer repairs for life. There’s a charm in something that has been used heavily, patched, repaired and continued it’s life rather then going to land fill. I want the things I make to be the products I love and admire that I get at antique markets regularly.
I see that your bags are particularly popular in Japan? Why do you think that is?
I think part of this is what I’ve touched on above, the Japanese seen to have a keen interest in tradition and making things properly “the old way”. The story behind the product is of big interested to them. This paired with uninterrupted and simple design and allowing the materials to do the talking.
I’m sure you’re business is taking over your time but what do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
I’m quite stretched at the moment you’re right but I hope to grow the team in the near future to help this. I’m a big lover of antiques, markets are always good fun as you never know what you’ll find or you’ll be coming home with. But London has so much more to offer then just markets. There’s amazing restaurants and bar opening constantly. I recently worked with an amazing restaurant called Smokestak. I made a number of aprons and helped with furnishing for the interior. It’s a regular visit for me and a must try if you’re a meat eater.
If I’m honest I’m not really sure how to describe them, but I believe in doing a job properly, if that’s making a product, make it from the best materials you can. Cutting corners normally means something is being sacrificed which happens a lot in this industry to keep costs down or make something faster. But some things are better made slowly with more care, ultimately you’re left with a nicer product at the end if you spend the time needed to make it, not to the deadline someone has set for you to make it.
For me I would love to grow the company slowly, employ someone who is driven and interested in making and working with the material. Before I started I wasn’t sure how to get into the industry of making without leaving London and working in a factory. So I’d love to give someone the opportunity to teach them what I’ve learnt since I’ve started and who knows maybe learn from them too.
I’m currently in the process of moving to a larger space, a retail space, local to where I currently am but nothing is official yet so touch wood! This has always been my ideal Scenario, workshop and shop in one place so clients can see the process, the tools and the raw material. It’s an interesting part so why not show the client. I think for now a shop is the next step but who knows what’s after that.
Thank you Charlie for your time and I’ll be in that shop as soon as it opens!
To discover more passionate designer / makers have a look at Danish furniture makers Overgaard and Dyrman.