It was March 2016 and we were approaching the second anniversary of our young brand. There is rarely general agreement at our studios, however in that one special meeting, despite the usual chaos - everyone was oddly on the same page. Early expansion was happening.
The risk would be confusing our existing business as Archibald Optics and required customers to assume we would use a consistent approach during our expansion. What we needed to do was go one better and in many ways by partnering with the craftsmen of Sabae in our very first showing we almost created a problem for ourselves.
Leather goods seemed a natural next product, and Florence was the place where we needed to get it done. However it seemed the city almost commoditized it's reputation a little too well, the landscape was saturated with poor products all 'Made in Italy' and so in order to find the craftsmanship that matched the levels of our eyewear craftsmen... we would need to dig deep and through an industry we knew very little about in search of the old-world masters who could help us expand the Archibald collection.
You start the normal way, google. A myriad of search terms leads to workshops advertising themselves as “luxury leather goods” manufacturers… everyone in Florence, it seems, makes the finest product. You walk through the famous Scuela della Cuoio and witness people from all around the world flocking to learn the art of leather making… yet again, it all seems so commercial. Nothing quite feels right, the products each artisan is touting is almost made quickly for quick profit rather than dedication. Comparing the approach of these artisans with that of the Japanese Shokunin we had built the brand with thus far left us wanting…
Then the conversations begin… first in a small local cafeteria which leads us to a pawnbroker who then lead us to one of the few remaining masters in Florence - Simone Taddei. Simone runs a small workshop directly across the alley from Dante’s church and to place into perspective what is going on here… Simone gets commissioned by the Ferragamo family, one of the most respected families in Italian luxury to make gifts for those closest to them. Following a lengthy introduction to the world of high crafted leather and after hearing about our vision with Archibald, Simone picks up the phone and makes a few phone calls. First a tannery, which led to another which led to the contacts of three workshops, all supposedly incredible.
Two were in a suburban town called Scandicci, famous for the production of leather products and one on the outskirts of Florence.
The Migrant Workforce
As we arrived in Scandicci and on the way to our first meeting happened to walk through the doors of an unmarked building. I have a habit of sticking my nose where it doesn’t belong and it has led to some disastrous consequences, however an old dog struggles with new tricks so when I saw the words PRADA on a box of black women’s wallets, and obviously I was interested. Walking into the workshop I heard a voice shout in Italian, but in a distinctly familiar accent… Looking up and I saw an entire setting filled with migrant Chinese workers. We stayed for about 15 mins speaking with them as the manager was not available and learned a shocking truth about “Made in Italy” today. I had intended to go deeper into this issue, however will perhaps do so myself in a blog post. For now, D.T Max has done an outstanding job painting the picture in his article for the New Yorker.The Chinese workers who assemble designer bags in Tuscany
by D. T. Max (16/04/2018), The New Yorker Times.
One or the other…
Both our meetings in Scandicci with the craftsmen recommended to us went as well as one would expect and to be quite honest we were going to end the search there. It seemed the old-world craftsmen still operated, albeit secretly and in a much smaller capacity than one would ever have thought.
It was comforting to finally get in front of some true masterpieces and frame our expectation for the collection - just as in eyewear, it was difficult to realise what the real deal, the $5000 bag was until we experienced the work that goes into it’s production first hand. Our little adventure was starting to pay dividend.
Truthfully we were ready to conclude our search prior to visiting the last workshop back in Florence, however it felt lazy to leave a stone unturned and so we made our way back to a 7pm appointment with our minds, at least partly, made up.
When we entered Lido’s workshop we did so with admittedly half interest. The normal introductions were met with the skepticism and to be transparent, I wasn’t on top form and Lido and his daughter seemed awfully curious about how our brand actually worked. They showed us some samples they were making for some Italian luxury brands, a French Couture house and smaller scale Japanese brands and though it was clear these were amazing pieces… there was a wow factor lacking… We were offered a latte with some home made biscuits and just as we were about to leave, I tried one.
The biscuits were absolutely incredible, made by Lido’s grandaughter… i literally started wandering just so i could stay and keep eating them… I have told Lido about this many times and he seems less than impressed but those biscuits resulted in my spotting a piece that blew my mind away. It was the simplest of weekenders but when touching the leather and the detailed stitching, I had a sensation similar to the one I had in Japan when handling the frames... Excitedly, I repeatedly asked about the bag and it turned out it was made by Lido and his daughter a few years ago for a brand (we cannot name) as part of a limited edition run. Limited indeed, it never got made as the cost of making it was apparently too high to meet the target sales price… Lido lamented about the entire ordeal and complained that brands these days consistently tried to cut the quality of the product.
Though Lido likes to think he’s the boss, in truth, his daughter Cristina has taken over the entire workshop working with a team of craftspeople spanning three generations.