It was March 2016 and we were approaching our second anniversary. There is rarely general agreement at our studio, but during this one special meeting - despite the usual chaos - everyone was on the same page. We were expanding.
The risk would be confusing our existing business as Archibald Optics. And we would need to reassure our customers that we would maintain our standards during our expansion. In a way, by setting the bar so high by partnering with the incredible craftsmen of Sabae to produce our eyewear, we had created a bit of a problem for ourselves...
Leather goods seemed a natural next product, and Florence was the place where we needed to be. However, it seemed that the city's reputation was outweighing the reality; the landscape was saturated with poor products, all of them 'Made in Italy'... And so, in order to find the craftsmanship that matched the levels of our eyewear, we would need to dig deep in an industry we knew very little about and find the genuine masters who could help us expand the Archibald collection.
You start the normal way, with Google. Myriad searches lead to workshops advertising themselves as 'luxury leather goods' manufacturers… Everyone in Florence, it seems, makes the finest product. You walk through the famous Scuola del Cuoio and witness people from all around the world learning the art of leather making. Yet again, it all seems so commercial. Nothing quite feels right. The products each artisan is touting are made a little too quickly, with time in mind rather than quality. Profit is the prime mover. Comparing the approach of these artisans with that of the Japanese Shokunin we had built our brand with thus far left us wanting…
Then the conversations begin. A casual enquiry in a small cafe leads us to a pawnbroker who, in turn, leads 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 put him and his ability into perspective, he is commissioned by the Ferragamo family, one of the most respected families in Italian luxury, to make unique gifts for those closest to them. Following a detailed 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 calls which lead us to three workshops, two in a suburban town called Scandicci and one on the outskirts of Florence. All three, Simone says, are incredible.
The Migrant Workforce
As we arrived in Scandicci on the way to our first meeting, we walked through the doors of an unmarked building. I have a habit of sticking my nose in where it doesn’t belong and it has led to some tricky consequences... But younger dogs can struggle with new tricks as much as old dogs, so when I saw the words PRADA on a box of women’s wallets my interest was piqued... Walking into the workshop, I heard a voice shout in Italian, but in a distinct, somehow familiar accent… Taking in my surroundings, I realised we were surrounded by migrant Chinese workers. As the manager wasn't available, we stayed for about 15 mins speaking with them and learned a shocking truth about “Made in Italy” today. I had intended to go deeper into this issue and might do so in a future blog post. But, for now, D.T Max has done an outstanding job painting the picture in this 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…
We had two meetings in Scandicci and they both went as we could have expected. It seemed that old-world craftsmen still operated, albeit secretly and in a much smaller capacity than one would ever have thought.
It felt good to finally get in front of some truly beautiful bags and frame our expectations for the collection we planned, just as we had when started out with our eyewear. It was difficult to realise what the real deal - the stunning, hand-stitched, super soft and supple $5000 bag - was until we saw the work that goes into it first hand. Our little adventure was starting to pay dividends.
We were ready to end our search then and there. But, not wanting to leave any stone unturned, we decided to keep our 7pm appointment at another workshop back in Florence.
To be honest, when we entered Lido’s workshop we did so with half interest. 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 some smaller scale Japanese brands and, even though it was clear these were amazing pieces, there was no wow factor... We were offered a latte with some home made biscuits and just as we were about to leave, I tried one.
The biscuits were made by Lido's granddaughter and were absolutely incredible. I took a greater interest in Lido's work 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 really blew my mind. 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 of our eyewear... Excitedly, I asked about the bag and it turned out it was made by Lido and his daughter a few years ago for a brand (which Lido would like to remain nameless) as part of a limited edition run. Limited indeed, as it never went into production because the cost of making it was too high to meet the brand's target sales price. Lido was asked to make it for a lower price and cut corners if necessary... He declined to do so and it genuinely saddens him that so many traditional luxury brands now try to cut the quality of the product.
I should add that although Lido likes to think he’s the boss, in truth it his daughter Cristina who now runs the workshop, overseeing an team of incredible team of craftspeople that spans three generations.