Artisan Spotlight: What It’s Like to Create Italian Leather Handbags

Artisan Spotlight: What It’s Like to Create Italian Leather Handbags | MakersValley Blog
Lucrezia Bernardi

Lucrezia Bernardi

It’s 5:30 PM in Italy when Antonio picks up my call. His employees are starting to leave his shop for the evening. “Neapolitans are hard working people, we have no problems doing a 13 hour shift, but this is a demanding job. When you get home at night, you are tired.”

Antonio is the classic southern Italian man: charming and friendly, a knowledgeable storyteller who can effortlessly go from talking about his leather goods shop to how the Italian language has been affected by French and Spanish. We talked for more than an hour, the conversation rolling, never less interesting or fascinating than when we started.

The Return of Artisanal Fashion

Antonio’s small artisanal workshop has been around for about 40 years, with his brothers working in it before him. He still remembers when his town was full of leather goods shops like his, before the fast fashion craze shifted much of the globe’s fashion production to Eastern Europe and China.

However recently, big luxury brands have started to return their production processes to Italy, although Antonio laments that even for the big brands, relying heavily on factory automation often results in soulless final products.

“We are attached to our roots here: we kept a small laboratory – 5 or 6 people – with very little machinery help. Almost everything is handmade,” explains Antonio. “The dyeing process [of the leather] is all manual, as well as most of the cutting. That's why it's artisanal work.”

That is also the beauty of Antonio's work: there will never be two pieces that look exactly the same. Every final item will always have its own story to tell.

Because the work done at Antonio’s shop is mostly manual and incredibly meticulous, they have no problems accepting smaller production orders – as few as 50 pieces – and getting them ready in about a week. His shop specializes in leather bags and has trained many artisans who have now gone on to work as manufacturing contractors for famous luxury brands like Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Prada, and Saint Laurent, just to name a few.

“You won't find a lot of pure leather in their [the big luxury brands’] products, though. Great fabrics and materials, but very little pure leather. Plus, their products are so perfect that they end up all being the same. What I like to do is try to understand what my customers are looking for, which allows me to personalize each design depending on the final need”.Italian artisan and coworkers - black and white picture

Antonio and his co-workers, about 40 years ago.

Eco-friendly Leather Work?

“The fact that we are a small workshop doesn't mean that we don't have to follow the Italian law when it comes to things like waste disposal, air control, and the use of non-toxic glues.”

Even though these regulations lead to higher costs for leather working machinery and materials, Antonio’s team has found different ways to improve their side of the business. “We use glues that come from natural products, like caoutchouc. We’ve never really used the dangerous stuff, not even 40 years ago.”

Italian artisan working on a turquoise bag

When I ask about introducing the use of vegan leathers or plant based animal skin alternatives, Antonio seems a little reticent. “I’ve seen different options being tried over the years, and they never really made it on the market. 

You get smaller pieces and that makes it hard to work. The cost of the final bag ends up being so much higher for everyone.”

From his experience, raw materials like mushroom leather or synthetic vegan products aren't as malleable as animal leather and they are still hard to source, which also can make them expensive when compared to animal leather. If more effort was invested into making natural leather alternatives more accessible and making waste disposal easier and cheaper, both smaller and larger garment factories worldwide would also be able to improve their processes, without sacrificing their bottom lines. That shift, however, will need to be driven by consumer demand and better fashion industry innovation and supply chain investment.

Antonio and His Journey with MakersValley

Italian artisan making a handbag

When I ask Antonio how he found out about MakersValley, his answer is quick: “Word of mouth.” A friend who was already in the business and was experiencing the same drop in international customer inquiries put him in contact with Alessio Iadicicco, MakersValley’s CEO.

“The platform is a cure-all for small businesses like ours. We got the chance to expand our possibilities outside the Italian borders.”

The chance to work with designers from all over the world seemed too tempting to pass up, and Antonio has one clear target in mind. “America has always been the dream land for us Italians. We’ve always seen it as the solution to many problems. We want to expand our business there and work with emerging designers [based in America]. They have the most innovative ideas. Weird sometimes, but always different from the rest.”

Antonio’s Tip to Up-and-Coming Designers

“Do 6 to 12 months [of work] in a manufacturing facility. The amazing thing about these young emerging designers is that they have a free mind, no worries in it yet. What they need to understand is that a beautiful idea needs to be realistic too. Whoever will transform their drawings into a physical product can't find something impossible to realize.

So get some experience in the manufacturing world. Understand how the products that you're asking for are produced. In the end, if you make a beautiful drawing of a bag, it will remain just a beautiful drawing if it is unrealistic to produce.”

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