One leather company demonstrates the fine art of carrying style
Logos and it-bags? Forget it, says Julia Robson: for the real style cognoscenti, discretion is the better part of chic
There is, quite simply, no substitute for class, which explains why certain brands, way off the household-name radar, exist as if pickled in aspic.
Real class is all about the little things: unspoken codes understood by old-moneyed families - landowners, aristocrats, royals - whose wealth and good taste is ingrained within the family genes.
It's about the knobbly tweed shooting jacket worn by four generations of Bowes-Lyons on the Wemmergill grouse moors, or the battered attaché briefcase that has weathered far worse storms than the current global crises.
Posh folk and the long-time rich are particularly fussy about bags and luggage. Authenticity is the watchword. Old money "toffs" want their bags to whisper heritage and craftsmanship, rather than shout about superficial features such as a flashy colour, logo, or worse: shiny newness - the telltale sign of recently acquired wealth.
Although celebrities might have us believe there is only one firm (hint: with a distinctly recognisable monogram) capable of producing the most prestigious trunks in the world, this is just not true.
Certainly not in France, at least.
Here, the travelling companion of comtes and comtesses is a fleet of trunks by Maison Goyard, a company that can trace its roots back to a workshop in the Rue Saint-Honoré, founded in 1828. (The author of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was a famous Goyard customer).
In Italy Valextra, not Prada, is considered the real deal. Famous for glamorous, breathtakingly soft white calfskin luggage (craftsmen must wash their hands every five minutes and packers wear white gloves handling these), Maria Callas never left home without hers.
And the grandest luggage money can buy? It's a British firm called Tanner Krolle. The company was established in 1856 by Frederick Krolle, a second-generation master saddler, who anticipated a need for handcrafted luggage for first-class passengers at the advent of steamships and railways.
He came up with the idea of a "portmanteau", a solid hand-stitched dresser case made of heavy bridle leather, from his workshop near St Paul's Cathedral.
It became a hallmark of wealth and rank during the mid-19th century. One commission included a bespoke picnic case for an Indian maharaja designed to be carried on an elephant.
In the 1900s Tanner Krolle created some of the earliest prototype luggage for cars. They created a series of "jigsaw" cases to fit in the boot of the Aston Martin DB6 Volante MkII convertible - the very model that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge drove off in after their wedding on April 29.
Diana, Princess of Wales, travelled extensively with her Tanner Krolle luggage. Her sons, the Princes William and Harry's school trunks came from here, as did the late King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud's fleet of 136 trunks.
The company remained in the Krolle family until 1992, when it was sold to Chanel who added it to their portfolio of craft houses (Lesage, Massaro, Michel and so on).
As well as supplying blue-blooded bespoke clients, Tanner Krolle continued to make traditional English bridle leather goods for brands such as Holland and Holland, Asprey and the department stores Bergdorfs, Brooks Brothers and Harrods.
Given this was the era of "it" bag hysteria, Chanel also attempted to come up with the Tanner Krolle equivalent of the Chloé Paddington or Fendi Baguette. Perhaps not surprisingly, its clients were bewildered by the brand's new fashion spin - the antithesis of what it was about.
Then deciding to dispense with the company, Chanel almost broke it in two: the name was sold to a private equity firm apart from its Walthamstow factory.
Pity they didn't hang on just a bit longer. After all, it was Coco Chanel herself who remarked: "During the economic recession (of the 1930s), in every sphere of life, there has emerged an instinctive desire for authenticity."
As a backlash to "it" handbags and throwaway fashion, authentic luxury brands have never been so relevant, especially those considered iconic status symbols such as Tanner Krolle, which six months ago opened a flagship store in London's Mayfair.
A visit to the new HQ at No 11 Shepherd Market feels like you've stumbled into Diagon Alley in Harry Potter, with its maze of cobble stones and dark wooden shop fronts. A stone's throw from Park Lane, neighbours include the polo outfitter, Polistas, and the strictly private members club, Ruperts.
"Because our roots were in bespoke, many customers remained loyal to the brand," says John O'Sullivan, who describes himself as the shop "curator". (Given the museum-like pieces here belonging to the spring/summer 2011 range, which include ostrich and alligator as well as signature blonde calfskin bags updated with woven handles, this title seems apt).
Although retail is a growing interest, 43 per cent of the company's business remains bespoke. Customers include Queen Sonia of Norway, the British Windsors, the Brunei royals and members of the banking and oil dynasties within the Middle East, Russia and other parts of Europe. Recent commissions include a 36-piece luggage set in alligator skin inlaid with pink diamonds and a travel case to house a Van Gogh painting.
"Tanner Krolle customers have a particular taste; let's call it 'high taste'. They exist in an isolated world which has nothing to do with fashion. They might bring in a bag belonging to their mother or grandfather. We can update, personalise…"
Prices start around £1,300 (Dh7,700) for a classic calfskin bag. Bespoke can cost upwards of £16,000 and take eight weeks to complete.
"We use the best leather in the world," O'Sullivan says. "Northern European cattle live in a colder climate, which means fewer insects. The skin is totally flawless."
The tanning process takes six weeks, resulting in a buttery cognac shade. Beeswax is added to make the leather soft and waterproof.
Robert Simpson, a businessman who married the last surviving daughter of Mr Krolle, provides the dénouement to the Tanner Krolle tale.
Having worked for his wife's family business until five years into the Chanel takeover, he left to set up a leather factory that supplied traditional English saddlery to clients such as Ralph Lauren, William & Son rifle makers, John Lobb of St James's, Asprey and now Tanner Krolle.
That factory, RBJ Simpson of Shoreditch, east London, is a short black-cab ride from Mayfair. It is here that I get a glimpse of the mind-boggling craft of luxury bag-making close up.
"There will always be people willing to pay £2,000 for a handmade bag," says the softly spoken Simpson in his impeccable accent. "It's what you do if you can afford it. For most clients, price is not an issue - getting what they want is.
"Our great strength is English bridle leather. The French and Italians don't like working with it. It's not easy to produce something that looks good from hard leather, but we've had centuries of practice.
"When someone walks into a meeting with a Tanner Krolle briefcase it says it all: power, wealth, knowledge, status. It used to be only older clients but now younger customers in the legal or banking professions are getting what the brand is about.
"An indication of our status is verified every time a vintage Tanner Krolle trunk comes up on eBay in America. It sells for thousands over the odds. We try to buy them back when we can."
In the main workroom of the factory, which boasts a team of eight (pre-Chanel it was 28), well-used tools lie on wooden workbenches alongside Bunsen burners (to warm leather in order to make it pliable) and packets of Pall Mall cigarettes. The actual process of making the bags has not changed in almost a century.
"I'm a newcomer," jokes Andy, a craftsman with 40 years' experience. "First, I was a blocker [someone who embosses the brand name]. It takes years to get the pressure right. It's not tiring - I could work 'til I'm 100 - but it's a brain job. Everything has to be equal. You can't rush. It's like working with a baby, working with bridle leather. The right tools are vital. Some of mine are more than 100 years old. A woman gave them to me when she retired at 82. I've told my wife I want to be buried with my tools."
Martin, one of the original craftsmen, with 51 years' experience, explains that many bags are made inside out and leather is laboriously worked into, like wood.
"When you start from scratch it gives a longer life to leather," says Dennis, working on a briefcase handle that will eventually mould to the contours of its customer's hand.
"These bags get better with age," says Simpson. "It's a hazard of the business. They just don't wear out."
Updated: May 22, 2011 04:00 AM