Thursday, 21 November 2013

Cherchbi: leather goods made in the UK - an interview with Adam Atkinson

I'm a great admirer of the designs of Adam Atkinson of Cherchbi, whose beautiful leather and tweed bags and leather products are all made in the UK. They fuse modern design with traditional values of robustness and high quality, while respecting and preserving home-grown skills and raw materials. 

I also admire Adam's work using the fleece of the humble Herdwick sheep, a strong animal of great character, which is so important to the beauty of the Cumbrian landscape where I spend increasing amounts of my time. 

I met Adam and asked a few questions about the business he runs with such passion and style.

Adam Atkinson checks bag production at Cherchbi's UK factory

GF: Tell us about Cherchbi.
AA: These words from the website summarise the brand well:
'Cherchbi is a British leather goods brand. We craft modern designs in a robust, traditional quality drawing inspiration from Britain’s creative, cultural and manufacturing heritage.'
The brand is a culmination of experience; a 20 year career in the bag industry, my Cumbrian upbringing, my family experience in English shoemaking, Lakeland Arts & Crafts carpentry, tailoring and other hand crafts. More generally, the brand explores the experience of British manufacturing industries, their decline over recent decades and heyday some centuries ago. 

Cherchbi Cadence satchel in grey Herdwyck tweed

GF: How did you get started?
AA: After fifteen years helping global brands make their bags I resigned from my last job in late 2006 and, slightly jaded, returned to my birth-town of Kendal in Cumbria. After only a week I read of a farmer burning Herdwick fleece in protest at the wool price. A seed was planted, growing surprisingly quickly into a mild sheep obsession. It took four years and nine spin and weave trials to convert low-grade fleece into high quality waterproof wool tweed, subsequently named Herdwyck No.10. 

Herdwick sheep at this year's Eskdale Show. They have been coloured (ruddled) for show. (Image Grey Fox)

Herdwicks are one of the oldest and hardiest British sheep breeds, they have shaped the Cumbrian fells over centuries but are primarily bred for meat, which incidentally has recently been awarded PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status joining Champagne, Prosciutto and Roquefort. In other words it's only Herdwick if it's Cumbrian. It's a huge source of pride to have created a new material from a breed with such a significant story. 

The development of the tweed took me to Donegal (the spinner), Pembrokeshire (the weaver), the Scottish borders (wool finishers) and Lancashire (the final waterproof bonding process). In parallel with the tweed development I developed a network of other sources including leather tanneries, workshops and foundries and was continually designing and refining the first Cherchbi bag collection. Everything came together for AW11 when the brand showed at Pitti Uomo in Florence in January 2011.

Cherchbi Union Tenter workbag

GF: How would you like to see the business develop?
AA: I'd like to continue to grow the business slowly. The first four years were a struggle; I survived on telling an engaging story of Lakeland sheep, Britain's almost-lost leather goods industry and promises of a return to old-fashioned quality. Now Cherchbi has a strong design DNA, a proven supply of quality materials and a growing reputation. The brand has really begun to establish itself over the past two years; I feel we've reached the first rung of the ladder. Early customers risked an expensive purchase from an unknown brand, but now they understand our quality and regularly return or recommend us to friends. 

A recent collaboration with Marwood

GF: How important is the British-made and designed aspect of the product to you?
AA: British design, British materials and British manufacture make Cherchbi unique. This triangular brand cornerstone also makes our leather goods expensive, compared to some. The price has worried me a lot over the years, but I am unable to compromise. It was never a commercial decision to make in Britain and use this as a marketing tool. Cherchbi is made in Britain because I'm personally fascinated by our manufacturing heritage and want to make new products informed by this. I also want to reduce the many tens of thousands of miles travelled by raw materials and manufactured product to just a few hundred. Thirdly, the origin of our raw materials is just as important to our product and brand as British manufacture, our tweed and leathers are unique to Britain; there isn't an alternative. 

GF: Who and where are your main markets? How would you like to see these develop?
AA: We sell through some great stores in the UK, US, South Korea, Japan and Hong Kong, but sell directly to customers internationally via, around 60% reside in the UK or US, the rest are entirely international. We will begin selling in Germany later this year and I’d like to secure one or two stockists in the Nordic region too as I feel Cherchbi has a particular affinity with this customer and environment. 

GF: What have been the particular challenges?
AA: The first four years were hard, continuing to plough time and money into a venture that seemed to be continually failing was nerve-wracking. Giving up at Herdwyck No. 4 or 5 would have been the sensible thing to do. Production is a continual challenge, trying to maintain consistent quality using inherently inconsistent natural materials is obviously difficult. 

GF: What inspires you in driving the business?
AA: The knowledge that with head, heart and hand I've created something new and unique; the Herdwyck tweed, a completely new design handwriting, the Cherchbi brand itself, which has integrity and is completely transparent. As I mentioned, we're only at the first rung, so where to now? 

There are also some small things of great importance, walking into the studio first thing and taking in the smell of vegetable tanned leather. Leathers smell different; the very best veg tan is unmistakeable.

Cherchbi Haversack in brown herringbone Herdwyck tweed 

GF: What are you favourite moments in running the business?
AAWhen I received yet another tweed weave test, held it up to the light and couldn't see through it - Herdwyck No.10! Of course, it was sent to the lab in Yorkshire for testing, but I knew then it was good. I enjoy showing Cherchbi at events, we had Design Junction and Goodwood Revival in September '13, meeting customers and talking through our products and story is a treat for me. 

GF: How would you describe your personal style?
AA: I have a fairly understated style, I like a degree of coordination, or considered mismatching perhaps. I favour British made clothing of course. My top button is always fastened. Fit is the most underrated element of clothing selection, as important as colour, weight, composition and design. Having said all this I'm at home in the country, enjoy camping and being outdoors. In this environment practicality's more important but I maintain a pared down style; no bright synthetics, no logos. My style is British, modish I suppose. 

Hides waiting to be used at Cherchbi's factory

GF: One final thought?
AA: Two, if I may? Two things are exciting me right now. 
After a five-year wear test the wallets I designed in 2008 launched recently. I’d love to have your readers' opinions (see here for details). Along with the extraordinarily talented photographer David Ellison we’re working on our first book project.

Cherchbi's website here
Marwood's website here
Herdwick Sheep Breeders' Association here.

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