June 29, 2013 by Ville Raivio
‘I am 37 years old. I own and manage Equus Leather, or Equusit Ltd as we are formally known. My trade is saddlery and leatherwork, but as in any small growing business I wear many hats (which is handy, I am somewhat of a hat enthusiast; both metaphorically and actually, provided they are tweed). My education is somewhat of a mixed bag, my school education was not especially glorious and perhaps is better glossed over! I was not an enthusiastic student as a child and looked forward to the end of the school day more than the start! I have an undergraduate degree in Finance, a random choice in the context of my occupation, but actually a very interesting topic and one that has been extremely useful in business.
Punching holes into a lined and raised belt
Before university I became a qualified riding instructor – again somewhat random but the combined background in Equestrianism and Finance has been formative in developing a love for leatherwork and the ability to turn an enthusiasm into a business. I am a country person and my hobbies mostly revolve around my dogs and horses and the countryside. I love the wild places of England and my heart is in the empty uplands of northern England. I am an enthusiastic runner and ran my first marathon last year, very slowly! I confess also a weakness for fast cars, preferably with large V8s.
I have neither children nor spouse as yet, but Dawn and I are due to be married in August of this year. Many of the readers of this will know Dawn, she runs the order and customer management for the business and deals with a lot of the details that makes things tick. I am very lucky to be able to work with my future wife and for us to spend our time together doing something we both enjoy. Like many entrepreneurs before me I have a tendency to be fairly thick skinned in the face of other peoples skepticism! We have grown consistently and quickly since the business first started which has I think reassured most family reservations. I love beautiful things and always have done and given my background with horses leather work and saddlery seemed a natural thing for me to do. Leather is such a beautiful material and so satisfying to all the senses when tanned, finished and made into something lovely.
I have made thousands of belts and other things over the years and it still gives me a great deal of satisfaction to make something that I can be proud of. When I was a young man I was based with a Master Saddler who had trained and qualified with a London firm called W. H. Giddens, a firm later incorporated into Swaine Aidney Brigg I believe. I was lucky to have someone to set me on to a path where making the things I considered beautiful turned out to be an achievable goal, and more or less the rest is history – I discovered a craft that would keep me endlessly amused trying each day to make better things today than yesterday.
I have done all of these things over the years, and am now in the position of training our own makers as well and passing on my experience. I have worked with and trained under 2 excellent Master Saddlers over the years and I still pick their brains when I’m developing new products. I have also worked alongside a master silver smith and jeweller who have helped us really push the quality and finish of our metalwork. The saddlery trade has been mature for many hundreds of years so there are a number of excellent books around which are consulted from time to time, but you can’t beat talking to and working with those who have spent their lives in the trade. As time goes by though I appreciate that more than anything you learn a craft through your own experience and through your own finger tips, with all the tuition in the world your hands have to be able to make what intellectually you understand how to construct. A craft is much more than the ability to follow a set of instructions, the real art is in the ability of your hands to manipulate your tools in to making something beautiful and this is what takes a lifetime to develop and a journey I hope I am only a short way through. This is a very satisfying contrast to the more cerebral nature of my Finance degree and other aspects of my work managing the business.
I have been working with leather since I was 20 years old (a very long time ago!), but Equus as a business. selling the way it does over the internet. was born 5 years ago. Other than for the business to be a success, I don’t think we really had any specific goals in those days and whilst I have always been a believer that quality will sell. it has been a pleasant surprise how well what we make has been received all around the world. I’m lucky that the internet has completely changed the way business works, a previous generation of craftsmen watch the demand for their skills die in the face of ever increasing mechanization and cheap imports, we have the opportunity to communicate one to one with enthusiasts and people who value quality all over the world, and we live in an age where we as craftspeople can explain why we do what we do and what the benefits are and for that I’m very grateful.
I think it’s fair to say that day to day I am somewhat scruffy! A working workshop with sharp tools, leather fragments, dye, naked flames and polishing compounds is not the place for good clothes, but when not in the workshop I tend toward traditional English dress. I nearly always wear something made from tweed and I wear natural materials – wools, and cottons, I hate plastic in any of its incarnations. I particularly like RM Williams trousers – not very English but very well made, Viyella checked shirts for casual wear and have tweed from a number of makers and mills, but often made up by Bookster who makes things well.
I wear suits infrequently but my most recent buy is a rather nice pinstripe by Gieves and Hawkes. My formal shirts tend to come from Jermyn Street makers. I am a big believer in buying expensive things infrequently, so what I buy tends to be fairly expensive but lasts for a lot of years – a philosophy I also apply to what we make and I think also the view of most of our customers. In a world where everything seems to be disposable I frequently feel somewhat out of step, but I’m afraid that don’t actually worry me very much! I think the disposable culture is being increasingly shown to be a false economy and unsustainable in the long term and the resurgence of interest in quality despite the financial climate is evidence of this. My current clothing project if for my own wedding latter this summer where I will be wearing a traditional Morning Suit.
I believe we offer a beautiful, entirely handmade product made by people passionate about what they do at an extremely fair price. We are one of the very few companies left who actually make you a belt to order, that is the belt you receive, with all your customizations and choices, is made just for you, it isn’t out of a packet from a store room shelf. That means you get exactly what you want and means we can offer a huge range of choices. Just our West End belt for example has around 2,500 permutations without starting to think about customisations to thread colour, edge colour, hole placement or other details. I also believe making things this way means you get a better product. Each belt (or anything else we make) is made from start to finish by one person, and that person is making the belt to your order details for you personally.
I believe strongly that its much more likely something will be made well if it is for an owner with a name not for a stock shelf and I make sure that the lists we use in the workshop each day always have the eventual owners name as well as an order number. I do all this to make sure we make you the best thing we can because that’s the right thing to do and if we look after you, our customers, you’ll look after us. As well as making beautiful things we do our best to make sure our customer service is personal, helpful and doesn’t let our leather work down. Pleasingly this is a social and business philosophy and experiment that whilst old fashioned, is working and our order book is always busy.
In short, I hope I can describe them as beautiful and functional. They are there to do a simple job, to hold up their owners trousers. I aim to make belts that fulfill that simple purpose but in the process become old friends over many years of use and whose eventual loss or passing is mourned. I want to make products that people love and have a visceral reaction to — things that are used but treasured.
New addition: chunky suede
To me, English bridle leather is the best choice for what we do, but then, given I am an English saddler, I would think that! In all seriousness, though, it has a worldwide reputation as the best leather of its type available and looking at the output of the top makers of belts, briefcases and even wallets you’ll see that English bridle is a recurring theme. It is strong, dense, flexible, beautiful to look at when new but ages gracefully and lasts a very long time. From the point of view of us as makers, it is generally forgiving to work with, through our Baker’s oak bark tanned leather is much harder to work with than our Sedgwick leather.
It is one of the most expensive leathers to buy, including the French and German calf leathers that are so hyped by the industry, but its expense is justified by its longevity and the quality of work that can be made from it. Many leathers can be found that have one or some of the qualities bridle leather does but none seem to combine all of them. I struggle to diversify our product range because all the leather I look at is judged in comparison with the bridle I work with every day and as a result I am very, very picky.
Lined and raised: close to 1,000 lock-stitches
Leather is quite a technical subject and specific tips would probably be of more use to those in the trade than those shopping for finished goods, but my general tips, both leather-related and not, are:
1) Buy beautiful things you love — life is too short to own things that you don’t love.
2) Buy well-made expensive things from sources who can demonstrate to you you’re paying for quality, not marketing. You will get something that is cheaper to own over the long run than something cheap and you’ll also have the satisfaction of owning something lovely.
3) Don’t wear plastics in any shape or form unless sport is involved.’
Pictures: © Equus