- Buyer's Guide
Interview with Ideal & Co – Living Heritage
Ideal & Co believe that some things stay with you forever, which is why they create bags that salute Portugal’s rich cultural heritage, the creativity and skill of its people, as well as its natural resources, primarily beautiful Portuguese leathers. The brand, co-founded by Rute Vieira and José Lima, makes carry products that take on their own character and personality through use, creating unique and beautiful pieces that are valuable to their owners because they are personal canvases of the owners’ experiences. We recently caught up with José in order to find out more about this intriguing brand…
Your brand has a rich history of working with leather, can you run us briefly through your heritage?
Rute grew up in a village in the municipality of Alcanena, known in Portugal as the “Land of leather.” In 1786 Alcanena was awarded the first Royal Charter for an industrial tannery. A coat of arms with the royal arms, dated 1792, on the factory portico demonstrated excellence in the quality of tanned leather there. In 1935 Rute’s grandfather, who lived in a village 30km from Alcanena, created his own leather trading business when he was 14 years old. The years passed and the business prospered.
In 1959 he decided to open his own factory – Fábrica de Curtumes Ideal. Seeing leathers, taking in their special smell every day, hearing about production processes, problems and solutions, colors, qualities and innovations, was the atmosphere Rute had at home, at school and in the streets where she grew up and was known as the granddaughter of “Peles” (Leather man). Inspired by all the historical, social and cultural context of her family and the region, we launched in 2012 Ideal & Co – Living Heritage*. The brand stems from the fusion between our backgrounds, experiences and passion.
What inspired you to follow in Rute’s grandfather’s footsteps?
The creativity! Rute’s grandfather created his own business. António Vieira was a son of farmers, living on a farm with his parents and 11 siblings. Not identifying with this reality, he did not settle. He managed to look around and identified an opportunity to create a business that changed his life. Owner of a daring spirit, he realized that he had in his and the surrounding farms something that was essential to the prosperity of the nearby leather industry – animals and animal leather. In the beginning he crossed the Candeeiros mountain by bicycle with rabbit, goat or sheep leather on his back to sell to tanneries in Alcanena. Then he realized that the industries of footwear and leather goods were potential customers whom he could not ignore, and so he began managing orders and production of tanned leather in Alcanena for his own customers.
Later looking to ensure better delivery times and high-quality leathers that he was selling, he opened his own factory. There are many lessons to be learned: creativity, determination, persistence, pride in an excellent sales service and relentless pursuit of product quality. He showed over the years that each customer could always end up becoming a friend.
What do you have coming for 2014?
In the second half of 2014, Ideal is planning to launch new models. The main goal of this line update is to increase the supply of accessories for urban cycling, with new panniers and other surprises. We also want to serve many requests which are more focused on a female audience.
Like every year, new special editions are planned with our usual partners (MMIFF and Remade in Portugal).
The remaining updates will come through collaborations with productions/artists.
What’s the carry world like in Portugal? Struggling? In the process of renaissance? Flourishing? Why?
Portuguese brands enjoyed good access to raw materials and produced excellent quality products. However, in recent years with the invasion of Asian products they had to make difficult compromises and that battle took some of the traditional brands off the market.
Some brands decided to invest in synthetic material and others moved the production to Asia, having more seasonal ranges and trendy colors.
Others maintained a high-quality product with chromium-tanned leather made in Portugal, which positioned them towards an audience with a greater purchasing power, more mature and classic.
A couple of Portuguese brands have managed to create new opportunities working for fashion and alternative niches which are consumerist but have purchasing power and are willing to pay for fashion made in Portugal.
Finally, the big productions were moved to countries outside Europe. But the expectation of growth is real for the coming years. Like the shoe industry, the leather goods industry in Portugal is recognized worldwide. The best international brands produce in Portugal, the design and production quality of our companies are excellent. Plus, all of this is supported by the Portuguese tanneries which are some of the strongest in Europe, both in tanning with chromium and with vegetable tannins.
Where do you source your leather?
Alcanena is the region where 90% of the Portuguese tanning industry is concentrated, located next to the Natural Park of Serras de Aire and Candeeiros. Here we found the right partners to tan the leather for our brand.
Chrome vs Vegetable? What’s your choice and why?
Definitely vegetable. The vegetable-tanned leather develops a patina that gives a special character and beauty to the pieces, and the more they are used and exposed to the natural elements like the sun, the more beautiful they become.
Our products are tanned with vegetable tannins from the bark of trees such as Mimosa, Quebracho or Chestnut, among others. In the tanning process we do not use chemical-based products such as chromium salts that most leather goods marketed nowadays use. Vegetable-tanned leathers reveal natural characteristics of the leather, which makes each product made with this leather original and unique.
How do you select your tanneries? Their eco-based process? Use of a recognized chemical and water recycling process?
The emotional legacy has been our objective since the beginning, to work with the tanning industry of Alcanena.
Although since the ‘80s Alcanena activated a Water Treatment System and currently a unit of Treatment of Industrial Waste to which tanneries of the region are connected, it was important for us to contribute to the revitalization of ancestors’ techniques of manufacturing and processing of leather connected to the vegetable tanning.
For this reason our choice fell on one of the three Portuguese factories that still tan with vegetable tannins. Founded in 1930, Fabrica Angelinos continues in the founding family and the ecological vegetable-tanning process they used is certified by CTIC – Centro Tecnológico das Indústrias do Couro (Portugal).
Leathers tanned with vegetable tannins have become increasingly rare in tanneries from around the world. Due to the demands of industrialization and mass production, the traditional method of tanning leather using plant extracts has been, over the last century, replaced by the use of chromium which is highly polluting but which provides a much faster tanning time compared to vegetable tanning which can take weeks or months. Currently in Europe there are only a few tanneries using this eco-friendly method.
Do you still experiment with types of leather, or do you just have your favorites?
Until we get to the quality and appearance of the leather we want we do many experiments. Currently we only use one type of leather, preferably from the lower back part of the animal. The entire process, from the growth and selection of the animal to processing, tanning and finishing is done exclusively in Portugal. It is definitely a unique leather that ages wonderfully. However, it is open because it will depend on the pieces we come to present. We work with other leather types, textures and finishings, but the tanning process will always be 100% vegetable.
What are the biggest differences between experienced and novice leather workers? Where does the skill really show up?
The older craftsmen have learned and gained experience working with objects with more traditional features, and when the designers give them different challenges the first reaction is often saying that it won’t work. The younger generations normally have a different attitude, they do not have many preconceptions with innovation either in the shape or process. But when a problem regarding the construction of the piece, strength and functionality arises, experience makes all the difference to finding the best solution. You know how to cut, paste and what kind of point to use.
Can you look at crafted leather goods and know which country they were most probably designed and made in? Are there personalities in the styles of different leatherworkers?
The perception we have, and this is not a certainty, is that for instance American brands are more purist and honor the tradition in the forms and finishes, defending the Made in USA. French brands are more classic and work luxurious and exclusive raw materials, but often a leather product is a little too perfect and so loses some of the natural look. Italians are more audacious, reinventing the traditions, changing the finishings and materials, while maintaining the handmade construction.
It all depends on numbers. The greater the sales of a brand and the demand for a quick answer, the greater the temptation is to use Asian production and to obtain higher margins. However, there remains a great distance between European and Asian production. We can talk about leather products, but the origin of the leather makes all the difference. Leather from Pakistan, India and China is completely different from a Portuguese, Italian or Spanish leather.
The quality of the finishings, and the type of construction of leather products within Europe is distinct. It does not jump stages. Workshops are smaller and have the processes more controlled, with more attention to detail and they are more humanized.
What are your signature traits?
The reflection of the Portuguese cultural heritage and wealth of our natural and human resources. It is our goal through the collections we’ve designed to reinterpret, preserve and share the beauty of what is genuine and Made in Portugal. Obeying to well-defined criteria of aesthetic quality finishing, functionality and durability. Based on a functional minimalism Ideal & Co, Living Heritage * creates unique, timeless and desirable pieces, because: *Some things stay with you forever…
What differences do you see between the luxury leather work and leather craft work?
Luxury products are seasonal. The colors, the finishing and designs change every season, which requires a speed of design and production incompatible with the timings of the craft production.
The leather itself often has an aspect so perfect and such a luxurious finish that it now has nothing to do with the original raw material, often appearing like a synthetic product instead of leather. The making itself because of the demand for perfection is mostly industrial. An article of leather produced by hand with the aid of the skilled hands of artisans who crease, glue and sew each piece individually, using ancient knowledge passed down from generation to generation, lets you test and perfect the details that make all the difference in finishing off the pieces, making them special and unique.
Many of these pieces are numbered and signed at the end. Not all points are absolutely equal and small differences are perceptible from piece to piece but this is what will give character and uniqueness to it, making the owner of each item a collector of a single-edition piece.
Therefore it is not the stunning price of leather from some exotic animals used in the making of the piece that makes it unique, but the hands that build it. This for us is the greater difference between a piece of leather from a luxury brand and a piece of leather made by a craftsman. And they can both cost the same in the market.
Some leather heroes? Who has inspired you and continues to inspire?
The craftsmen. Being the craftsman who knows how to tan a leather with vegetable tannins, respecting measures and timings to produce the right tone, touch, malleability and strength. Being the craftsman who takes this leather and knows how to transform it into a beautiful and unique piece you wish to have and to hold with you always.
Our Portuguese cultural heritage and our abundance of natural and human resources are undoubtedly one of our greatest inspirations, they are centuries of stories and adventures!
Are some of those super-thick vegetable-tanned hides a nightmare to work with?
There is no doubt that there are details that require great skill and experience to get the desired result. Some of these processes are absolutely handcrafted, you need to have strength and precision to make holes by hand, to sew with needle and thread by hand.
What parts of leather preparation do you do yourself, versus getting the tannery to do, i.e. splitting, skiving, dressing, etc.?
We design the pieces for the collection and make the molds. Then we sit with artisans, narrowing the details of construction and preparation. Often we change details to ensure the best outcome regarding the aesthetic level and finishing. Also the leathers are chosen by us before the tanning process. The vegetable tanning is a natural process that does not use synthetic resins or paints. Due to their inability to hide leather imperfections, the leather should be as clean and smooth as possible. We seek to be always present, to learn and improve.
One great tip on working with leather?
Feel the privilege of working with one of the most noble and ancient materials worked by man. Working the leather is a matter of passion and respect for the whole involved process, from the life of the animal to the final piece. It is important to feel part of something bigger, which comes from the early days of mankind since the time of cavemen, evolving with humanity and cutting across many cultures.
Feeling the passion for the material, for a piece, feeling this passion personally becomes a serious love affair when you see the piece getting older.
A piece is shaped by our use, gaining a unique character and personality, reflecting our own experiences because each piece becomes over time more personal, beautiful and valuable. And also because some things stay with you forever.