A family affair

After growing to become one of the leading crafters of leather goods in Britain, Ettinger has expanded its luxury business to Asia and beyond. European CEO talks travel and tailoring with Robert Ettinger

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Today the Ettinger brand is synonymous with high-quality leather craft and prizes the use of traditional methods of high-skilled and bespoke manufacture that many have abandoned in favour of mass production. A keen traveller himself, Robert Ettinger has visited destinations all over the world and took some time out to talk to us about the global expansion, his passion for design and travelling in style.

You have opened in stores internationally over the years and business in the Far East is booming. What do you think makes the Ettinger brand so attractive to foreign consumers?
Yes. We have opened in many stores internationally and have an Ettinger stand-alone shop in the Ginza, Tokyo. I think our appeal lies in that we can produce a quintessentially British, hand made, unique product that is both elegant and timeless. Our products are exclusive, we do not mass produce and we are able to offer both a bespoke and post sales service. We also manage the exacting standards that the Japanese market in particular, quite rightly demands. Ettinger is also a royal warrant holder, giving foreign customers an assurance of both our quality and soundness. I think it is the combination of these factors that has made us so attractive to foreign consumers.

Ettinger is famed for its use of highly skilled craftsmen to create its products, tell us a bit more about this process and why it is so important.
Our products are basically hand made. Our craftsmen only use four machines, one to cut the leather, the second to thin the leather and the third to further thin the leather where it is to be turned over and sewn. Our products are then sewn with a sewing machine, rather like the one you may have at home. To work any of these machines or perform any other of the numerous processes, you need to be highly skilled, for it is not just being able to do it; it is being able to do it exceedingly well. I can assure you this is very difficult and requires training, experience and aptitude. Some of our very skilled employees’ families have been in the leather goods industry for generations.

Do you ever worry that these skills may be lost to modern manufacturing?
I think it is a very great shame that many of our traditional skills in this country are being lost, irreversibly, to countries with lower labour costs. For small luxury leather goods manufacturing, the process cannot be mechanised but many companies have already moved production to the Far East. As we are a quintessentially British company, only produce in comparatively small numbers and offer a bespoke service, I think it is highly unlikely that we would ever do this.

How has your own experience abroad shaped the design of your travel and outdoors collection?
It is impossible for me not to observe the leather goods being used when travelling abroad. My wife always comments on it when I do this on leisure trips. Our design may have a modern twist from what I have absorbed when travelling. Our products are essentially British but of course when manufacturing for foreign markets you have to take into account local customs, preferences and functionality. For example, a wallet for Japan must be of the right size to accommodate their currency and they are, as a nation, happy to carry men’s hand bags. The Chinese and Koreans do not carry coins, so their products do not need coin compartments.

Your father Gerard Ettinger famously worked on a number of German film productions; has his love of film rubbed off on you?
I must admit that I am not really a film buff myself. I tend to really only watch movies on long international flights. I have always had a great love for Jazz and blues. There is nothing I like more than to go to an informal venue and listen to live music.

Tell us about your ideal weekend.
My ideal weekend would be to go to Greece and bicycle leisurely around, sometimes looking at small archaeological sites or the murals in Byzantine churches, enjoying traditional Greek food and hospitality. However, I do not do this because of the rigours of flying and airports, for a weekend, are just too great and frankly my conscience twinges over the impacts of this on climate change.

So for me it is usually to stay out of London either at home or with friends. Try and get some good outside exercise in, share a meal with friends, maybe go to some Jazz or blues and read the financial times and Sunday times from cover to cover. I need to relax and recover from the rigours of the week.

You mentored Bridget Bailey during 2009-2010, what was it about her work that appealed to you?
It was her superb craft skills. She was a very artistic and versatile milliner. She could turn her hand to anything, even producing for us a flower arrangement made entirely out of leather. I was able to provide her with someone to talk to and enable her to formulate a strategic marketing plan. I know only too well how useful it is to have someone to sound ideas off with, who has knowledge and experience in the area you require. People have helped me in the past, maybe not in such a formalised manner, so it is nice to be able to continue the cycle by helping others.

Do you have any plans to mentor in the future and how do you hope this will benefit a new generation of craftsmen and designers?
Yes. The Crafts council have asked me to mentor a very gifted silversmith. I am very much looking forward to this.

Are there any designers past or present that you particularly admire?

There are many designers that I admire but in reality I think my taste is rather eclectic, choosing to combine a number of designs to give my products that modern twist whether it is style, colour or fabric. It is just so important that our designs remain so British with a timelessness and classic elegance.

You have travelled extensively, can you tell us a bit about your favourite locations and where you plan to visit in the future?
I love to travel, perhaps in a slightly different way. Our summer holidays are usually in Greece on a bicycle. No accommodation booked, no fixed itinerary, no Lycra, just luggage in panniers, staying in simple pensions and going as far as we choose or lunch permits! In winter we go to Oman, hire a four wheel drive and then, with only my wife, we free camp in the desert or on beautiful deserted coastline of South Oman. I also like to extreme ski, roping up, climbing to the top of the mountain and skiing down with no one but friends and a guide. My wife draws the line at this one complaining of vertigo when she stands on a thick pile carpet!

I would love to go to Bhutan and Sikkim. Buddhism and Himalayan mountain cultures really interest me.

Are there any examples of traditional craftsmanship you have encountered on your travels that have particularly inspired you?
It was amazing to see in Marrakech and Taroudant, some years ago, that they were still tanning leather outside in a lined hole. The whole process was absorbing. In rural Rajastan, I was fascinated by some of the traditional crafts that were still employed and the amazing skills required.

What has been your most profound travel experience?
The sun coming over a sand dune in the desert. You wake up, climb out of your tent, it is cold and everything is wet from the dew and suddenly the sun comes over the sand dune with its warmth and the immediate change in colour of the landscape. It is hard to describe but is just magical and somehow makes man look very insignificant.

What has been your favourite way to travel in style?

I, like everyone else, really enjoy a good hotel. I do not really like beach resort and spa type places, but I love hotels like the Raj Villas in Jaipur, The Conrad in Tokyo, the Hyatt Regency in Seoul and the Crowne Plaza in Salalah. All these hotels have something different to offer, are extremely comfortable and have great eating possibilities. I always try to get a business floor room as I cannot stand the bun fights of the busy buffet breakfasts. I am afraid that to me flying is a necessary inconvenience, although some airlines are definitely better than others at ameliorating the discomfort.

And finally, what lies in the future for the Ettinger brand?
The Ettinger brand is growing globally from Guam to New York. The challenge for us is to grow internationally without compromising our quality, exclusivity or our very Britishness that makes us so in demand. We are also starting to move into accessories for ladies, again not high fashion or bling but by producing products that are timeless and elegant.