Judy Bown loves geeky detail; I love geeky detail. Talking to the bag designer and manufacturer was always going to be a pleasant experience.
Indeed, Judy’s first-ever post on her Designer’s Diary says it all: “Some brands believe that their customers don’t give a fig where or how things are made anymore. I think there are people who want to know the provenence of what they buy. It’s not about being elitist, it’s about a quest for quality.”
Now, it’s very easy to say that you care about quality construction and quality materials. Slightly harder to prove it. Fortunately, Judy spells out every aspect of how her bags are made and the qualities that go into it.
Take the brass hardware that is featured on Bown travel bags. Real brass has a deep colour and warmth that is lacking in the most common alternative, Zamac. This cheap imitation can snap under stress, feels thin and tinny and doesn’t age well. Indeed, you can often spot it by the artificial ‘aged’ look it is given. Judy says Zamac has crept up the fashion ladder – it used to just be seen on cheap high-street bags, now “so-called luxury brands think their customers can’t tell the difference and happily promote it as solid brass”. And she should know. Judy designed the bags at Mulberry for nine years, before working at Coach in New York and then consulting for Tocca, Asprey and Tanner Krolle.
The Bown brass is made by a family firm in Florence that can make small handmade orders to Judy’s designs. It is also individually lacquered to protect it from tarnishing and preserve that warmth – so while it retains the qualities of brass (such as strength with that little bit of give) it doesn’t need much maintenance.
My favourite detail is probably the zips though. These are made by RiRi in Switzerland, the best manufacturer of them in the world, and are all made to length. That means that each tooth matches up exactly down the length of the zip. You’d think that would be easy to do, but the alternative – peeling off single sides of a zip from a big reel – sometimes means the teeth miss ever so slightly. Leading to that annoying jarring.
Each tooth of the zip is individually stamped, polished for 18 hours to remove all rough edges and then washed for a further six hours. If you run your finger down the inside of the zip, you’ll feel no rough edges at all – unlike cheaper, mass-produced zips. Most of the best manufacturers use RiRi zips – I noticed recently that my Albam gilet, which I always thought zipped up in a very satisfying fashion – also has a RiRi zip.
On the Bown linings, I love the anecdote Judy tells about a customer who discovered accidentally that they have a waterproof backing. “He’d driven from Bonn to London and on getting out at the other end, tired and in a hurry, threw the debris from the passenger seat into his bag. This included a styrofoam coffee cup that he thought was empty. When he came to unpack the next day, he was horrified to see the cup on its side, dribbling coffee. Carefully removing his other possessions first, he saw that coffee was sitting in bubbles on the lining. With a bit of kitchen roll he dabbed it up. Absolutely no stains.” The inside is not absolutely waterproof as the seams are not sealed, just sewn. But unless you want to transport water in your bag, that’s unlikely to be a problem.
All this, and we haven’t even talked about the leather yet. Bown bags are made of many different types of leather – including a rather nifty one that is a whole goat on either side – but one thing that unites them is the vegetable tanning. This is pretty commonplace with men’s shoes, but more and more bags are being chrome tanned or use synthetic or corrected leathers. The advantage of vegetable tanning is the natural appearance and the way it ages.
You don’t want a big fault in one side of the bag, but it is nice to see the neck lines down one part of it where the skin has grown. And the unique patina that a natural leather has can never be replicated aesthetically by an artificial process. Chrome-tanned leathers have less subtlety, individuality and do not get better as they age.
Then there’s the inking – how the black stuff is painted down the side of leathers when they are sewn together. You can tell it’s done by hand because there is no line up the middle of the join (makes it stronger too). But I think we’ve had enough geeky detail for now, even for me.
I’ve been using my Overnight Cabin Bag in dark tan for about a month now. And I get a palpable pleasure from using it – whether it is the buttery feel of the leather or the knowledge of its craft that comes from the details above. Few accessories (non-clothes) I have ever bought give me that same sense of satisfaction.
If you want more, I highly recommend the Designer’s Diary on the Bown website. I read it all, backwards, (much in the way I hope people trawl through the archives of this site). Thanks to Judy’s descriptions of leather working I now really want to take one of the courses run by Val Michael and Neil McGregor at their workshop in Tetbury. So much better to do it than just talk about it.