As fast fashion gathers pace it's difficult to find beautifully crafted handmade products. While luxury brands churn out tens of thousands of handbags each season, Italian label Henry Cuir - which recently opened its first boutique in Hong Kong - is determined to preserve the art of handstitched leather, even if that means producing only 2,000 handbags a year. "Made-by-hand is the basis of our products so we can't make big quantities. The hand adds a different emotion to each piece and that's what I want to be known for," says Henry Beguelin, the brand's founder.
Beguelin, who considers himself more artist than designer, became a craftsman by accident. In fact, he was a professional football player until a visit to the local saddler changed everything in 1968 (he was 20 years old). "The handle of my bag broke so I took it in for repair. The saddler gave me a bag of leather scraps. I visited him again a few weeks later and he showed me how to stitch everything together by hand. With 16 pieces
I made my first belt which I wore out that night. Everyone loved it," he says.
Two years later Beguelin opened his first shop on the Italian island of Elba, and in 1998 he changed the name to Henry Cuir and opened boutiques in Tokyo while securing exclusive distribution at luxury stores such as Barneys New York. New lines were added over the years including shoes, jewellery, apparel and furniture. Despite its success, what didn't change were the methods used.
"It's my philosophy to create everything by hand. I didn't learn everything from school - it was very instinctive. Machines make cookie-cutter products. What's important is what you make in the moment."
All Henry Cuir products are still made by hand at its factory in Vigevano near Milan, by a team of about 20 artisans (one bag can take anywhere from three to eight hours to complete). Beguelin makes each prototype by hand, using Italian leathers handpicked by himself, and often creates styles made from just one piece of leather or using origami techniques. In addition to vegetable-dyed skins, the line also features camelskin, deerskin, fur and crocodile.
"I don't sketch. I get an idea from the material itself. I start by making a pattern and begin constructing the product. Sometimes the initial idea becomes different because I have to come up with new solutions. When you work with a machine it only gives you one option, this way it is more artistic or creative. My house is actually in the factory, so sometimes I sleep in the factory, so I can always work," he says.
The result is a line of products that appeal to customers looking for understated luxury thanks to its simple shapes, distressed leathers and earthy colours. The beauty is in the details, from the waxed linen thread used to sew each item to the handmade beads. A playful icon, whether a cat, dog or man on a bicycle completes each piece and has become the brand's signature.
"Our materials may be the same but the stitching is very decorative.
It becomes the protagonist of each product. The symbols are something childish that I use to elicit emotion. You can't do this with a machine.
"After all these years the core DNA is simplicity. At the same time it's very rich - just one detail provokes emotion," says Beguelin.
For now Beguelin wants to keep the business small, although he is considering adding hats to the collection.
But what you won't find are trend-following items. "Our products are about craftsmanship - we are promoting a philosophy. In this global world it's nice to have something unique."
Henry Cuir's handmade leather products range from (from left) chairs (HK$7,995), bags (HK$19,880) and boots (HK$8,695).
Henry Cuir, 33 St Francis Street, Wan Chai, Hong Kong, T 2528 1488. henrycuir.it