GONZALO SANCHEZ NAVARRO
“Gonzalo’s workshop is like an operating theatre: clean, precise, clinical,” says Rita Britton, who positively bristles with excitement as she describes the atelier where Gonzalo Sanchez Navarro and his team of dedicated artisans craft Nomad Atelier’s bags. “The last time I went to visit him I was mesmerised by a computerised machine that sucks the leather taut to the cutting table and then laser cuts it into the right pattern pieces. It was like something out of Harry Potter.”
It is true that Gonzalo is a bit of an alchemist, the big boss of Complementos Tanino S.L. being well-known for his wizardry at mixing ancient tradition and Digital Age technology.
“When you work with somebody like Gonzalo you realise that you are dealing with somebody who is a craftsman and an engineer,” says Britton. “I’ve got a great deal of respect for people who can effortlessly juggle these two disciplines together at the same time.”
The result for Nomad Atelier is a collection of leather and exotic-skin bags that Britton describes as being, ‘like our clothes: a reaction to the nonsense in the fashion world’.
“What I mean is when you see a woman walking down the street wearing shoes that she has to bend her knees to be able to walk in, and carrying a ridiculously heavy bag on her arm, that’s not elegance. Our bags fit in with the kind of clothes that our customers want to wear: intelligent, luxurious, effortless.”
Cue the Weekend (made to order) and Mini-Weekend (£650) bags with their hidden zip compartments and bound leather handles; the Shopper (£650), whose size easily accommodates a laptop; the Backpack (£795) with its supple origami shape and two-way zip opening; the Messenger (£550), whose easy shape in supple calfskin makes it an everyday must-have; the Clutch (£895) with its dramatically oversized proportions; and finally the Pouch (£100): big enough to carry that iPad mini 4 you got for Christmas but still small enough to slip into any of the other bags for easy access to credit cards and a lipstick.
“Every style comes in the classic dark chocolate-brown and black, and then we have seasonal colours such as this winter’s deep purple; and all of our bags come in leather (and are lined with lambskin suede) with more luxurious options such as snakeskin, ostrich-skin and crocodile-skin,” says Britton referring to the Ostrich and Crocodile Shoppers which, made to order and priced at £1500 and £5000 respectively, are investment pieces that will make your run to the M&S Food Hall that bit more enjoyable.
Luckily for Britton, Gonzalo, who is as exacting and as picky as his clients, has approved of the leathers that she buys from the Northampton specialist who used to supply to Jean Muir; saying that they are some of the best leathers he has ever seen. “We have a great working relationship with Gonzalo,” nods Britton. “But I do think he gets fed up with me because I will have an idea in the middle of the night and ring him up first thing in the morning saying I need to see a sample of it ASAP.”
Gonzalo, forever the gracious and professional gentleman, is diplomatic in his response: “I am, how do you say, simpático to what Rita wants. We both want the very best so I inspect every piece of leather destined for Nomad Atelier’s bags myself and work out which areas from the skin we can use so that we have a perfect match on both sides of the bag.”
The 57-year-old, who was born and works in Ciutadella de Menorca with his wife of 36 years Josefa Serra Anglada, is typical of his generation in the sense that he was destined to go straight to work in the local leather industry as soon as he left school; just as most Barnsley lads went to work down the coal mines as soon as they could.
“Menorca has always been famous for working with leather and for making our traditional shoes: espadrilles and avarcas,” says Gonzalo of the region’s famous footwear with its signature sole of jute rope. (Avarcas being the peep-toe and back-strap version of the espadrille.) “And so, when I was 14-years-old, I started out as an assistant in one of the leather factories, taking leather from one workshop to another and doing errands. Then I did an apprenticeship where I studied the making of bags and it was there that I developed the necessary pattern-making skills.”
Today, Gonzalo is perhaps the region’s premier leather artisan; his clients including Loewe, the Spanish equivalent of Hermès for whom he makes belts, and Pretty Ballerina, the company which was founded on the same Mediterranean island in 1918 and has been enjoying a revival, helped in part by the Duchess of Cambridge’s love of the bags and belts that he makes for them.
Despite Britton’s scoffs and teasing remarks (“Well, I suppose there’s no accounting for taste is there?”) Gonzalo is chuffed about the royal patronage because it has thrown a lifeline for a local industry that is struggling to survive in the face of Chinese and Indian mass manufacturing. “Obviously with the [economic] crisis in Spain right now most of the [leather] factories are closing and the industry is moving away from here; it’s been very difficult. Thankfully, there are still tanneries here that have been around for centuries and that still work in an artisanal way, while all the time developing and using technology. You have to be flexible if you want to survive.”
Gonzalo’s survivor spirit has had a big impact on the next generation of Menorcans; something that his 30-year-old daughter Aina knows all too well. “My father and the family business has definitely had an impact on me in terms of how I approach my life; you need to make an effort to get where you want to be, just as my father has made an effort to get the business to where it needs to be today. I do sometimes work in the family business but I also want to make my own way, into costume.”
Torn between the, ‘high quality life we have in Menorca,’ and the life she has in London where, ‘everything is so expensive,’ but where she is pursuing her dream as a dresser at the Royal Opera House in London’s Covent Garden, Aina is (whether she likes it or not) the future of Menorca’s ancient leather-crafting tradition.
“You know the family business is different from other leather factories in the region because we also make bags; the others just make shoes. And Complementos Tanino is one of the best leather workshops because we’ve retained our high standards of quality in an ecological way.”
Indeed, all the leathers that Gonzalo uses (including the ones used to make Nomad Atelier’s bags) adhere to strict EU guidelines; the cows being raised on spacious farms primarily for their milk and meat, while crocodile-skins and snake-skins come with extra certification to authenticate the fact they are not from endangered species.
“This summer we are re-introducing the washed crocodile skin in pale beiges and creams,” says Britton gesticulating as if she were describing the world’s most delicious chocolate cake (or, in Reet’s case, a bottle of sauvignon blanc). “Can you imagine a weekend bag in washed crocodile? How beautiful would that be?”
The truth is, on a day like today — deathly damp and skyless — I can imagine a weekend bag in washed crocodile; and slipping my passport in that hidden zip compartment. EasyJet, here I come.