Supple and subtle, a Tusting bag is quintessentially British in its sustainable stylishness. Beautifully aged fine leathers are handcrafted through up to 250 stages to create a bag of beauty which will only improve over the years, its patina becoming attractively aged rather than jaded. There are no monogrammed repetitive patterns or elaborate excesses allowed on a Tusting bag – no, just classic styles that are timeless, and not fickle flights-of-fancy-fashion.
In rural Buckinghamshire, since the late 1800s, the Tusting family have quietly and competently crafted luxury leather goods, specialising in high quality leather baggage from travel luggage, briefcases, satchels and handbags to today’s technological accessories; iPhone and iPad cases and covers. So proud is the company of its heritage, it often uses local villages as names for its bags, honouring generations of local craftsmen and women who have loyally laboured over leather to create the authenticity of the brand that has become a global entity.
Most of the bags crafted in bucolic Buckinghamshire end up a long way from home. The Far East are totally taken with Tusting – with the brand becoming increasingly popular in China, but especially with the Japanese who are keen and discerning customers that insist on knowing the ‘what, when, where, who and how’ behind their purchase. There is even an increasing appreciation for the heritage and authenticity of an object within the British audience.
Tusting already collaborate with other iconic British companies such as Aston Martin and Church’s shoes, and the sight of Kate & William’s ‘Explorer’ bag has set a subtle trend, which keeps Tusting as a kind of semi-secret ‘stealth wealth’ brand, for those who appreciate substance as well as style.
Here, a 5th generation Tusting, William, talks us through the Britishness behind the brand that is Tusting…
Firstly, for those readers who aren’t familiar with Tusting, please can you tell us what you do?
We manufacture a range of travel bags, satchels, briefcases and ladies’ handbags in England. The history of the company dates back to 1875 when my great-great-grandfather opened a tannery. We have now been in the leather trade for 5 generations.
Tusting is a genuine British success story and exports throughout the world. Can you define the uniqueness of your leather products and why they are so special?
The uniqueness of our products comes from our leather knowledge and selecting the best leather we can for our products, from the best tanneries, and keeping in mind the requirements of each market. There are many leather bags out there, but the way we put ours together, with great skill, here in England, we’re able to make a beautiful bag that will last a very long time.
Your products appear very modest, pure and classic-looking – why have you opted for this style?
Our products are designed and crafted to last a lifetime and as this is part of our provenance and value so you need to have styles that are classic and do not date. We may take a product and introduce it in new colours twice a year, but we don’t follow fads and fashions, such as adding studs this season, or adding chains the next – we’re just not going to embellish our products in this way. Any changes we make are always in our classic styles.
How important is the quality of leather in creating your products, and do you have any favoured leather?
An essential part of our ethos is the leather we use. Our leather has many qualities; we use a firm leather that stands well, essential when making briefcases, and it has to be very natural looking. We don’t use a plastic coloured coating, such as the cheap pigmented leather you see on some sofas, so the colours won’t peel off, and instead they’ll develop a lovely patina with age, rather than just looking tired. My favourite leather at the moment is our vegetable-tanned bridle, which has a wonderful natural beauty about it, which matures and improves over time.
You have named many of your collections after local villages in the area of northern Buckinghamshire where you’re based, and the neighbouring counties of Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire just across the border. What is it about this area and why does it hold a special place in your heart?
The Tusting family have lived in this area for five generations and the area has a very ‘Cotswold’ feel about it, with many picturesque, rural villages. The naming of products to local villages is something we have always done and provides a link to the great craftsmen, past and present, who make our bags. The challenge is to keep coming up with new names!
It’s important to us that the people we employ at Tusting are from the local area, and I know it’s appreciated when we name a bag after one of their villages, knowing that their village name is being viewed thousands of miles away.
It’s refreshing to see you emphasise the connection between craftsmanship and the end product, as this is often lost behind a marketing smokescreen these days, particularly for luxury brands. How important is it that we acknowledge the skill that goes into crafting products by hand?
This is very important and is one of the joys of selling to Japan. The customer there fully understands this link; there’s a huge difference in the way a consumer shops in Japan compared to in Britain. In Japan, the selection of leather is really important, knowing which animal the leather came from, from which country, how it was finished etc. The Japanese really appreciate craftsmanship, and want to know the whole story. I’m sure that’s why smaller British brands that can tell the whole story do so well.
In the UK, the distinction of a British-made hand-crafted product is muddied by very clever marketing which is rarely challenged by the media. I’ve seen many advertisements in Japan whereby only a small section of the advert is devoted to imagery, whereas the majority of space is dedicated to telling the story behind the product in text. This is to satisfy the thirst for knowledge that Japanese consumers have for considering a purchase. It would be nice if British consumers felt the same way, but in the UK, the emphasis would be on the image, and not on the detail, but it’s the latter that is the most important aspect in my opinion.
Whilst the majority of major accessories brands have moved to the Far East to create cheaper products, why do you feel British heritage brands are proving so popular and what inspires you personally about British-made products?
I think you’ve first got to define what is a British heritage brand! There are some iconic ‘British’ brands, which I won’t mention, but if you asked a sample group of people where they thought their products are made, I am sure most people would think they are made in Britain, which would be incorrect, but that’s the inference their marketing produces. They emphasise their ‘Britishness’ in their marketing, but may not even make products in Britain any longer and they’re cleverly emphasising their historic connection to the country, or if they do still make some in the UK, then it may only be a token amount whilst the remainder are made overseas. I think we’ve just got to be careful what counts as a British heritage company these days.
I’m a great supporter of British-made products. It’s hard to define what it is about them, but they have a certain style and can often be quite innovative. I feel inspired by anyone who is making a really good, unique product, and, of course, it’s good for our country too.
I do think that quality British-made products are appreciated more overseas than in the UK, which is a shame. At Tusting, the majority of our products are sold overseas, either directly exported ourselves, or exported via our private label customers, and it’s probably as much as 80% that are exported. Our overseas customers really appreciate the authenticity behind the making of a beautiful product, and would rather pay more to have a product that is authentically made in Britain, rather buy a less-expensive version from us if we told them we could make it cheaper overseas. We certainly wouldn’t be able to maintain our overseas customers if we outsourced production to another country as it would be seen as less authentic and therefore less desirable.
By way of an insight into the artisanal nature of your work, could you briefly describe the process of crafting one of your leather products, such as a bag, and explain some of the key stages?
The key stages of making a bag is first the cutting of the leather to ensure the main panels use the best possible leather; we then have a team of two people who sew, fold, and piece each bag together followed by a very skilled finisher to produce our beautiful bags. We’ve produced some nice videos that give an insight into this process.
You’ve collaborated in the past with Ralph Lauren and have ongoing collaborations with Aston Martin and Church’s Shoes. Would you consider any collaboration projects in the future and what do you look for in a partner?
We will consider collaborations where we see a close fit with the customers who have similar aspirations for British-made products of quality. We’re very circumspect though, and value our British-made label highly, so will be very careful who we choose.
Tusting launched its first store in Tianjin, China, earlier this year and you also recently opened a pop-up store in Jermyn Street, London. Do you have any plans to open a permanent flagship store in London at any point soon, as well as any further international stores?
We do have a three year plan to open a flagship store but finding the right location is very difficult and takes time. Regarding international stores, we have generated a lot of interest in China and there are already some opportunities to open further stores there. In a way, we’re benefitting from the Chinese government’s clamp down on ‘gifting’, which has certainly affected big brands in the luxury consumer goods sector in China, and there has been a subtle change in the past 18 months away from clearly branded big labels to less well-known heritage brands as the country is becoming more sophisticated and discerning.
Is there such as thing as a typical Tusting customer, and if so, how would you describe them, and do they differ from country-to-country?
The typical Tusting customer in the UK is hard to define but mostly over 45 year’s old, affluent, and generally with a good understanding of quality ahead of the need to have the brand logo. In Japan and the Far East they are younger customers in the 25 to 45 range of age and very aware of product provenance.
Purchasing a Tusting leather product is an investment. How long can we expect your leather products to last, and what can we do to improve longevity?
The great thing about a Tusting bag is we will look after the bag for life. This essentially means if after 15 years you need a new handle or even a general refurbish we can do this for a small charge and you will have many further years of life. As to what can be done to improve longevity, most of our leathers don’t actually need any treatment. A clean once a year would be okay, but that would be purely out of personal preference, and it’s certainly not essential. Our leathers are dyed through and have lots of wax in them, so the leather won’t start cracking even if you do nothing to it for 10 years.
Finally, how do you foresee the future for Tusting?
The future for Tusting is very bright and our international growth has given us confidence. We’re definitely building for the future, so I imagine there will be further collaborations, different ranges and more stores to come…
Thanks to William Tusting for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions.