“If I can do it myself, I will,” says Harry Owen resolutely as we survey his North London workshop – a jumbled haven of tools and equipment, and the heart of Harry's one-man enterprise hand-crafting bespoke and made-to-order leather accessories. The very definition of 'hands on', Harry is responsible for every aspect of his brand, from engineering products and sourcing the finest leathers to meticulously hand-stitching every seam. It's a considerable undertaking for one person, and Harry bears the evidence of his commitment on his hands – thickened from years of laceration caused by sewing with thick wax thread. “It cuts into you quite badly, but after a while your skin hardens. I always think, how do people with soft hands do anything with them?” he jokes.
The sacrifice is justified, as hand-laboured saddle-stitching has become a hallmark of quality for Harry's brand. The complex technique creates durable products superior to their machine-stitched equivalents, which Harry found himself repeatedly repairing while working at a cobblers in his teens. “Saddle stitched leather is much stronger,” he explains. “You can't use wax thread with machine stitching and the stitch form is weaker as the top and bottom stitch rely on each other, so if one stitch breaks, the rest of the run falls apart quickly. Saddle stitch won't do that.” This determination to execute the highest quality finish runs as a theme throughout all aspects of Harry's craftsmanship – from the hours spent engineering each item to be as functional as possible, through to a determination to make everything by hand, which sees Harry travel across the world to salvage antique tools and if a piece can't be found, hand-crafting his own from scrap steel.
In a product almost entirely made from one material, quality is paramount, and Harry's knowledge of leather processes is encyclopedic. Everything is sourced from European tanneries that use environmentally-friendly processes and locally-sourced hides. “I don't use any chromium tanned leather,” says Harry. “Which is partly an ethical decision as the process generates harmful waste, but also because the hide loses its natural texture and doesn't tend to age well.” By contrast, Harry's hides are tanned in gentler ways, such as an in a Devon oak bark tannery where each hide takes a year to complete. “The leather stays stationary throughout the process so it's very strong and tough,” says Harry, offering up a chestnut shoulder bag finished with brass fittings. “If you look after it, it should last you a lifetime.”
Harry's commitment to crafting an enduring product is partly born out of a sense of craftsman's pride, but also a larger debate surrounding the consumption of leather goods. “By 2020 the demand for leather will outstrip the demand for meat,” says Harry. “My solution is to keep the manufacturing process as local as possible and create products that last.” This involves taking the time to revive the high-quality touches that other mass-manufacturers have abandoned in favour of speed, such as burnishing – sealing off edges with an acrylic-based dye and beeswax. It's a laborious procedure, but means that Harry's products continue to improve with age. A leather satchel used by Harry almost every day hangs off the back of the workshop door, and despite years of scuffs, wet British weather and even a dousing in rabbit's blood after an unfortunate journey home from the butchers, all it has to show for the abuse is a gentle patina.
However, despite Harry's passion for traditional craftsmanship, his approach to design remains decisively modern, drawing on a degree in design to update his craft. “I think design training is really useful for leatherwork,” he explains. “I'm always trying to find a better way to do something.” Much of this involves developing methods for making notoriously weighty bridle leather products lighter and easier to use. Harry's most recent triumph is a tan hold-all modelled on a Gladstone bag – a design that traditionally features a heavy metal frame. Through some clever engineering, Harry has managed to do away with the frame but retain the iconic shape, making a classic style accessible again. By combining modern design with traditional aesthetics and craftsmanship, Harry hopes to promote a more concious consumerism that places the value of a product in the quality of its making; “We should be focusing on locally crafted goods, and making things that last – we only have one planet.”