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Studio profile: London leatherworkers Craftory

A sunny Saturday in East London lead us to the shipping container workshop and showroom of leather goods company Craftory, and after a warm welcome and a brief tour of the space, we were dying to know more about founder Mihkel Männik, and the story behind his beautifully produced products.

Words Bradley Howe

Photographs courtesy of Craftory

How did Craftory become what it is today? Where did it all start?

Craftory started around three years ago. At the time, I was 23 years old and studying to become an aircraft pilot. After finishing secondary school, everybody was going to university, but I was never really into that — I was into creating stuff. I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do, but I started studying to become a pilot. Some time passed and after a while, it started to feel way too organised and by-the-book.

At the same time, I was working for a company that was importing leather goods into Estonia. I was becoming more and more passionate about the craft and had developed a few products and ideas, but nothing too serious. When I left the company, I really wanted to give leather a go on my own.

I had a clear vision of the brand and managed to persuade a good friend to partner up with me. We didn’t have a whole load of spare money lying around to invest into the idea, but we had such passion for making it our own that we made it work, and on a small budget.

What were Craftory’s first products?

I've never liked the ‘gothic’ style of leather craft — things like black-leather, studs, and silver — and I've never liked the ‘kitsch’ approach either, or anything that's too over-processed, gold, or glittery. So when visualising Craftory, I wanted to do something neat, lightweight and long-lasting. Just practical and clean. 

The first product was the Naked Portemonnaie. The idea behind this was to make a minimalist, bi-fold wallet. To this day, I’m still really proud of this product. I don’t think we’ve ever followed our principles more closely than we did on this one. Over time, I think it’s natural that Craftory has followed the market and listened to customers’ desires and expectations of leather, but the Naked Portemonnaie was the very beginning. We’ve been selling this for three years and it’s remained a stable part of our range.

How did people receive the company when you first started?

There are certain approaches on how to craft leather. One of them is an Italian industrial way. Products are usually mass-produced using slim leather with lot of additional textiles, such as polyester linings. Another is more of an old-school leathercraft, where the products are a lot thicker and pay meticulous attention to detail. We steered away from both of these avenues. We were doing something so simple that, at first, some people didn’t really agree with it.

What was the transition from Estonia to your space at Netil Market?

After our first year of only trading online, we were advised by many to go out into the big wide world and set up a basic stall. We thought it’d be the death of our brand, setting up a small table in a public place with a only a few pieces lined up. So we constructed this beautiful plywood set up, with a small workshop space in a mall back in Tallinn.

We were doing something so simple that, at first, some people didn't really agree with it.

As Estonia is so small, many people didn't believe that it could be possible to start such a small brand and grow it to the point where it's your primary source of income. After demand grew in the second year, we started to think about expansion and exporting our products. Netil was always the market I wanted to be at — I’d been to all of London's main markets (Borough, Portobello, Camden, Broadway), but Netil was the one at the forefront of my mind.

From our first day at the space, I quickly realised how much passion there was there. The traders are so proud of their craft and want to build solid relationships with their audience.

Earl of East London had a huge role to play in Craftory’s introduction to this community. For me, they really represented everything the space was about. The owners, Paul and Niko, were so welcoming and it was so motivating to be around people that were so driven and committed.

Are there any individuals or companies that Craftory aspire to or take influence from?

We used to follow a lot of other leather makers and brands online, but I’ve stopped doing this. There was a moment when our team was strategising and discussing ideas, and during that conversation we ended up mentioning so many examples that we had all seen on the same Instagram feed at one point or another. Seeing how others are marketing leather is great and it’s really inspirational to see the craft being presented in a whole new light, but you don't want to spend your day arguing on what others are doing or trying to size up to it.


Check out Craftory’s beautiful leather products on craftory.com.


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