Style & Craft

Made in Walthamstow: the dunhill workshop

Stephen Doig visits dunhill’s Walthamstow workshop to discover how some of the company’s most celebrated pieces are made.

April 14 / 2016
The rarefied world of luxury leather goods - in the capital, at least - tends to use Mayfair and its environs as a centre of gravity, as Bourdon House, dunhill's handsome Regency abode just north of Berkeley Square, elegantly attests. Yet there are neither black Georgian railings nor a sense of Palladian splendour in the unassuming area of North London that dunhill's leather workshop calls home. A nondescript stretch of street gives way to an equally modest building that entirely belies the abundance of sumptuous goods and breadth of personal expertise that can be found within. Welcome to dunhill's leather accessories nerve centre, a paean to the art of considered craft. It's here that skilled artisans labour intensely to create the weekend bags, briefcases, wallets, document holders and other gentlemanly accoutrements that make up dunhill's exceptional accessories roster.
Upon entering the building, the first sensory experience one encounters is the workshop's scent: a rich aroma that emits from the plump rolls of bridle leather, lambskin and oak-bark leather that drape languidly from shelving. The second is the buzz of activity as love-worn awls, edging tools, blades and needles busily trim and traverse across skins in all their forms. On one table, a row of bespoke suitcases in varying shades of fawn and cocoa sit uniformly in line awaiting inspection; at another, a series of stately Heritage holdalls line up like sentinels, having just had their handles sewn. Brassware gleams and paint pots in shades of cinnamon, teal, Marsala and forest green wait their turn, when the colours will form the patina for a wallet or messenger bag. Exotic skins in their raw form, from glossy black patent crocodile (tail trailing to the floor) and alligator to slivers of stingray and ostrich, look suitably animalistic. This is the antithesis of mass-produced fast fashion, and it's an approach that's deftly demonstrated in the products.
Everything is crafted entirely by hand at this UK manufacturing base, which means that even the most 'simple' bag (for simple is relative concept in an environment such as this) will take 16 hours to create, while an average piece takes 30 hours. A craftsperson will work with the delicacy of a surgeon to weave a super-strength, wax-coated thread through the sturdy handle of a bag to ensure the stitches are entirely uniform and will hold the leather in place; another will cut and emboss the dunhill 'biscuit' tags that are affixed to some bags. Nothing is hurried; everything is considered. It's here, too, that the company's bespoke arm realises the wants and whims of its discerning customer: an attaché case sculpted just so, a series of suitcases with exacting specifications on compartment sizes. And it's testament to the passion and pride of dunhill's craftspeople - some of whom have worked here for 30 years - that alongside the bespoke offerings, just as much care goes into the smallest leather trinket to be sold in store. It might be off the beaten track of luxury, but this enclave is at the very heart of dunhill's celebrated history. Stephen Doig is men's style editor and assistant luxury editor at The Telegraph