Vertolk: Leather, business & challenging norms.
Posted on June 26, 2016
Hong Jiun, SINGAPORE
It is probably one of the more organic and fascinating materials out there. To know that a piece of hide you’re touching comes directly from animals after being tanned is rather intriguing. In a way, it is reusing every good part of what occurs naturally, where the skin of an animal is reused to make functional products.
Durability of a well-tanned skin is another key factor. I would say that for makers, we are concerned with how well something we make works for the client. Not just being aesthetically pleasing but also that it can serve its function continually for years to come.
On a personal level, I have always liked leather goods and am always on a lookout for unique and well-made products. This might be why I went to leather and not wood or ceramics or textiles.
Did you grow up with a certain lifestyle philosophy?
My parents are a major influence in my life. While we were brought up quite comfortably, we also lived in a simple manner. Simplicity is something that is instilled in me by my parents who lived that way by example. While we could afford things, they were thrifty and never splurged on big-ticket items. It was always about fulfilling needs and not wants. This would come to affect my outlook and principle in life later on.
I would say that I’m more of an active kind of person. Preferring a hands-on approach and being on the move. I was a scout during my primary school days and would go on to be fascinated by being outdoors (taking a month-long trip to Nepal after graduation from university). School holidays would also see me being occupied with building toy models: fighter planes, cars, motorcycles and even an Eiffel tower made up of toothpicks (a project initiated by my father, who is a mechanical engineer by profession).
I graduated with a business degree from Singapore Management University with a double major in Finance and Corporate Communications. Prior to Vertolk, I was with the Singapore Exchange for two and a half years.
After I left my job, I spent 7 months learning under an ex-Hermes craftsman who now lives in the US. She spent 16 years with the firm before leaving to set up her own boutique. Upon my return, I started Vertolk.
What was your biggest motivation to start Vertolk?
The idea came to life in April 2013. Even though I was employed then, I always had the desire to start something on my own at the back of my mind. In a way I was tired of just dreaming about ideas but never translating them into real actions. So I sat down one evening to brainstorm on what would be a viable venture (one that I could acquire a skillset that lasts beyond sustaining a business and one that did not require a large capital outlay).
Vertolk is also a vision of what I would want as a consumer. I have been blessed to travel quite a fair bit and I am largely captivated by the independent boutiques in Japan and Europe. For me, these are what make these retail markets thriving and exciting. There is an aim to be financially sustainable, but there is also a focus on the product(s) and customer satisfaction. So the concept of Vertolk and the studio is a way for me to bring the culture of local independent makers/boutiques that I have always liked to Singapore.
But I suppose it was me trying to challenge the norm that banking and finance or other well-paying professional jobs is the only way to survive in Singapore.
Why the name Vertolk?
Vertolk means interpret in Afrikaans. This is a tribute to Pius Pahl, a Bauhaus architect.
“Interpret” comes from the “truth-to-materials” movement where the focus is on the material and its natural characteristics. There is a need to “interpret” the material, understanding them and finding ways of using it in the best way possible for production.
Bauhaus is also incorporated into the name because I identify with its design philosophy of clean lines and functionality. This is also my guiding principle for my products.
What have been your challenges thus far?
As with all businesses, financial sustainability is key at the end of the day, to put food on the table. So the challenge started when you planned your capital outlay and calculating if your monthly sales is able to cover your overheads. And then there’s the balance of curating the ideal brand I want it to be and whether it makes real world sense.
I approached it with the mindset of myself as a consumer. I don’t like brands shoving ads into my face and I find myself being attracted to obscure brands that is product focus. So that translated to me wanting to build a brand organically (by word of mouth) and wanting to have a studio for me to work and also to hosts clients.
1. Building a brand organically means a very slow start and quite risky if you don’t get any volume;
2. Most people don’t understand why I would want to rent a shop space when I could have just work from home and save the money. But in my mind, that isn’t in line with the brand values. I would have no interest in getting a bespoke product if I can’t see the process or meet the maker or feel and touch the materials.
And when I think about it, I think it is because:
1. Money to me is important but not that important. I am making much less than what I used to bring home but I have no qualms adjusting my lifestyle. It just means being watchful of my spending. Going without or less of Starbucks for e.g.
2. I think it is quite unfortunate that in Singapore, there is a stigma if you’re not bringing home the cash. People feel the need to let people know that they’re doing well and that they’re working in the Central Business District. There is a culture of living a life that other people envy.
The disclaimer to point no. 1 above is that I’m single and not settling down soon. If I were to start a family, my own personal interests and pursuits may have to take a backseat, realistically speaking.
What do you think sets Vertolk apart from other leather craft brands?
For me, it is three-fold. One has to do with the process of making our products. All of our items are handmade in the truest form. We hand-cut the pieces, hand-stitch them and hand-finish with sandpaper, edge coats and beeswax, as is the traditional European technique. Our items have a fined finishing (takes up quite the bulk of production time) and are not left raw. Unfortunately the term handmade is largely diluted these days where machinery and automation may be employed.
Secondly, because I believe in the organic and natural characteristic of leather, we don’t use printed grains. The calfskin, goatskin and bridle leather that we bring in from Europe truly reflects the grain and texture of each animal. We don’t deny the attraction of high-end quality printed/embossed grains (used also by the highest-tier luxury firms) but in my mind, this denies what makes leather natural.
Thirdly, we do true bespoke pieces where we work together with the clients to design a piece. Subsequently we will develop pattern pieces just for this product. As with “handmade”, “bespoke” now is overused and hardly convey the true essence of it.
Is the leather craft industry strong in Singapore? Asia?
Leather craft started gaining traction probably 2 years ago but still lack behind the traditional powerhouses in South Korea and Japan.
Do you think there is a need to preserve, continue this craft in the country?
In a way, the Singapore education system, which is excellent, leans toward producing white-collar workers. There is not much emphasis on creativity and hardly do people build a career out of it.
The other point is that hopefully more people are keen and have the interest to pick up a skill that is disappearing globally, i.e. hand making leather products in the truest form. This will contribute to the handmade movement in Singapore, which keeps us culturally vibrant. In fact, Singapore did have a generation (albeit quite small) of leather/shoemakers. But these eventually became less profitable and many businesses folded.
What do you see in the horizon for Vertolk’s future? What’s in store in 2016?
My “first love” is really bags and briefcases and I will be spending time this year to start producing them and possibly come up with a capsule collection. I am intending to start selling on styleforum.net in 2016, which is a forum for independent menswear labels. I’ll need to get some briefcases done first before I attempt to introduce the brand. I suppose visitors to that site are people that I’m targeting. They are more discerning, able to appreciate true craftsmanship and also materials and they generally support independent labels.
What inspires you to stay creative with the product designs, the brand direction?
I think I am mostly influenced by the retail scene that I’ve come across during my travels and brands whose story I buy into. These are usually brands whose products speak for themselves in terms of simplicity and materials. Design wise, it is always about classic shapes and functionality.
Do you play favourites? Do you have a favourite design or product in your collections?
Not exactly. It is mostly about meeting the requirements of the client. But the design philosophy is to always stay clean, abstain from hardware (if possible) and keep it classic so it stands the test of time.
What is your workspace like?
I worked with my sister, a trained architect, to design my workplace/studio. We wanted to convey the honest aspect of the brand (full glass panel to exhibit what goes into the making of leather items) and also achieve a balance of approachability and professionalism. Not the easiest of combination! This is quite critical since the concept was built around hosting clients. I think it is important that we sell the experience of working side by side with the maker of your products, where you get to see, touch, and smell the materials that will be go into the pieces that you had commissioned.
Visit the Vertolk atelier/studio at Blk 38 Telok Blangah Rise #01-323 Singapore 090038. They are open from Mondays to Fridays, 11am to 5pm. You may also contact them directly or visit their website, www.vertolk.com.∗