The Irresistible Attraction of Makers
In Benedita, a hamlet about an hour’s drive from Portugal’s capital Lisbon, two sisters run their father's leather company. Dad is António Mateus, who started his business 35 years ago, working exclusively with high-quality vegetable-tanned leather. Graphic designer Sara, and her fashion designer sister Ana, continue his life’s work, and recently launched their own collection of simple, versatile, sustainable and high-quality leather goods. As a living tribute to their father, they call it António A Handmade Story. And their family business is a potent symbol of the power of craft, tradition and DIY that is so typical of Portugal.
‘Our dad is not just a professional craftsman who has produced work for many different international brands, his own designs are impressive too,’ explains Ana Mateus, as she talks about this family’s creative history. ‘We have elaborated his tradition, using our own creative language.’ The sisters’ António A Handmade Story collection is also made of high-quality vegetable-tanned leather. ‘It’s much less flexible than chemically-modified leather, but it’s a conscious choice, and we work within those constraints - chemical tanning is just so harmful to the environment.’ Of course, vegetable-tanned leather is still more expensive than its chemical counterparts, but the sisters are determined to keep their prices as competitive as possible.
Thanks to the quality of the material and timeless designs, the pieces in this collection are made to last more than one lifetime. ‘[The idea is that], you cherish your bag, you never want to throw it away, and you will repair it when it’s broken. We want mothers to pass their favourite bag on to their daughters. That's the summum bonum of sustainability to us,’ says Ana. In addition to the enduring basics, the sisters also plan to launch a special edition every year - their first throw being a series with Pollock-like paint splashes. The leather they use comes from Alcanena, the only place in Portugal where animal skins are still being processed. Skins come from slaughterhouses in Russia, Portugal, Latin America and Eastern Europe. But this could or will change, as Ana explains: ‘As soon as a vegan alternative for leather exists, which is as smooth as animal skin, we’ll switch. Because even if the animals are not killed for the leather we use, we’d rather not be connected to the cruelty of the organised animal industry. We already work increasingly with cork as an alternative to leather and believe that every little bit helps to improve the world.’
Each item in the collection bears the name of a relative. And as Ana says, ‘Fortunately, we have an extensive family, so we can still make a lot of designs!’ That explicit family link isn’t a hollow marketing gimmick. ‘Besides a strong focus on the craft and handmade, the love and concern of our family are the most important ingredients in our collection. This makes us typically Portuguese, by the way.’ Portugal is indeed a country of crafts and family businesses. ‘Craft is in our DNA, since the Portuguese love to work with their hands. Our focus on family values results in a traditional, warm society. Family is still the cornerstone of society, and it's not just the nuclear family, but about all the aunts and uncles and distant cousins.’
The fact that knowledge of crafts survived in Portugal is, among other things, due to 41 years of the authoritarian Estado Novo regime – disadvantage has been turned on its head. Under the direction of authoritarian leader António Salazar, Portugal moved in a quite different direction than the democratic countries of Europe. After the Second World War, those countries’ economy boomed, which enabled an emerging and prosperous middle class to enthusiastically embrace the capitalist consumerism ideals the American liberators introduced in Europe. In those prosperous European countries, everything that was old or traditional had to be replaced by the new and modern. The Portuguese, on the other hand, remained predominantly poor until long after the Carnation Revolution, which ended the regime in 1974, and thus had to stick to traditional crafts, DIY and endlessly repairing things. Today, this gives the Portuguese a unique position in Europe when it comes to leatherwork, shoes, ceramics, glass and textiles. Many foreign brands cooperate with Portuguese producers precisely because of this, even though the competitive prices (with its low wages, Portugal is often referred to as the ‘China of Europe’) are equally important.
António A Handmade Story finds its customers mainly in northern European countries, where sustainable design is asked for, and where customers have a larger budget than the domestic Portuguese market. In addition to their own collection, the sisters also produce for other brands. Around 70% of their customers are international, the rest are Portuguese brands that produce for the export market. Established brands like NO/AN, Jean Baptiste Rautureau, Lumi, Freelance, Urban and Burel, as well as smaller brands, find their way to the family factory in Benedita. One such client is Mimi et Toi, the high-end handbag collection created by two Amsterdam friends. ‘Its Copenhagen meets Paris,’ explains Nina van den Berg, who runs the bags and jewellery brand together with Mimi van Dijk. ‘We offer the solid quality so typical for a Scandinavian lifestyle, combined with the sophistication typical of a Parisienne.’ The Dutch designers like to work with the Portuguese sisters: ‘Their service is impeccable, and their team consists of incredibly professional craftswomen. They deliver top quality. On top of that, Sara, Ana and their entire team work to enhance the designs.’ Ana Mateus nods in agreement: ‘Some designers even arrive here with unfinished sketches and expect us to fill in the rest. Of course it’s not our job, but each time we can’t help ourselves diving in. I guess we are perfectionists, just liker our dad!’