Some of the finest names in the St James’s district in London look to the small firm of Simpson London for fine luggage, cases and leathergoods. Church & Co, Foster & Son, George Cleverley, John Lobb, William & Son and even Ralph Lauren have their own-label products made in Simpson’s workshop in the East End. On the third floor of a modern inner-city “business centre”, some venerable crafts are being cherished and maintained.
The professorial Robert Simpson is the enthusiastic man in charge of this high-grade venture. He entered the industry in the mid-1980s after marrying into the Kroll family, whose leathergoods roots are traced back to 1856 when a German émigré called Franz Krolle set up a London workshop. A merger with a stationer called Tanner in the 1920s created Tanner Krolle, which was recognised for decades as one the pre-eminent English case and luggage manufacturers. Asprey, Fortnum & Mason, and New & Lingwood were among its clients. Even Brooks Brothers’ attaché cases came from Tanner Kroll.
In the early 1990s Tanner Krolle was acquired by Chanel and, subsequently, it has been passed through several owners. Looking back, Robert Simpson slightly wearily observes that professional managers do not know how to handle a craft business. When the new owners decided not to make for any other firms, he exited Tanner Krolle in 1997 and, with a few key TK craftsmen in tow, he established a company under his own name. “A business like this needs the quirkiness of an individual to make it work. There has to be someone with the instinct to know what looks right and what doesn’t,” he says.
There are eight people in the workshop and Simpson ruefully admits that four are over 60 years old and two more are over 65, the official UK retirement age. “But we are not letting them retire,” he insists. Two new recruits aged 21 and 26 give hope that the skills that create items from steamer trunks to wallets will be passed on to a new generation.
Perhaps the signature Simpson London piece is the attaché case, an item that was developed in the mid-1800s to serve the new commuting class who travelled on the railways. Measuring 18x13.5x4 inches, it has a steel frame and comprises English bridle leather mounted on fibreboard to help keep the weight down. The inside is lined in leather or suede. The 1.5mm bridle leather is tanned by J & E Sedgwick of Walsall, in the West Midlands of England, an area famous for saddlery and light engineering. The brass locks are from the same district. At upwards of $3,000 (£2,000), the retail price is about the same as a bespoke suit.
Another eye-catcher is what I would call a Victorian doctor’s bag, but Robert Simpson calls, even more romantically, a hunting kit bag, in a leather quality known as London bag hide. Again with a metal frame, it has robust straps of bridle leather, brass fittings and a cotton drill lining. It retails for around $5,500 (£3,500).
With a younger customer in mind, a new departure for Simpson London is a document case in a contemporary colour scheme of chocolate brown leather spiced with bright orange trim that retails for about $1,850 (£1,175). It attracted considerable interest at the Pitti Immagine Uomo menswear trade fair in Florence in January.
Simpson London’s trademark is hand-stitching, with five or six stitches sewn to the inch, depending on which part of the case is being worked. The shortage of related craftsmen means that much work that was once done elsewhere, including the woodworking of the frames, is now necessarily done in the workshop. Bamboo canes, which have to be heated over a Bunsen burner to soften them for bending, are used in some pieces of luggage.
As well as making selling under its own name and making for other brands, Simpson London does lots of bespoke commission work. Its small and dedicated team is also kept busy restoring and repairing much-loved pieces of considerable age. As he shows me a 20-year-old attaché case with a patina like walnut that has been sent in for some routine maintenance, Robert Simpson observes: “The trouble is, these things don’t wear out. At least the owner of this had the good grace to buy a new one from us as well.”