The Art of Craft

By Jo Phillips

On the edge of the mainland of south Essex find Canvey Island, separated from the mainland by a network of creeks. Lying only just above sea level, it has been inhabited since Roman times. It had a glorious moment and became the fastest-growing seaside resort in Britain between 1911 and 1951 and also held iconic buildings such as the seafront Labworth Café which was designed in 1933 by Ove Arup, the famous design engineer who worked on projects such as the Sydney Opera House and the Gorilla House at London Zoo. A mere 37 miles away is central London’s South Molton Street which in the early 1970s was a hub for directional fashion thanks to a pioneering shop called Browns. The first London boutique to stock the likes of stock Alexander McQueen and John Galliano. So what is the connection between them both? The Art of Craft is what it is, find out more Here

If you don’t already know of him, Simon Burstein had a hugely successful career building the fashion emporium (his parent’s store) Browns (1970-1982 and 2008-2015) into a globally recognised hub, and in between headed the French fashion brand Sonia Rykiel in Paris (1985-2007). So what on earth does that have to do with an Island off of Essex?

Well, the story picks up in June 2023 with Simon moving into the world of bookbinding. He announced the launch of Charfleet Bookbindery on Canvey Island as well as adding in the contemporary menswear and heritage brand, Leathersmith of London, which has been making diaries and journals since 1839.

TJ & J Smith was founded in 1839 as a London partnership to manufacture a range of fine diaries, almanacs, quill pens and special metallic paper. One of the company’s original brands was Leathersmith of London. The business was acquired in 1987 by H. Neale & Co Ltd who had a thriving book bindery on the Charfleet Estate in Canvey Island built after the Second World War

Talking of the Island, founded in 1919, Charflet is still an established UK company with a long, rich history of handmade bookbinding, producing high-quality bespoke diaries, journals, luxury stationery, business gifts and leatherbound goods based on this unique stretch of land.

“When I sold Browns in 2015 to Farfetch, I had no idea I would end up owning a bindery business, but a series of serendipitous events combined with an unrealised love of artisanal bookmaking has led to where we are today, opening a brand-new state-of-the-art bindery facility on Canvey Island, saving a number of uniquely skilled roles, and relaunching a 184-year-old British Brand.”

Simon Burstein

Interestingly the history of bookbinding began it is thought with educated monks as early as the sixth century, who would protect their hand-transcribed manuscripts with wooden boards encrusted with metal and jewels. Not so unlike a couture gown with intricate stitching and decoration.

The stitching used to bind books changed, of course, with the advent of the modern printing press and book covers became what we now consider paper or card covers often with machine print designs alongside glue replacing the stitching of books.

The craft behind designer fashion and bookbinding holds some of the same levels of skill, knowledge and artisanal crafts so the ‘jump’ across is not so diverse after all.

When H.Neale went into administration in 2015, Burstein stepped in to acquire it, retaining the skilled artisan workforce (most of whom have two decades of experience) and moving them into new state-of-the-art premises on Canvey Island, to be officially opened by HRH The Duchess of Edinburgh on 27th June 2023.

The artisanal workforce is something that would be second nature to Burstein having worked in Fashion for so many years where artisans in the way of craft makers are still held with the highest of esteems.

So where did his love of leather books first come from? Well, it was sparked whilst in Paris by the opening of the first-ever Filofax franchise where beautiful leather diaries and handcrafted desk accessories were on offer, he was intoxicated by this style of crafted leather goods.

Now Burstein looks to evolve his brand Leathersmith of London into a lifestyle brand, firstly with a range of stylish and practical bags and small leather goods as well as featuring a relaxed and modern menswear collection informed by his many decades of experience working in the world of craft ad design.

Despite being a heritage brand and existing for the best part of two centuries, when I discovered Leathersmith of London, it was largely unknown. It has given me the opportunity to do what I love the most, which is building brands, and so what is going to be really exciting is taking a business with such a long and storied history, and evolving it into a modern lifestyle proposition, all the while retaining its leather goods heritage.”

Simon Burstein

(The) Place London, a retail concept

Central to Burstein’s vision for the Charfleet Bookbindery and Leathersmith of London is his retail stores, The Place London (a menswear and womenswear store a couple of doors down from each other) in Connaught Village and replicated in Paris in the heart of St Germain.

Going back to his roots, building a novel retail experience that showcases for women emerging fashion talent of any age and nationality, and for men, an incubator of artisanal craftsmanship under the Leathersmith of London brand.

People, places and brands all have heritage behind them, all encompass The Art of Craft. Behind that heritage comes craft artisanal know-how and real passion.

Leathersmith Of London Charfleet Bookbinder

If you enjoyed reading The Art of Craft why not read Flowers and Filth here

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