Words & Photography Mary-Rose Storey
“Thirty years down the line, if one comes back, I can track it. If one goes to auction, or if one gets passed on, the provenance is known. I’m trying to make things that will last decades.”
In a discreet shop in Windmill Street, Mark Tallowin creates objects of beauty, making exquisite leather bags that ooze quality and refinement. He only makes to order and only in one colour – black. There is a core collection of five bags in varying sizes and shapes, named the Splitwedge, Flatiron, Kettlebell, Nightjar and Inkwell, and a collection of wallets he calls the Carta Collection.
He uses highest grade Italian Veg Tan leather, which is a natural way of tanning without the use of chemicals. The hardware on the bags is high quality, solid brass, 24-carat gold plated by a jeweller in Hatton Garden. All his work is hand stitched, so neatly and immaculately that it’s hard to believe he hasn’t used a machine. “I don’t actually know how many stitches go into the bags because it would take me an hour to count them, but I know on the smallest bag there’re 738 holes that I have to hand cut first before I even start the stitching,” he explains.
For the hand stitching, he uses French linen thread which he then coats with beeswax. “This is what makes my work different to most peoples. Everyone comes in here and expects to see a sewing machine but I’ve never used a sewing machine on leather.” His attention to detail is limitless; even his leather working tools he makes himself by hand, using wood and antler for the handles. Mark, a charming young man, didn’t begin working in leather. He began working as a tree surgeon before spending some time in Texas where he discovered a passion for knife making. His first blade was forged from a piece of railway line.
After having made the knife, he made a leather sheath to protect it, which led to making bags. You can see his exquisite tools and knives displayed in a stunning mahogany cabinet, as well as examples of the bags themselves. Each bag is unique and only available direct from TALLOWIN; the waiting list currently stands at two months for the handbags and one month for the wallets. He has a distinctive ordering system, which makes his products almost impossible to fake: on the inside of each bag there’s a small gold-plated disc with a number and code on the back so he is able to trace the product’s history and who placed each order. “I don’t offer any personalisation because it’s already incredibly personal.”
There’s a little cavity in the front section of the flap where he hides a postage stamp size piece of vellum parchment. On this a note is made of the client’s name, the year the bag was finished, the order number and the code. “Thirty years down the line, if one comes back, I can track it. If one goes to auction, or if one gets passed on, the provenance is known. I’m trying to make things that will last decades.”
Mark is self-taught, using a lot of the same skills that are used in saddle making and fine shoe making. Everything he makes can always be repaired, taken apart and put back together. All the designs are simple, yet feel so right and are beautifully shaped. Inside, the bags are raw and unlined. You won’t find a pocket for a mobile phone or a specific space for your tablet or laptop. The pockets he does make are based on either standard passport or credit card size, which haven’t changed in years. He explains that the reason is because “I don’t do anything for technology. I don’t make any pockets for phones or laptops because technology changes so quickly. The newest iPhone will be obsolete in five years.”
Mark will take on special commissions although he has been known to turn a commission down if it doesn’t feel right or isn’t taking him in the right direction, believing that he has to be in synch with the person and their ideas. His first major commission was with the Champagne company Billecar-Salmon, they needed a carry case to fit a pair of their distinctive ‘Foundation’ bottles and the result was a beautiful, sculptural, kidney-shaped case.
Another unusual commission was for the Swedish designer, Lina Zedig. She always carried her keys around her neck and wanted something more glamorous for the purpose, so he made her a leather sash with a large tassel that apparently she now wears across her every day. “I came up with a plan for an oversized key fob, scaled up to human scale; it overtakes the thing it began life augmenting, envelops it and becomes a strange thing in its own right. She’s in Tokyo at the moment and I really like the idea of it being worn there.”
London Craft Week, a new annual event taking place from the 6th to 10th May, will give Mark an opportunity to showcase his work. The event will feature exceptional craftsmanship, hidden workshops and highly specialised skills alongside famous shops, galleries and luxury brands. A TALLOWIN bag will last a lifetime and beyond. They are expensive but, unlike some products, you can sense the dedication, time, quality and craftsmanship that go into their making. You’ll be buying an heirloom.