In July 1999 a man came to see Thilo Schmelz. He was just passing through. Mid-fifties, adventurous type. He came to show him his bag. A leather Harold‘s bag in excellent condition, one of the first models that they produced in Colombia. This bag had accompanied him on his travels around the world for the last 15 years. The leather had a fantastic patina. It seemed as if, for this man, the bag told the stories of his travels.
We still have this model in our range in its original form. Since he wanted to keep the first bag as a memento, he bought the same bag a second time. It‘s not quite as unique as the first one, he said, but that will change when I go on my travels again – explain Thilo Schmelz, director in Harold’s. This encounter shaped by whole vision of Harold‘s: To create sustainable bags with a timeless design and exquisite craftsmanship.
We think a bag is sustainable if it has a long life and gives its owner years of pleasure. And how do we achieve this? By working hard on the durability of the materials, the quality of craftsmanship and the timelessness of our designs.
It is curious, but lots of fashion designers come from the world of architecture. One of them is Thilo Schmelz, who studied architecture and, after founding an architecture office with a partner in 1995, in 1998 left the office to join Harold’s, his family’s business which was founded by his grand-father in 1936.
Format, Alma&Lovis y Knowledge Cotton Apparel are some of the sustainable labels in his wardrobe. He loves to live simple and sustainable: I use the train and my bicycle for daily transport, I am personally engaged and active in local cultural projects (e.g. non commercial radio) and I believe in living modestly and therefore do not occupy more space than needed. Also I own a sustainable fashion brand.
The saddest trend in fashion industry are products which do not last. The fast fashion movement teaches people a destructive consumer behavior which negatively affects many lives of workers, the environment and the quality of products.
In his library we find books such as that by Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Maybe it is not a sustainable book in a direct sense, but it is a way of thinking– he underlines.
We ask him to for his personal aim for this year in less than 140 letters: To find a good balance between work, private and common interests and to offer more people the opportunity to work. We interview him.
Tell us about the story of Harold’s…
Harold’s has been a long-standing company by the time I decided to join and continue my family’s legacy but the history of the company, my previous occupation as an architect and my personal interest concerning sustainability matters inspired me to change the course of the company.
During my architectural studies, I wrote a thesis about the sustainability of multi story buildings made of wood. Little did I know at this point of my life that the knowledge I gained in my thesis will come handy later on.
When I started to work in the company, a man approached me who had owned a Harold’s bag for 20 years. He had worn it every single day and it had become a loyal and cherished companion to him. I then realized that the bags possess a very long lasting durability which is due to the craftsmanship we deploy and the quality of the leathers we use. I had the idea to not only use the great know-how of our company but also to incorporate my knowledge of architecture into the design process of the bags. My goal was and is to this day to create bags that are built to last which again parallels my thesis about the sustainability of wood frame buildings.
The longevity of the bags is just one aspect of the greater lifecycle of a sustainable product. This understanding lead me to the creation of the Harold’s lifecycle concept which starts with the animal itself. We respect nature. The cattle are well nurtured and live outdoors all year around, in the mountains of South America. They graze on natural grasses so that their hide develops a balanced fibre structure which is the reason for the long lasting durability of our leathers. All the hides are leftovers from food production.
It is important to us that the leather we use retains its open pores and is gently finished. This means that the raw material can still be seen in our products which gives them a unique feel. One of our central requirements is that the leather develops its own individual beauty through use. The best way to ensure this is to use vegetable tanning processes which include the systematic reduction and ultimate elimination of chromium. The abandonment of toxic chemicals does not only benefit the patina of the bags but also our environment which is thereby the most important gain.
The second aspect of the lifecycle concept is the design process. I’m constantly applying design techniques inspired by architectural design. My goal is to create bags with an elaborate functionality and a timeless elegance.
The third aspect is the know-how the company has gained and developed over the course of 80 years of production. We incorporate our knowledge into every single piece we design and manufacture. We share our experience with our long-standing and trusted partners in India and Colombia.
Sustainability is a very crucial issue nowadays but even if a consumer does not find it an urgent matter, he or she should still consider the durability and quality of a product (functional and visual) as a criteria for purchase. This can lead him or her to a better decision.
The fourth aspect of the lifecycle is the transparent and fair production of our bags. The basic prerequisites are intensive training, constant familiarisation, contracts laying down working hours, safe and hygienic working conditions and evenly distributed orders to ensure stable workload. These parameters benefit the workers but also ensure that the craftsmanship is constantly on a high level.
The fifth and final aspect involves the consumers. We appeal to our customers to debate their own consumer behavior before purchasing items in order to avoid waste. We like our customers to purchase our bags consciously which gives them the opportunity to appreciate the product even more. The longer and more intensively our products are used, the better is their environmental footprint. Our bags are made to last and to serve the owners on several occasions throughout their lives. This is ensured by the timeless design, the durability of the materials and the exquisite quality of craftsmanship.
This lifecycle concept has gradually become the philosophy of Harold’s. Today we believe, stronger than ever, that it is our natural responsibility to respect and take care of our customers, workers and environment. Our philosophy is easier to understand when you break it down to a simple equation.
The success of the company is based on the happiness of our customers. The happiness of our customers is directly linked to the quality of our products. The quality of our products is determined by the happiness of our workers. The quality of our materials is linked to the happiness of the cattle. The happiness of the cattle depends on nature. The preservation of nature depends on us. We depend on nature. This knowledge dictates our work on a daily basis and reminds us to keep evolving.
What is the main aim of the company currently?
2016 was a very crucial and successful year for Harold’s regarding sustainability concerns. In the last few years we were able to switch to nickel-free metal fittings and also to organic cotton. This year we have outdone our last achievements by ensuring that our leather is
100% vegetable tanned. By now 50% up to 70% of our collections consist of 100% vegetable tanned leathers. Our main aim in 2017 is to even increase the share of 100% vegetable tanned leathers in our collections to a full 100%.
Buy products which last and that have the potential (quality and design) to be worn over years and generations! Give the product the chance to be a loyal and cherished companion – is his advice to consumers.
Our collections are not seasonal. The products are timeless in terms of style and quality. Our bags are companions for a lifetime and serve the owner anytime, anywhere. The daily and often use over several years ensures a beautiful patina which makes each bag unique.
What is the most difficult thing you find working with eco fabrics and in a sustainable and ethic way?
For instance, the transition to vegetabe tanned leathers proved to be intricate but with the help and trust of our partnering manufacturers we were able to overcome certain problems concerning the cost and quality of the materials. We also managed to ensure that the organic tannin mixtures, that we source from sustainable cultivation, are long-term available.
In terms of greening leathers, Harold’s has moved into the right direction by systematically reducing and ultimately eliminating chromium from the production process. Nonetheless, there are still many steps to take in the near future. Steps we hope to take together with our workers, partners and customers.
Anyone who actively contributes to and advocates for a sustainable lifestyle is a super hero, in a modest way of course.
Do you think sustainable fashion is the new luxury fashion?
No – I think it is a contradiction in itself. Sustainable products should be bought because of ecological and ethical reasons and not to indulge in luxury or unhealthy consumerism. Yes, sustainable products are generally more expensive when buying them, but in the end they are cheaper because they last longer and create way less waste.
Would you have any advice for young designers working in ethical and ecological fashion?
I strongly believe that sustainability is the right way to go and any step done into that direction is of great help to workers, consumers and the environment. It can be hard in the beginning but the most important thing is that you do not give up and keep evolving.
And for the consumers that still are not sure of sustainable ideas?
Sustainability is a very crucial issue nowadays but even if a consumer does not find it an urgent matter. He or she should still consider the durability and quality of a product (functional and visual) as a criteria for purchase. This can lead him or her to a better decision.