The Hidden Hide Merchant-Interview with J.T.Batchelor

13 Jul

Photos and text by Florrie Juan Huang at Prescott & Mackay 

We live in a digital age. It’s easy to forget – or hard to believe perhaps, that there are businesses growing strongly within this environment which depend simply upon word of mouth.  J.T. Batchelor is one of these businesses. They have only one webpage on their website – and never do any advertising – but still everyone in the leather industry knows of them.  

The Entrance of Batchelor's

  

 On a breezy afternoon in the middle of June I pushed open the door to their premises – a rather humble-looking building located in a quiet corner of Islington, London. The people I am going to interview today are Jag, the owner of the business, and Rochef, the store manager. Along with their colleagues, they are standing behind piles and piles of leather, busily looking after customers.   

I hear one customer express his thanks as he leaves the shop with a satisfied smile, and another two customers come in. “Are you always that busy?” I asked Ted, one of the longest-working staff in the store. “Well we have quiet moments, but when that happens we have loads of mail orders to deal with.” Ted explains patiently. He was as an apprentice upholsterer in his youth, joining the business 25 years ago, and he and the shop have grown old together.   

J.T.Batchelor: The Shop

  

You can find everything in Batchelor. If you are a craft lover or a designer, you would feel like you were standing in the middle of Aladdin’s cave. Besides skins from sheep, calf and pig, they sell all kinds of fittings for leather goods like buckles and D-rings; knives and stamps; and natural leather dyes – one of their most popular types of product.   

J.T.Batchelor-products

  

J.T.Batchelor: buckles

  

As well as selling leather-related goods, Batchelor also hires their machines out and it’s not unusual to see customers using a few simple tools in the shop – I even mistake a customer for a member of staff, as she seems so at home in the corner using the pressing machine on her leatherwork.    

Batchelor specialises in vegetable-tanned skin, which uses only the infusion of tree bark, twigs, leaves and water, taking much longer than chrome tanning, the other widely-used tanning method in the shoemaking and bag making industries.  They don’t stock exotic skins such as crocodile, fish, snake and ostrich, and no animals have been killed for their skin – they really seem to try to be as ethically aware as possible.    

J.T.Batchelor: materials to select

  

They are patronised by a wide range of customers – from fashion and design students to industry professionals including fashion houses and film companies. Although much of their trade is with the fashion world, Batchelor as a company doesn’t really follow fashion trends. ‘We tend to not stick with fashion. We sell more traditional, classic collections. Fashion always changes. People publicise future trends, but we don’t follow them’, says Rochef.    

A lot of their customers are suppliers to big retailers such as Harrods, Selfridges, and Liberty. As Jag tells me, ‘My customers are doing different projects every day. If you give them machines they will say “no, I’m gonna do it with my hands only” – that’s how they are. Some of the stuff they make you won’t see in the market. For example, one of our customers makes costumes for a lot of pop singers; the others make things for catwalks.’    

I find myself able to imagine what the customers’ finished products might look like – and how much they will end up costing if they contain such a high proportion of crafting by hand. Rochef agrees, ‘I have to say that most of our customers are very high-end. It has to be high-end. You can’t do a quantity production here – you can’t get the price for it. You have to be very, very specialised.’    

J.T.Batchelor: pendant

  

So they may not be fashionable, but they do have their style. They share common values with us – and many other people in the fashion industry – among them, a strong respect for tradition and craftsmanship. Many times I hear them state that they are not a high street fashion shop where people and trends come and go. Time seems to move slowly here – this is a place where energy is spent carefully, in pursuit of craftsmanship.    

J.T.Batchelor: leather working tools

  

I am a bit surprised that they tell me they don’t have competition. What do they mean exactly? To understand this we have to understand what’s so special about the market they serve. First, their customers have all kinds of design projects and none of them are the same. Secondly, many leatherworkers don’t order big quantities because they need to test their ideas in the market first. Moreover, their customers only come here to make their own dreams come true, and they have to work hard on it, so the competition is between the design ideas, to see which one finally wins the market buyers’ hearts, and there’s no standard solution for them. To serve this market the leather traders can’t depend upon lowering their price or doing PR events, they have to satisfy all these different requirements in one shop.    

This is how Batchelor does it. On one hand, it has a wide product range and its staff encourage the customers to explore the shop freely and try to advise them as much as they can. ‘Certain leather industries won’t let people search through leather, or choose leather, but we don’t mind. Obviously, YOU have to choose your own leather’, says Rochef. Furthermore, they treat all the customers the same no matter how small a quantity they buy, because they believe today’s one dozen can be tomorrow’s hundred dozen, and that their success is based on the customers’ success.    

On the other hand, if they haven’t got what the customer is looking for, they will suggest other suppliers. They don’t see other leather traders as rivals, as Jag puts it, ‘There’s nothing like who supplies to whom. Some of our customers are also wholesale leather suppliers, we supply them, and sometimes we buy from them as well.’    

These are the reasons why Batchelor seems to immune to the economic downturn – they tell me that their business is not influenced at all when the past two years have been so tough for the economy. Isn’t this amazing?    

J.T.Batchelor: studs with a dog motif

  

It’s finally the time that they should close and I wave them good-bye and already plan my next visit. On my way home I can’t help thinking what the mysterious charm of this shop is. It is staffed by happy and relaxed people, who think their company is a likeable one, it has no hierarchy and everyone works hard. The shop doesn’t create anything, but it gives the customers the biggest freedom to create whatever they want. Rochef sums up Batchelor in three words: variety, helpful, established – I couldn’t agree more.    

External link – J.T.Batchelor’s website: http://jtbatchelor.co.uk/
Batchelor’s address: 9-10 Culford Mews, London, N1 4DZ
Tel: 020-7254 2962       020-7254 8521
   

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One Response to “The Hidden Hide Merchant-Interview with J.T.Batchelor”

  1. junoir September 28, 2012 at 3:50 pm #

    Cor i wish i could buy my leather supplies from such a friendly staff like jt batchelors . but alast i do all my buying from mr jag rocky and some grumpy old sod called ted junior from j and r designs ltd

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