Shaper: Bill Amberg

Show aired on 8th August 2015

Transcript

Elliot Moss
The beautiful sound of Liquid Spirit from Gregory Porter. Good morning. This is Jazz Shapers with me, Elliott Moss, every Saturday morning you get to listen me hopefully interviewing someone wonderful from the world of business and normally they are pretty wonderful. I call them a ‘Shaper’, and my Business Shaper today, I am very happy to say, is Bill Amberg. Bill Amberg is famous for his leather designs and collaborations with people like Paul Smith and Donna Karan and a whole lot more; interior design, The World of Hotels and all sorts of fantastic things. You will be hearing lots from Bill very shortly. You will also be hearing from our programme partners at Mishcon de Reya; some words of advice for your business. And on top of all of that, of course, a brilliant mix of music from the shapers of jazz, blues and soul, including The Bad Plus, Madeleine Peyroux and this from Mr James Brown.

That is Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag from James Brown and what an apt choice for my Business Shaper today, Bill Amberg. Bill Amberg is famous and has been for many, many years for his incredible leather designs. The application of which you can see in bags, you can see on walls, you can see in all sorts of places. It’s not just leather, it’s obviously many other beautiful materials as well. Bill, thank you very much for joining me.

Bill Amberg
Hi. How are you?

Elliott Moss
I am okay, thank you. You are from Northampton originally.

Bill Amberg
Yeah, I know. I know. The Midlands.

Elliot Moss
The Midlands. But Northampton, if I am not mistaken, famous for shoes.

Bill Amberg
Shoes. Well, that’s what’s started my whole, that’s what started my whole business.

Elliot Moss
The shoes, right. One of the brands I think about is Grensons, which I used to wear when I…

Bill Amberg
…Yeah, Grensons…

Elliot Moss
…they were very heavy, Grensons. Amazing. They last forever. I think they are owned by Tim Little now.

Bill Amberg
They are, exactly.

Elliot Moss
The Tim Little Shoe Shop also on Kings Road. A fantastic shoemaker. Tell me you’re, you’re… if I understand it right, you are from a design family. I think your, your mum was an architect?

Bill Amberg
That’s correct, yeah.

Elliot Moss
And apparently the story goes, you know, when you find out, when I do my bit of research I find out how all these people got into the world of leather and we are not talking about the world of leather literally, but the bigger world of leather. It started with scraps of leather that used to come back from the market, and you were obsessed. You got into it, and you wanted to do things with it. Is that right?

Bill Amberg
Yeah, absolutely. I mean my mum was, she was just really always encouraging us to make things and do things and design things and build things, and leather was just one of the materials that she would find on Northampton market and bring it back and my dad always had a workshop, so I ended up making hideous bags for my sister and my mother and everybody’s Christmas presents and… but it started a kind of interest in the material which then developed after school into apprenticeships and a kind of real passion for the material, which I still absolutely have now.

Elliot Moss
And it led to, as I mentioned earlier, collaborations with some of the greats in the world of fashion and design; Paul Smith, Donna Karan. You are the young man from Northampton that was working with some of the greats in the fashion world. How did that happen and how did it make you feel at that time? Because this is a while ago and things…

Bill Amberg
Yeah, Yeah. This is…

Elliot Moss
…we’ll come on to the current Bill Amberg inspiration…

Bill Amberg
This is am, you know, I came… after school I travelled for a couple of years and did apprenticeships in Australia and New Zealand, working with some amazing leather craftsman but really covered off lots of the techniques of the material and really understood it and built a proper bedrock of knowledge, technically. Returned to England, came to London having not really lived in London at all. This is in ’84 and started to make bags. Even though in Australia I had been making jewellery and moulded sculptural pieces. Started to make bags as it seemed like a sensible way of making money out of my newly learnt skills and somebody said, ‘oh you should go to this shop in Floral Street. There’s this great shop. You should go and check it out’. So I literally went and knocked on the door and you know, two days later had a meeting with Paul and he said he said, ‘Yeah, I’ll buy them’. So literally like that it was like, ‘Whoa! That was kind of cool’ and for the next five, six, seven, eight years I designed all of Paul Smith’s bags in leather and it was, you know, a fabulous time.

Elliot Moss
Find out much more from my Business Shaper, Bill Amberg. He is the man behind the original Paul Smith leather bags, and he has gone on to do some extraordinary things. Time for some music. This is Do It Again from The Bad Plus.

That was Do It Again from The Bad Plus. You may know they played at Love Supreme with Joshua Redmond. Bill Amberg’s my Business Shaper today, and he’s, I am going to call him the leather man, but he is a lot more than the leather man. He is a designer and he works with beautiful materials. He is famous for the Paul Smith bags back in the Nineties and working with Donna Karan. Beyond that, you went and set up your own shop, didn’t you? I think late Nineties, was it around 1996 in Notting Hill and then opened in New York as well. Moving from the pure artisan to the and your story’s fantastic, you know, you trip up and you say ‘hello’ and ‘here are my bags’ and that’s great, and I imagine that’s harder and harder now, as the world’s become more competitive to do that. But then moving into your own PNL, your own business. What was that like?

Bill Amberg
Well it was, it was strange because I literally started on a very kind of hand-to-mouth basis, making bags for Paul Smith. I got picked up very quickly by Liberty, started designing bags for Liberty. Also started quite quickly to design the new men’s line and some of the ladies’ bags for Donna Karan but really the big, the big change for me is when I went to London Business School and there was a very good course at London Business School which doesn’t exist anymore, sadly, called ‘Firm Start Programme’, and you had to have an existing business. You went in over the course of an academic year and you did two days every three weeks at the London Business School and it completely restructured my business and gave me a proper framework from which to operate, made me understand the mechanics of business and really completely altered the way, the way I ran the business.

Elliot Moss
What made you think you ought to do that because I think I chat to lots of very creative people who are pure, unadulterated and proud to say artisans. They are purely creative, and they… the idea of business and structure is not quite anathema, but it’s not cool. You are different. Why do you think you were led and drawn to that?

Bill Amberg
Well, you know, to be honest, my dad just said, ‘Hey look, look at this thing that’s in the, in the papers’. It was in some advert in the Financial Times. Not a newspaper I read, but I just thought, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll give it a go’. And also, I had never been to University. I had never been to college, so I was just kind of intrigued as to what it could be and I just went along, didn’t think I stood a chance, because I seem to remember it was like 2,000 people going for 12 places or something, so I thought, ‘well, you know, that won’t be me’, and got on the course and just rolled with it and it was brilliant.

Elliot Moss
Why did they pick you, do you think Bill?

Bill Amberg
I don’t know, I think… I guess I had already got probably eight years of business experience. I had managed to create something reasonably solid, albeit you know, wobbly, I guess, you know, up until then. So it was, you know, I guess that’s what they were looking for, I don’t know, I mean, frankly, I’ve no idea.

Elliot Moss
Yeah, but that was then! I’m very happy they did though.

Bill Amberg
Yeah, yeah.

Elliot Moss
But you’ve obviously, you strike me as someone who is understated, but you are quietly confident. You back yourself. It looks like you back yourself. Is that a fair thing to say?

Bill Amberg
Yes, definitely. And I know my, I know what I am doing with material and I am very confident about how, what I can do in terms of the designs that I can create and how to make them. I have a good… always been able to make everything that I’ve dreamt up has been a massive, massive help. Because now if I go to a factory, I know what’s going on, on the desk. And now with my own studio, you know, all of the crafts people that I employ, they know fully well that I can make everything that I am discussing or asking them to make, you know, so it is much more of a two-way street.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me to find out more from Bill Amberg, my Business Shaper today. Latest travel in a couple of minutes and before that some words of wisdom for your burgeoning business from our programme partners at Mishcon de Reya.

You are listening to Jazz Shapers every Saturday morning you hopefully join me to hear me talking to someone who is a shaper in the world of business. If you’ve missed any of the previous 180 plus shows, go into iTunes you will find quite a few there; Ft.com is the destination as is CityAM.com; and if you’re flying this summer, British Airways will enable you to listen to some brilliant guests. My brilliant guest though is Bill Amberg. Famous for his design work from Paul Smith through to Donna Karan. He was credit director at Mappin and Webb. He’s award winning, he’s even a doctorate, as a doctor, rather than awarded a Doctorate from the University of Arts very recently and I believe he and his team won a Condé Nast Traveller’s, Innovation and Design Award a few years ago. I mean, you have also an Honorary Degree from Northampton University. This is all lovely and I sometimes ask this, but does it make any difference to you that you get all this recognition? Are you one, does that suit your personality, or does it, is it just water off a duck’s back?

Bill Amberg
I think it’s exciting for the team. It’s really good for the workshop. It’s really good for, you know, my colleagues at work, some of whom who have worked with me for, you know, for 15 years. To start seeing that all this work, and sometimes it’s a slog, let’s face it, you know, business sometimes is a grind. You have just got to keep going and, you know, we’ve been through various cycles, business cycles of ups and downs and, you know, now it’s great to start seeing it coming back in the right direction and getting a pat on the back is always nice, you know.

Elliot Moss
Now finding new things and you work with your hands. You have a team that works with their hands as well as their ideas and looking into the world and pulling ideas out of it. How do you ensure that that’s at the centre of what you do? Because (a) I imagine you get bored if you are not creating new things that are wild and wacky, but (b) you can re-define the market. But coming up with new stuff all the time – not easy?

Bill Amberg
Well there is kind of three elements to that. Firstly about, I guess about 10 years ago I found myself doing entirely business, working entirely on the business side and I became very frustrated and what I then did is built myself a studio in London for myself where I could just make and play and that was really important. And then secondly I’ve… we’ve started a programme whereby we really actively encourage everybody within work to give them the time and the space to develop ideas that they have got because we employ incredibly creative people across the board, from the accounts teams through to the workshop, are all brilliant and they’ve all got ideas. Of course they have and we just try and now give them the space and the time. Even though we are super busy, we have got a massive amount of work but if they have an idea and they come to me and they go ‘this is what I want to do and I think it could be interesting’ – brilliant, we put it in the production schedule and that becomes their slot just to play, just to make, just to push the envelope of what is possible with leather as a material for interiors or product. But it is vital, it is really important for us, that whole evolution of possibilities is crucial.

Elliot Moss
And that sense of play, I imagine would be the same regardless of the industry, if you were running a totally different kind of business that made tennis rackets, you would say also ‘it’s time to play on the design. It’s time to play on the tautness of the strings, on the, the fabric of the string’. Is that right? And if so isn’t that a big challenge in a very competitive market regardless? Because everyone’s in a competitive market now.

Bill Amberg
Well one of the things that the London Business School taught me, and I still absolutely hold with it, is that all businesses are effectively the same. The framework for all business is the same. So be it a law firm, you guys still have to sit around and be innovative. You guys still have to sit around and think around the problem and develop new ideas. It’s exactly the same. It’s like there’s no difference between that and on a bench dreaming up a new way of embossing leather or carving leather, or stitching leather or folding leather, it’s exactly the same.

Elliot Moss
So basically, the message is, you have got to go and play. Time to introduce some more music right now, though before we come back to more from Bill. This is Madeleine Peru and I’m Alright.

The lilting sound of Madeleine Peyroux with I’m Alright. Bill Amberg is with me today; he is famous for lots of leather things and more. You talked about team Bill, you said all the accolades are nice – it’s always nice to get a pat on the back, but really it’s for the team. We’ve talked about the team playing. You talk a lot about team and it wasn’t just the designers as such, it was everyone. How do you ensure that they are a happy bunch? How do you ensure that they are fulfilled in all the different things that they do? Because it strikes me that that is something you care about.

Bill Amberg
Yeah I think we, you know, we have the usual activities. We have forums for discussion, we have a breakfast once a month when everybody gets together and we, you know, eat and chat and have breakfast. We have regular parties. We have kind of the usual beer on a Friday evening and, you know, I just try and keep it loose. But at the same time I think giving people responsibility is really important and if people have the responsibility and they feel that they are part of something, then it always brings out the best in everybody; and it brings out the best in me. You know, it is better for me when I walk in to the workshop and it is actually happening and alive, it feels good for everybody. The other thing I would say that I did that I kind of learnt over a series of years is putting the workshop right in the heart of the business. So now any visitor, anybody that comes to my office, has to walk through the workshop. So, the accounts team, the design team, the estimators, everybody. They are walking past people making something the whole time. Any visitor comes to my place, that’s what they witness. So it re-focuses everybody on to making.

Elliot Moss
On the product?

Bill Amberg
On the product.

Elliot Moss
And within the product which is of very high quality, which sells for a premium price on the whole, underpinning that are standards and underpinning that are values – how have you inculcated both of those things over the years? Because it strikes me again when people talk about Bill Amberg design, they know what they are going to get. That is not easy to deliver year on year, day on day and so on and so forth. What have you done to ensure that people know the rules of the road? I don’t mean rules in that sense, but know the shape of how you want things to work?

Bill Amberg
Well we have a, well within the workshop, there is a structure in that we have a workshop manager, but we also have a senior leather worker, junior leather worker and an apprentice. So people are being trained the whole time. I try and get somebody from every discipline of the techniques of leatherwork within the workshop, so there is always somebody that comes from bookbinding effectively, somebody that comes from saddlery and somebody that comes from case making. And they have different disciplines but they inter-train. So, you know, your saddler can teach everybody excellent hand stitching, the bookbinder can talk about moulding and can show people how to mould and work leather over hard surfaces. Everybody starts to inter-train and that is really important and also that is what differentiates us across from other kind of upholsterers, perhaps. We’re not an upholstery firm, no, we don’t do that. We are a specialist leather business.

Elliot Moss
And they are transferring skills rather neatly I think you will agree. Final chat coming up with Bill plus we will play a track from the soul great, Mr Marvin Gaye. That is after the latest traffic and travel here on Jazz FM.

The inimitable sound of Marvin Gaye with Mercy, Mercy Me. Bill Amberg is my Business Shaper just for a few more precious minutes. Bill, we have talked about all sorts of stuff and the last thing we were talking about, I think was really critical. It was about learning and about continuous learning, but learning through watching people, not just being told how to do something but actually seeing it happen and then being able to also realise that you can impart knowledge and that sounds like a really important thing. That, that swirling around of expertise and of ideas and of innovation as you said and the playing thing. Do you think that that is going to underpin your success in the future? I mean are you worried that your business is going to fundamentally change as we look at the major changes going on in the world, or actually are you perfectly poised to become, you know, even bigger and better than you are?

Bill Amberg
Well we are growing fast at the moment. We are certainly becoming more and more international in terms of the clients that are coming to us and the tasks that we are being set or asked to participate and collaborate with and on. And as I said, I think that’s, that process of innovation and development is really important, so I kind of think now we’ve got an amazing opportunity because this business of mixing technology and technique together is really exciting and the young designers that we have got now are brilliant on the technical side, you know, the new materials that are being developed, new techniques – I mean 3D printing and all that stuff, didn’t exist four years ago. So for us to really fully understand it and to be able to use it within our business is great and so exciting.

Elliot Moss
And in a few weeks’ time I believe you’re launching…you’ve got back your licence, your own Bill Amberg line and you’ve got a whole range of accessories coming out. Is that right?

Bill Amberg
Absolutely, yeah. I am designing bags again so it is kind of weirdly full circle. So there is going to be a Bill Amberg Accessories line in September. We are completely rebuilding the websites. It will be an entirely new website where you will be able to go shopping.

Elliot Moss
This is dangerous! I hope my wife’s not listening to this. I have realised over the last few years how important bags are. Not necessarily for me, but it seems like people absolutely adore their bags and there’s going to be more gorgeous ones coming out. Do you… are there, you know, threats from the other parts of the industry? I mean are other people doing what you do? And you go, ‘they are brilliant’. Do you look at your competitors like that? Or do you focus just on you?

Bill Amberg
No, I mean I think that our partners, you know, in terms of the people that we are working with, you know, on the architectural side, you know, Renzo Piano and Fosters and David Chipperfield are, you know, magnificent interesting companies and that will just go on expanding, I think, as those collaborations and partnerships start to develop internationally. As I said earlier on, we have just developed a line of furniture with Michaelis Boyd for the Williamsburg Hotel in New York – that is going to be really interesting when that opens up later this year. So all of these things are kind of massive steps for us. You know, they really will open up new doors, I am sure.

Elliot Moss
And it feels like there is another phase of the business just about to start now that you’ve got your name back in things. But do you, and you are young, but you have been doing this a long time. Is there a sense of legacy? Do you think about that or do you think about ‘What am I gonna get out of the workshop tomorrow’?

Bill Amberg
Legacy’s a weird word and I don’t believe in it. I think everybody has to do their thing and, you know, I don’t want my children to feel they have to be leather designers, you know – heaven forbid!

Elliot Moss
You are going to advise them well away from that. Bill, listen, you have been a brilliant guest. Thank you so much for being with Business Shapers today and good luck with the whole new accessory line. I absolutely won’t be letting my wife anywhere near it, just so you know. And if you see ‘Moss’ pop up, you let me know. What’s your song choice before I let you go and why have you chosen it?

Bill Amberg
Well, when I was asked this question, it was a really beautiful sunny afternoon, and I, looking out the window and I thought it would be nice to hear a bit of the Cologne concert from Keith Jarrett, which is… he was the master of improvised jazz, and I saw him once in 1982 at the Adelaide Arts Festival, and it has just stayed with me ever since. It’s just.. he’s magic.

Elliot Moss
Now it is a 26 minute version. I promise you it won’t be the 26 minute version but here is some of it as you have said, a bit of Keith Jarrett. Thank you so much, Bill.

That was Keith Jarrett, Colne Concert, Part 1. Apologies we didn’t play the whole thing. If you like Keith, then you can of course listen to more Keith Jarrett on Dinner Jazz any evening from 7.00pm here on Jazz FM. Bill Amberg, what a great guy. Someone who understood the importance of business and understanding business even though he is a super creative person. Importance of playing for innovation, all of his team are playing legitimately and the importance of learning – ‘Never stop learning’, he said. Absolutely fantastic advice and a great attitude for anyone thinking about their own business. Join me again same time, same place next Saturday, 9.00am sharp here on Jazz FM. In the meantime, stay with us. Coming up next, it’s Nigel Williams.

Luxurious bags, a celebrated baby papoose and Penguin book covers are just a few of the notable items that Bill Amberg has crafted from leather.

Amberg spent his early 20s in Australia working as an apprentice for Gay Wilson. After returning to England, he enrolled at London Business School and opened his first studio, receiving commissions for bags from Liberty and Paul Smith. Throughout his career he has collaborated with luxurious global brands, designers and celebrities and his successes have led him to open further premises in London and New York. He has worked as Creative Director at Mappin and Webb, and created luggage and small leather goods for Dunhill.

Amberg’s work has been recognised in the cultural sphere – the V&A placed his Rocket bag into their design classic archive, and he and his team won the Condé Nast Traveller’s Innovation & design award in 2012. He was also awarded an honorary degree from Northampton University for his contribution to leather design and manufacturing. Amberg’s projects with fashion students, apprenticeships, leatherwork programme and bespoke evening classes all show his dedication to education and the craft in which he works.

Follow Bill on Twitter @bill_amberg

Listen live at 9am Saturday.

Shoes. That’s what’s started my whole business.

My mum was always encouraging us to make things and leather was one of the materials that she would find on Northampton market and bring back. I ended up making hideous bags for everybody’s Christmas presents.

For six, seven, eight years I designed all of Paul Smith’s bags in leather and it was a fabulous time.

All the crafts people I employ know full well that I can make everything that I am discussing or asking them to make, so it is much more of a two-way street.

I built myself a studio in London where I could just make and play and that was really important.

One of the things that the London Business School taught me is that the framework for all business is the same.

I just try and keep it loose. But at the same time, giving people responsibility is really important – if they have the responsibility and feel that they are part of something, it brings out the best in them.

I put the workshop right in the heart of the business. So anybody that comes to my office has to walk through the workshop. It re-focuses everybody on the product.

3D printing and all that stuff didn’t exist four years ago. For us to really understand it and to be able to use it within our business is so exciting.

Legacy is a weird word and I don’t believe in it.  I think everybody has to do their thing.