Mesh Chhibber discusses why sustainable fashion is the biggest luxury of all
BY ARIA DARCELLA
STYLE - MAY 03
Much as ideas of what is fashionable change, so do notions of luxury. While the former is an evolution in societal values and taste, the latter has become a mutation of the monetary value we place on brand names. It’s a way of thinking that Mesh Chhibber—who has decades of experience doing PR for the likes of John Galliano and Stella McCartney—was hoping to change when he founded his label Peau de Chagrin in 2015.
“I just felt that so many brands were charging people an extortionate amount of money for objects that looked beautiful, were badly made, and that wouldn’t last a decade—quite possibly wouldn’t even last three years,” he explained of why he started the brand. “This has been passed off as luxury, and it didn’t make any sense to me. I just don’t understand how people can charge thousands of dollars, or euros, or pounds, for something that won’t even last. At that price, things should be handed down like heirlooms.”
Peau de Chagrin bags (which are designed by creative director Sofie Guerrero) are made entirely in France and Switzerland by skilled craftspeople with a limited output. At first, one might balk at the $4,500 price tag, but when one compares them to pricier heritage labels that pump out thousands at a time in factories, it looks like a steal. It is not so much redefining luxury as it is sticking to a very precise definition of luxury production—one that can hopefully also be ethical.
“Thirty years ago, if you wanted to ignore the environment, you could. But today, we have dwindling resources. We know that we’re impacting on the planet. So the least you can do if you’re actually using the planet’s resources is to do it in a sustainable way,” he said. “You can’t put the onus on consumers. You have to put the onus on people who are actually making things.”
Luckily, things do appear to be changing. There has been a rise in smaller, more ethically minded labels (PDC included). Major organizations such as the CFDA have backed sustainable design initiatives, and Chhibber is quick to point out that even major brands such as those within the Kering group are working to introduce sustainable practices. “[If] a large company like that is doing it, then hopefully that means things are changing. And it possibly means that consumers actually care.”
Of course, the sustainable luxury model is a slow one, boldly so in an age where shoppers can make their purchases online, and have them delivered in the same day. Chhibber’s choice to opt for a vegetable leather dyeing process rather than chrome tanning, for example, means that it could take up to a year to get the materials needed for a bag. But the results are worth it.
“I think there’s a customer that wants something that’s beautifully made, and doesn’t just look beautiful. I think people are willing to wait,” he said, explaining how customers could wait up to three months for a PDC bag. “The idea of instant gratification is pretty damaging, in my view.”
The limited-edition accessories by Peau de Chagrin exemplify three ideals: beauty, rarity and durability.
Once upon a time, there was a label born of a chance encounter. Mesh Chhibber was a public relations expert for big-name fashion clients and Sofie Guerrero an artist steeped in the worlds of dance and theatre. Together they founded an accessories house that releases its creations slowly, in limited editions of 100. And not one more. It was Guerrero who first thought of the name, borrowed from the title of a Balzac novel. Their goal: to come to the rescue of traditional craftsmanship, working with the finest artisans to produce models that they hope will be handed down from generation to generation.
First in this lineage: a handbag reminiscent of a vintage doctor’s bag, patiently crafted by a single Swiss leatherworker. But our favourite is the “alchemical” scarf, the first of a series of four editions. “For me, silk is an extraordinary miracle,” says Patrick Bonnefond, formerly with Hermès and now head of the 126-year-old Marc Rozier silk mill in Lyon, where the Peau de Chagrin scarves are produced. Painstakingly hand-printed, dried, steam-set, washed, rinsed, dried again, cut, hemmed, inspected… An age-old process that suspends the passage of time, and warms the heart.
HORS DU TEMPS
Il était une fois une marque née du hasard des rencontres. Au confluent de deux appels anti-consuméristes. Celui de Mesh Chhibber, autrefois dans les relations publiques pour des grands noms de la mode, et celui de Sofie Guerrero, artiste imprégnée des formidables univers de la danse and du théâtre. Deux êtres pour une griffe éditrice d’objets au compte-gouttes – cent par création, pas un de plus. C’est elle qui lui parle du livre de Balzac La Peau de Chagrin. Un nom d’oeuvre pour manifeste en quelque sorte. Ensemble, ils volent à la rescousse des traditions artisanales européennes en perdition, collaborant avec ses irréductibles port-étendards pour aboutir à des modèles qu’ils rêvent de voir se transmettre de génération en génération.
Premier de la lignée: le sac, patiemment réalisé par un seul et même artisan dans le Jura suisse. Facon sac de docteur vintage, en cuir. Et puis voilà notre favori: le “Carré Alchimique” numéro un, premier d’un série de quatre. “La soie, c’est pour moi un miracle extraordinaire”, dixit Patrick Bonnefond, ex-P.D.G. de la holding textile d’Hermès, à la tête du soyeux Lyonnais Marc Rozier, 126 ans d’existence, où les foulards Peau de Chagrin sont imprimés et ourlés à la main. Imprimés cadre après cadre, teinte après teinte. Recto et verso. Séchés, fixés à la vapeur, lavés, savonnés à l’eau tiède, rincés, essorés, à nouveau séchés à 160 degrés. Très rapidement. Découpés, roulottés, jugés, jaugés. La succession de gestes ancestraux suspend le temps. C’est noble, joyeux et inspiré, ça réchauffe le coeur.
For the first in a three-part series on fashion influenced by fiction, Osman Ahmed investigates Peau de Chagrin, an artisanal Balzac-inspired label creating heirloom-worthy accessories
Set in early 19th-century Paris, La Peau de Chagrin (1831) by Honoré de Balzac tells the story of a young man, Raphaël de Valentin, who makes a Faustian pact to fulfil his excessive bourgeois desires at the cost of his soul. The protagonist is given a piece of shagreen leather that will provide him with his every request, and as forewarned, it diminishes along with his health and sanity as he wishes himself to death. The novel, a meditation on consumption and morality, seems like an antidote to the modern fashion industry and its barrage of products; the several-looks-a-day street style peacocks that punctuate fashion week would surely combust within a single day if faced with a similar storyline.
“It just spoke to us and felt weirdly relevant,” explains Mesh Chibber, co-founder of luxury maison Peau de Chagrin, which takes its name from the aforementioned Balzac tale. Chibber is something of an industry veteran; he started his career as John Galliano’s publicist in the early 1990s and subsequently launched RMO, one of London’s leading PR agencies on this side of the millennium. Having left the world of PR in 2014, he found himself in need of a project that felt pertinent to this day and age. So, he partnered with a friend, Sofie C. Guerrero, and the pair set off on an eight-month train journey through Europe in search of small ateliers and individual craftsmen who use traditional leather and silk techniques to make truly luxurious objects, intended to last for decades, at a time-laboured pace. “Today’s luxury brands have had to compromise on quality – brands went from making tens of millions of dollars in the 80s, to hundreds in the 90s and billions by the 2000s, and you just can’t do this kind of production on that scale.”
The first object that Peau de Chagrin embarked on producing was a leather bag based on one found in a flea market years before. The simple-shaped boxy bag, complete with a curved structure and corseted sides, is made by a single artisan in the Swiss Jura mountains, from chrome-free, vegetable-tanned brown leather sourced in Belgium. It’s a classic item that one can imagine ageing incredibly gracefully. The bag was soon followed by a silk scarf, inspired by a map designed by Jacques Gaffarel, Cardinal Richelieu’s librarian, in the 17th century. The square design is woven, printed and sewn in Lyon by a soyeux, a traditional silk manufacturer, while its fluoro-like yellow hue is hand-mixed and exclusive to the duo, framing the Kabbalistic symbols that represent the constellations of the southern hemisphere as observed by Gaffarel.
Both items are limited to a hundred pieces each. “A bag that costs thousands of euros should not break in a few years – it should be an heirloom,” reasons Chibber. “We wanted to work with people who are proud of what they do.” So far, the items are exclusively available on the label’s website, as it takes ten weeks to produce each one, and the creators want to avoid retailers adding extra profit margins. “You’re paying for someone’s knowledge and skills and that shouldn’t come cheap,” he adds. “Once those skills leave a generation, they’re gone forever.”
THE BAG: PEAU DE CHAGRIN
In a world of fast fashion, former fashion publicist Mesh Chhibber and artist Sofie Guerrero realised the need for quality craftsmanship one could hold on to. The result? A collection that comprises just one style—an understated tan handbag based on the vintage doctor’s bag. The anti-It bag, if you may. The concept? Once the run of 100 bags is sold out, you won’t be able to get hold of the style again.
THE INSPIRATION: “Peau de Chagrin is inspired by Honoré de Balzac’s novel of the same name. It’s a Faustian tale of talent, decadence, debauchery, magic and a prophetic warning against materialism,” Chhibber explains.
THE PROCESS: Each bag is handcrafted by a single master artisan in the Jura Mountains of Switzerland, part of the nation’s “watch valley.” The tan leather exterior is from a Belgian tannery that only works with the vegetable tanning method.
USP: Since they avoid the toxic chrome treating process often used to process leather, the bags are environmentally sustainable and socially responsible.
NEXT UP: Look out for the second product in the range—a limited-edition scarf made and printed in Lyon by a workshop founded in the city in 1890 that uses traditional printing techniques.
As a former fashion publicist for designer John Galliano and others, Mesh Chhibber is all too aware of the mercurial nature of the industry. So when Chhibber decamped to the other side — producing accessories and other goods rather than promoting brands — he had a different approach: create limited-edition pieces that take time to make and can then be bequeathed to another generation.
Chhibber, who lives between London and Paris, teamed up with artist and friend Sofie C. Guerrero to form Peau de Chagrin, a brand with the unusual mission of making fewer items but having them last.
"We noticed that people weren't making things the way they used to," said Chhibber during an April interview in Los Angeles. "Customers were spending thousands of dollars on accessories that should last a lifetime, that could be handed down to grandchildren, and few brands still do that. I wanted to look for European craftsmen to make beautiful things properly."
Peau de Chagrin launched in 2015 with its first product, a sculpted tan leather handbag, devoid of logos and embellishment, a classic in the truest sense of the word. Each one takes 10 days to make by hand by an artisan in the Swiss Jura Mountains. The roughly $4,000 accessory generated a waiting list.
The just-launched second Peau de Chagrin is a yellow scarf created in Lyon, France, which has been the center of the French silk industry since the 1500s. The $792 square features an esoteric pattern of Kabbalistic text from a 17th century map that Guerrero discovered in a London library.
Limited edition silk scarf, inspired by Kabbalistic text, 700 Euros (approximately $790), peaudechagrin.com (peaudechagrin.com)
"It's the same idea as our brand," said Chhibber. "That of a sealed, special European knowledge."
And what's next for Peau de Chagrin? A second handbag in black from an artisan in France and a handmade leather bound book from a British bookbinder. Chhibber said he will focus on bespoke, curated pieces to add to the line.
"People should buy fewer things, but what they do buy, they should keep forever," he said.
The handbag and the scarf from Peau de Chagrin are available at www.peaudechagrin.com.
Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
INSPIRED by the Honoré de Balzac novel of the same name to create products of great craftsmanship is Peau de Chagrin, a British luxury goods brand which is based on employing tried and tested applied traditional craftsmanship and expertise in the production of the company’s accessories. Inspired by Balzac’s Faustian tale of talent, decadence, debauchery and warnings against the worship of materialism into the mix, the brand’s philosophy is an essential foundation of these limited edition objects made by European artisans.
Brand values are of equally importance to Peau de Chagrin with their range designed for posterity, intended to last not only years, but generations, and are handmade in a limited amount, and stem from the company’s belief that everything they bring into the world should be as environmentally sustainable and socially responsible as possible.
The two products Peau de Chagrin has just released – the Peau de Chagrin bag and the Carré Alchemique No 1 scarf – are both items of great quality which have been made entirely in direct collaboration with artisans to ensure the workmanship and craft techniques are of an appropriately excellent level.
Limited to 100 pieces, the Peau de Chagrin bag is the brand’s premier object. Hand-crafted by a single master artisan in the Jura Hills of Switzerland, an area known for its small ateliers and precision watch-making skills. Composed of tan leather sourced from Belgium that works strictly with a vegetable tanning method, avoiding the toxic processing methods commonly used in the production of leather goods.
The hand-stitched and traditionally screen-printed Carré Alchemique No 1 scarf of crêpe de chine, Peau de Chagrin’s follow up the consciously designed bag that started it all, is made entirely in Lyon by an artisanal silk manufacturer, Maison Marc Rozier, founded in 1890 and since going on to champion Lyonnaise techniques of silk making.
Inspired by drawings dating back to the 17th century by Jacques Gaffarel, a noted scholar and astrologer of Cardinal Richelieu, imagery incorporated into the design of the scarf includes Kabbalistic text mapping the constellations visible from the Southern Hemisphere during Richelieu’s lifetime.
by Liam Feltham