Today’s interview is with the wonderfully talented Béatrice Amblard, master leather artisan and owner of the boutique, April in Paris. Béatrice worked for Hermes as a leather craftsman and “Ambassador” for many years, before leaving to start her own business in 2000. Now, Béatrice is currently the only Hermes artisan to have her own label in the United States. It was fascinating to speak with Béatrice on a variety of topics – her business, her opinions on the leather goods world and the importance of buying local, and a little bit about the woman as well. Enjoy meeting Béatrice!
Who are you? What do you do, and where do you live?
I live in San Francisco, and I am Bea.
What do I do….well, I have two businesses right now. One is called April in Paris, and what I do is custom leather accessories. It’s all kinds of luxury oriented leather goods, made using traditional methods.
That’s one part of my day. The other part? I have a school called Amblard Leather Atelier and what it is, is the beginning of a trade school. I want to bring back old traditional methods of teaching and keep this craft and this art form alive. So, I created this school a year ago to keep that going.
A leather atelier is unique business that one doesn’t see often. Has there been a lot of demand?
There is. I have about 40 students a week right now.
Running two successful businesses is an amazing accomplishment. Are you a solo entrepreneur?
I’ve done this all myself in the last 15 years. No investors. I have a 9th grade education but I run two businesses and have kept them that long (15 years), which is a big thing. Keeping my businesses the way they should be, and not over expanding, is really important to me. That’s why I’m still there…because if I had expanded when everybody did, I wouldn’t be around anymore.
You were just 16 when you started the education that would begin your career. How did you know so early that you wanted to work in leather goods?
It was love at first sight. I was 16 and because I had dyslexia, I was told by the school system that I wasn’t fit to head into the 10th grade. So, I had to find something to do, and applied to different schools. I knew very early on that I was good with my hands…I remember being in a wood working class when I was just seven or eight.
My mother then found this school that was a trade school, sponsored by the government in Paris. I walked into the workshop – first I wanted to go into wood work – and I ended up going to the leather workshop first. I just walked in there and fell in love with it immediately. It is my first love and still my biggest love. Leather working is the longest relationship I’ll ever have, 30 years. I love it even more today because of what I’m able to do now…I’ve taken it to the full extent of its capacity and now it’s exactly what I wanted it to be.
You worked for Hermes for a very long time and were one of the company’s first employees in the United States. How do you feel about your time there?
The education I received at Hermes was the best I could possibly have. When I started working for Hermes 28 years ago, they took care of their employees. They were very considerate, they took the time to train us…you stepped in there and you were part of a family. It was a very difficult beginning for me, probably because of my learning difficulties. I’m left handed, so I had to learn how to use tools right handed, which was a little difficult. Ultimately though, it taught me a lot. Working with Hermes was the best thing I could have done. There wasn’t one luxury goods company that was as good as they were. There probably still isn’t, even though things have changed a lot.
What is a favorite memory from your time there?
Well, I had been at Hermes for six months at the time, I was 18 years old and still very new. In the elevator to go home (we had a separate employee entrance, I was trained at the store in Paris where they had all the workshops at the time). I walked into the elevator, and the president Jean Louise Dumas Hermes, he took off his hat, and said, “Hi, you’re Beatrice Amblard.”
I looked at him and was blown away. He knew exactly who I was. He knew all his employees – where they came from, what they did, and where they went to school. It was my favorite memory, a mind blowing experience. I said to myself that if I were ever a boss, that’s how I was going to treat my employees.
There were 250 of us employees then, and the president knew all of us. It was a pretty amazing place. Of all the larger companies out there doing leather goods – Hermes is still the best around.
Can you share a little about why you decided to branch off and open your own business- and it has grown since then?
When I was with Hermes, I was working in San Francisco and had a lot of ideas about what would be great for the company. But working for a company that large, you’re kind of lost in the shuffle. Even though I had a different position than most of the staff there, there was still quite a high level of control over what was being produced, so everything that was being suggested was being turned down.
I had ambitions, I had desires, I wanted to grow my business and not do the same thing for the rest of my life. So at one point I had to ask myself – what am I going to do for the rest of my life? I had no way out. So, I started doing a little bit of research, and looking into tools and machines, and seeing leathers and going to shows and realized there was nothing for me to do, nowhere to go. Because, when you’ve been with Hermes, there’s nowhere else you can go, no other company. I tried, and it didn’t work, in fact it was a complete disaster.
Then, I decided to start my own company. Really the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do was leave Hermes, because of who they are and what they represent, and having grown up with them. But it was the best thing I could have ever done.
When I started out, there was no model I could look at because it didn’t really exist. I felt that there was a niche for custom work, which was what Hermes used to do quite often, which they don’t do as much anymore. I could see the demand for custom work when I was working there. So, I started out and rented a little space.
I didn’t want to grow too fast and I really wanted to secure the business more. So the first two years, I went really slow. I put a little ad in the San Francisco Chronicle and started getting business that way. My business was really word of mouth to begin with. There was no internet at the time, I didnt have a website, I didn’t have any of that. I was really relying on the population of San Francisco to know what I was doing. Having the name of Hermes behind me really helped – but I also worked really hard at not compromising the quality of my work. I’m really trying to produce the best quality ever at all times.
When things got tough, I said that I would eat potatoes for years until business picked up – but I wasn’t going to compromise and give my soul to the devil. l love what I do, I love how I do it, and stuck to my principles. It’s a lesson – when you have something good you don’t change it. I’ve of course made small adjustments along the way, but nothing in the core. I do custom work, I do almost everything by hand, when people come in it’s one bag for one person, and I’m not making this bag for anybody else. That’s the reputation that I’ve built over the years. People can come to me and my customer service is usually great. It’s very important for me that every client walks out happy.
What’s one of the most difficult aspects about your business?
My interpretation between what I think something is, and what the client actually thinks it is, is probably one of the difficult things that I do. It’s much easier to produce a line, have it mass produced and crank it out and put it out there.
If there’s a discrepancy between myself and the client I will take pieces back, I will make sure that my clients walk out out happy. It takes 100 people to build a business, and it takes just one unhappy client to destroy it. So my theory is, one client is never ever going to leave dissatisfied. Luckily it doesn’t happen very often….though perfection does not exist.
Can you share the story behind the name – April in Paris?
I felt that it was a name that was easy for people to remember. It’s a representation of me in Paris, and here in the United States. It’s this romantic beautiful expression that people know because of the song, of what it means to be in Paris in April …but it’s not French. And it actually fits me perfectly, because I’m half French and half American now, so that name really describes a part of me.
You specialize in handbags but create all sorts of leather goods. Can you share a few unusual commissions?
It was probably a house I worked on, where I was commissioned to cover the walls in leather. It took 11 months to cover 1400 square feet of walls, including six bookshelves in one of the rooms. It involved two floors, it was going downstairs, and it was all paneled leather pieces. It took about 155 skins, 15 gallons of glue, and 11 months later – it was done! It kept me happy. That was one of the most crazy projects I have ever done. In fact fact that house was later sold, and was probably one of the most expensive houses that’s ever been sold in the United States.
And I have had other unusual requests – making an eyepatch in leather and doing them in all different colors to match different outfits. One in yellow to match a raincoat, one in black to match another raincoat. That was kind of a funny adventure. And the client kept coming back and getting new ones. That was charming.
I’ve done so many different things, so it’s hard to remember all of it from the last 15 years. I’ve done the inside of cars, and upholstered the inside of a Mercedes many years ago. I’ve done a case for a blowdryer, things like that. Traveling pieces, camera cases.
What are some of the favorite products that you make?
I have a line of bags that I make. The Bea bag is the first bag I designed when I started my business. I didnt make it for somebody specifically, and I still continue to make it. That bag is my staple bag. That’s the one I’m very attached to. There’s another one that I make often – the Scarlet bag – they are really good everyday bags. I wear the Scarlet myself. However, I have over 200 designs, and I’ve never made the exact same bag twice.
What are some signs of quality leather goods that you look for? Particular details, leather quality signs, etc? What do you think of most of the leather goods out there currently (bags)?
Well to me, when I look around, the pieces that are being produced right now have a lot of hardware, a lot of pockets, a lot of everything on the outside. Which in my opinion, takes away from the fact that the leather is what should be featured. It’s gone so far over the top that it’s not about the leather anymore – it’s about everything else. I love the lines of a nice piece – the quality, the softness, the way it feels to the touch – that’s an important part of it. I always look at the lining. Very few companies line their bags with leather. Very few. But if you can find one, you are better off because leather will last longer than fabric. The edges, the stitching, all of that is very important.
A common leather technique you see on bags is stitching on the outside, with a finishing of the edges (usually a paint on the edge). Now, they are using a lot of acrylic dyes to paint the edges. That to me when I see it is just, oh, no, please no. And then the stitching. Look at the quality of the stitching. Does it make you feel good when you see them? Are the stitches really tiny, or larger? There is kind of an aesthetic to what is being made.
You won’t find handmade pieces of hand stitched leather hardly ever now, if you go to any designers. Most designers don’t do anything by hand anymore. But there is a certain feel for it… the way that handles are constructed, for example. Do they feel sturdy, or are they attached by a rivet, and that’s it? To me, a good constructed handbag – the handles have to be sturdy, because that’s what you carry everyday. If your handles are not sturdy, you are asking for trouble.
Finally, the zippers. Are they going to scratch your hand when you put them into the bag? The best quality bags will have a great zipper inside. Brands like YYK Excella, Riri make excellent zippers with polished teeth.
Those are the details I look for in a high quality leather piece.
Could you share more about your philosophy and advice on buying accessories? How do you feel about the evolution of luxury leather accessories in the last few decades?
My philosophy is, less is more. I’m completely a minimalist. I have one bag that I wear until it’s gone… well not quite, because I wont let them get that far. I have one bag, I have one wallet. I don’t like stuff unless I really need it. My philosophy is to buy something nice. Not that it has to be expensive – I dont believe in that.
But, do your research! Who is making the bag? Are you going with a small company that is taking care of certain details? Or are you really buying a name…where the quality may not be there? Because now, that’s what has happened to the industry. And honestly, what’s happened in the last 20 years in the accessories industry is hard for me to talk about with a straight face – it’s kind of a joke. It’s not about quality anymore, it’s all about the prestige, about the companies that have had enough marketing to put their name out so that enough people can see them.
Buy something that nobody else knows about. Buy something that’s going to make you feel good when you carry it. Because when you open it, when you touch it, the inside, it makes you feel good. Something where the details that the company has put in, have made a quality difference.
Don’t go for the big thing that everybody else has. I believe in people having their own voice and independent thoughts. If you want to set yourself apart, do some research. Buy local! There are some companies where you live locally, that are trying to put out some things that are good. We’ve gone so far on the side of mass production, that we’re coming back to an era of small lines, of better produced quality. We need to support that. The big names – it’s such a tough business to be in. I go against the grain all around. I do everything by hand. Everybody does stuff by machine. I have a mentality of a really old fashioned way. Produce something well, and don’t compromise. You do that until you’re done.
That’s why teaching for me is so important. I’m teaching quality to these people who are coming to learn from me. I’m teaching them to recognize a good finish from a bad finish. I’m really tough! I don’t let anything go with my students unless it’s being produced well. But if we do this groundwork – there will be much more for people to choose from in the future. If even a tenth of my students have their own businesses – it is that many more than a few years ago. And there will be more things to be bought from them in this future, and I’m a big proponent of buying things that are well made. I’m not going to promote mass production.
What are some of your other passions and hobbies?
Well, I’m finally exploring drumming. I’m taking hand drum lessons, to be able to fulfill this fire that’s totally connected to the heart, and exploring the other side of me that needs to come out. It’s an old passion of mine starting from when I was a kid, and I just got around to it. So yes, my new hobby and new love is drumming. I love going out on walks, love the outdoors, walking on the beach, going up in the mountains, I’m a little more earthy that way. Being inside all day during the week, I love to do things outside, and have fun outside of work.
Finally – please share something surprising about yourself!
People who don’t know me, don’t realize how much I love this country, simply because I’m French. But really, I took the best of the French and I imported it to this country. This country is really an amazing place to me, and I’m very soon going to be able to say that I’m proud to be an American (but not yet, because I’m not a citizen). I’m becoming an American citizen soon though! I just filled out the application.
I truly enjoyed putting together this interview, and getting to know Bea. Bea is so inspiring, on several different levels – as a business woman and entrepreneur, as an artisan, and finally simply as a person. I’ve definitely been guilty of being impressed by a brand name and having that name drive me to make a purchase – only to be let down by poor quality down the road. Bea’s dedication to quality really inspires me to try and seek good, quality craftsmanship – and not to compromise. And of course I also have to say that I have now spent a considerable amount of time day dreaming in my head about what my perfect future bag, from April in Paris. It is a special thing to have something made specifically for you.
Thank you Bea for sharing some of your work, life and beliefs with us here today. For more of Bea, please visit her shop – April in Paris! She sells both in person and online. Enjoy!