Jose Urrutia, founder of La Portegna, to discusses the Silicon Valley of Craftsmanship
In a series of one-on-ones with some of our most intrepid brand founders, ambassadors and more, we discover what it takes to run their business. In this edition, we interview Jose Urrutia, co-founder of Madrid and London based brand La Portegna.
Good morning Jose. Here we are, sipping coffee in a street of Marylebone next to your shop in London. Your brand was inspired by your grandparents’ passion for travel. Did growing up to their stories change your perception of the value of travelling?
Having a grandmother recounting how she travelled in 1932 at the height of the British Empire on a boat for more than 6 months, visiting vast untouched places, staying at Karen Blixen´s (Memory of Africa) estate house and becoming friends with Hemingway, was for me incredibly inspiring as a young man.
Her story pushed me to travel solo around the world, but this time, with a backpack, a phone and e-mail (and without today´s “Hemingway”). Somehow the mystique of travelling vanished. Fortunately, travelling has become available for everyone, and with Whatsapp, you'll always remain close to home. Which is why my grandmother's “trip” becomes more magical over time; it is a reminder that travelling should not be getting from one place to another but is rather a life experience.
From your personal experience, were there any trips or particular destinations you traveled to that inspired your vision for the brand?
Definitely South America, and more specifically Argentina. I still think that South America is very untouched with low population density. I find it fascinating the population mix between the new and old world and vast landscapes of the Andes or the Amazon. Argentina is the only country that fuses a vast lush landscape with an amazing climate.
And so, what about La Portegna? There’s got to be a good story behind that name.
La Portegna refers to, in Spanish, a lady from Europe who disembarks in one of the new world's ports. The people from Buenos Aires are called Porteños. The name´s meaning conjugates very well the concept around travel between the old world (Europe) and the new world..plus it resonates a lot with my grandmother´s story.
You’ve said that whereas La Portegna’s style could evolve, the brand’s quality would never falter. How do you ensure such high standards in your products?
The recipe for long lasting and beautiful products is to pick noble materials such as great vegetable tanned leather, good thick stonewashed canvas, brass fittings and leave it into the hands of very talented artisans.
Where do you source your materials; locally, or abroad?
I prefer to source locally because we have excellent suppliers that can deliver quickly and adapt to the market. We use specifically Spanish vegetable tanned leather that is spotlessly clean with no spots, cuts or holes. This means the cows have been wandering freely away from barbed wire. The leather tones should reflect depth and uniformity; we look for leather tanneries with unique colour palettes that project the visual power of leather.
A simple acid test that distinguishes quality leather from the rest is how the leather rests upon itself. A sample of poor leather can either feel very upright or totally bland. Good leather sample must have what we call in Spanish “cuerpo” ( body): it is firm but gracious.
Over time you learn to appreciate good leather by holding the leather sample into your hand and releasing it on a table, you can then observe if it has nice “cuerpo”. This test is critical because it will allow you to predict how the leather will behave over time.
And what is it about Andalucia, your place of production, that’s so special?
Our craftsmen are from Ubrique a beautiful white stoned village in Andalucia (Spain). Ubrique is world renowned for incredible leather craftsmen. For centuries they have been working with leather and it is currently known as the “silicon valley of craftsmanship”. I strongly recommend reading this article by the BBC.
The Silicon Valley of Craftsmanship. We didn't think of that one.
Well, it's a bit like your office in Clerkenwell. Actually, that's how you should rename your offices!
Oh yes, let's do it. We know La Portegna is big on authentic craftsmanship and that you work with incredibly skilled artisans. What do you find is the best part about working with traditional methods and the people who master them?
By far the best thing is the comfort and assurance that any new design will be tackled and delivered magnificently. Those craftsmen are born and bred with leather plus they have a great track record working alongside with great brands. It is a high quality culture that ensures that all products will be executed fantastically.
La Portegna was born in the sunny, warm, blissful environment of Spain - is that identity something you’d like to convey through your products?
Spain is world famous for its sun and vibrant lifestyle. Our products are a reflection of the spirit of Spain. They are simple but world class.
Could you tell us, in your words, what quality means to you?
This is a very good question, especially in today´s digital world where you can virtually buy anything from anywhere. The concept of quality becomes much more nuanced. I recognise quality when a product speaks by itself and creates an experience. Quality is about how something feels and makes us feel.
Ever since I founded La Portegna I wanted the brand to become renowned for making beautiful handcrafted products at great prices. I really do believe there is a bridge between fine mass appeal products and luxury. Globalization has allowed major brands to scale their products globally and overshadowing local and unique quality brands. However, thanks to the power of internet and initiatives such as Bombinate, independent quality can be accessed globally.