Updated: Dec 22, 2020
From hand stitching Hermès handbags, to creating her own successful business.
Fine leather goods maker, teacher and entrepreneur Bea Amblard, owns and operates 'April in Paris' in San Francisco, California.
Philip. First of all Béatrice, thank you for taking the time to share your passion and your story with us.
Many who are involved in fine leatherwork know about you and your businesses in San Francisco, April in Paris and your teaching school Amblard Atelier.
In this blog interview I wanted to share your success story with the wider maker community, and further inspire others who also have a love for leathercraft.
So let’s start at the very beginning..
Before you started your journey in leathercraft, what made you decide to work with leather, and what age were you at the time?
Béatrice. I had always struggled in school because I’m left handed, but dyslexic as well. Back then, both those things were not fully understood, which brought negative responses from peers and teachers.
At the age of 16, the French school system told me I had two options: I could be a secretary, or go to trade school.
I always knew I wanted to work with my hands. My first passion was woodworking. When I went to visit “The Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Paris”, it would have been to study carpentry, but as soon as I walked by the leather shop, I fell in love.
The smell, the feel and the old tools are what drew me in.
I studied there for two years and then was hired by Hermès after completion.
Philip. What was your training like at the Hermès atelier, did you find it a challenge, or did it come naturally to you?
Béatrice. It definitely wasn’t easy at first. I was 18, being trained by a fellow lefty, which, let’s put it this way, had its own challenges.
I was working 10-hour days, and expected to be perfect.
The level of detail and precision that was required was almost impossible for me, as I had only had 2 years of prior training.
After miles and miles of stitching and edge finishing, things started to feel more natural, and I was given my first bag to construct (a Kelly to say the least). I felt like I had finally made it.
Philip. During your time at Hermès, can you take us through some of the projects you have worked on and was there anything that stood out as your favourite?
Béatrice. I started off with small wallets for the first 6 months, and then started making bags one at a time.
I made everything from Constance bags to Kelly bags, and all the classics in between. My favourite project I worked on was an elephant bag.
It was beyond beautiful. I know it may be a controversial topic these days, but in France in 1984, nobody had a problem with it.
Philip. When did you move from Paris to California? Tell us what it felt like arriving there and fitting in with a different culture, professionally and personally.
Béatrice. I moved from Paris in 1987 to Los Angeles to learn English for 6 months. I had asked Hermès for a written confirmation to state I could get my job back upon my return. While in L.A., I was working in a sweatshop for a lingerie company during the day (Frederick’s of Hollywood no less), and babysitting children in the evenings.
Lets say it was certainly a change of pace from Hermès and my life in Paris. I returned after the 6 months were over, got my job back, got married and then was offered to help open the first San Francisco store.
Officially, I moved to San Francisco in November of 1987. I still barely spoke English, and everyone thought I was so shy. When I finally felt more comfortable with the language, I felt at home, and I knew this was the place for me.
I still have very close friends from the first weeks working at Hermès.
Philip. If you could go back in time and have a conversation with yourself at the beginning of your career, what advice would you give young Beatrice?
Béatrice. I honestly would not change a thing from my past. I’m exactly where I want to be, and have worked very hard to get here.
As corny as it sounds, I’ve always lived my life by “follow your dreams and follow your instinct”. My only advice would be: don’t give up. Everything works itself out in the end.
Philip. What was it that made you decide to leave Hermès and start April In Paris? Did you want to leave for a long time or was it a quick decision?
Béatrice. Leaving Hermès was the hardest thing I ever did. I had stability, but everything was very predictable.
I had this hunger to create, which I wasn’t fuelling in the position I had there.
I found myself at a halt, with nowhere to go, but to go out on my own. It wasn’t a spur of the moment or rash decision, but it also wasn’t planned for long.
Philip. What have you found to be the biggest difference between building your own business and working for a large company? Is there more to focus on?
Béatrice. Working for a large company, you don’t have the responsibility of questioning where your next paycheck is coming from.
I have everything to lose as my own boss, and no room for failure. Building your own business is filled of long days and sleepless nights but an incredible high when you reach your first milestone.
Working for yourself means you’re free to make your own decisions… good or bad. You’re no longer only focused on the product you make, but everything that comes with it.
Philip. What do you think clients expect from an individual artisan compared to a large brand?
Béatrice. Our clientele expects the best. They want something unique coming from an artisan.
They love that they’re the only person with that specific piece. They come back for the quality, as well as the experience, which is something I find lacking from most large brands.
Our client has the opportunity to be part of the creative process. Each item is a result of a partnership between the maker and the client.
Philip. When working with clients, how important is it to establish a relationship with them, and does this connection lead to a better product?
Béatrice. The relationship is so important between our clientele and us. They trust us to create something for them that is well made and exclusive.
Without this trust and communication, we can’t make a great product.
We’ve had clients for over 20 years that still come back, because they know the quality, as well as who’s making it for them.
We even have some clients that just call us up, tell us what style they want, and tell us to pick the colours. They trust our judgement, because we know them. That is always a rewarding feeling.
Philip. How would you describe your style of leatherwork, and where do you take inspiration from?
Béatrice. I pride myself on very traditional styles and techniques of leatherwork. Almost everything is still completely hand done, with the classic tools from centuries ago.
I’d categorize myself as a classic contemporary style, with more architectural lines, based on craftsmanship and the beauty of the leather.
Philip. What is your favourite tool in the workshop, and what makes you like working with it so much?
Béatrice. I’d have to say my favourite tool, as simple as it is, is the creasing iron from Regad. I find that the edges of an item look elegantly finished and it takes the item to a level of sophistication that you wouldn’t get without ironing.
When I first started, there were no electronic irons. I had to heat the burnishing head over an open flame and when I thought it was hot enough, I’d have to bring it close to my cheek to feel the heat.
So the advancement of this tool is also a game changer in the field, and I’m grateful for all the time I save.
Philip. What do you look for when selecting high quality leather and hardware?
Béatrice. I’ve been getting almost all of my leather from the same suppliers since I started my business because I know what I’m receiving is high quality.
If I’m looking for leather though, I will base my decision of quality on feel and durability. It has to be soft and luxurious, but able to last through tough usage.
As for hardware, I like to have it made by a local jeweller to assure what I’m using will age well and last forever.
If it’s not custom made for my brand, I like to get hardware either made in Italy or the USA. It took a lot of searching and deep web diving to find my suppliers for both leather and hardware.
A piece of advice for all the young bucks in the trade: go to a leather show and find your suppliers in person because nothing beats great materials and good service!
Philip. What is a typical day for you in the atelier from start to finish?
Béatrice. I start my day off by checking my emails, doing some accounting, and then the students start to arrive.
Each day is a different group of students, different levels, so I have to check in with each one and figure out where they’re at with what project.
I get each one set up for the next steps and check up on them regularly.
Then I have to see what needs to be done for April in Paris, and how to guide my employees on whatever custom project we’re working on.
They’re mostly independent, but for more intricate or new designs, I still have my hand in assembly and execution.
A few hours of that, and then it’s lunchtime. To connect more with my students, we will all usually go eat at a nearby restaurant, where we can share stories and ambitions. Back to work after that, with more juggling of both businesses.
We have a tradition at 4 o’clock with a chocolate pick me up for a quick energy boost. More stitching, more sanding and more gluing to come until the day is eventually over.
Philip. When you take on students in your atelier, do you see any character traits that indicate someone is going to do well? What do you notice about them?
Béatrice. It’s hard to say at first whether they’ll do well because there are so many different aspects to consider.
Some may excel in pattern making, but struggle in stitching (just an example). I find that the ones who have a natural gift show it in the first few hours, but of course practice and dedication will define someone’s work.
I’ve had students that have what I call an “Ah-ha” moment six months into the course where something clicks for them and they do great work afterwards.
I will say the most prominent characteristic in a successful student is focus and a will to learn.
Philip. When you see beginner leather workers on social media, what do you think are the most common mistakes and what could they do to improve?
Béatrice. I think everyone who starts, has a great level of excitement for the work. I’ve noticed on social media that beginners tend to try a little bit of everything, without focusing on certain aspects, which leads to making mistakes or incorrect usage of the tools. That’s a big part of the learning process though.
I love that people are sharing their points of view and tricks of the trade. I’m glad so many are interested in this, even if what they’re doing doesn’t look the way I think it should.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m very critical and have strong opinions about how I think things should be done (ask any of my students), but I think it’s great that people are experimenting.
I would say that a lot of leather workers I see like to use different methods and in my opinion, learning how to use the tools properly is more important. Putting the time in developing the right skill is key. Patience is a requirement.
Philip. In your experience, is it necessary to have the best tools or is it more important to focus on knowledge and practice?
Béatrice. I’m a firm believer that the best tools do not make someone’s work better. For example, you can buy an expensive stitching awl and still have crooked stitching. I tell all my students, it takes miles of stitching to have perfect straight lines. Practice is key!
I find that all these new gadgets coming out to make things easier are taking away from the simplicity of the traditional tools I started with. Call me old fashioned, but “practice makes perfect”. Although I still use and teach with classic tools, I can appreciate the innovation in the craft to modernize some techniques.
Philip. You teach many students in your atelier. What has this taught you about leathercraft? Can anybody learn, or do they need to have a special talent to get started?
Béatrice. My students have certainly shown me that anyone can do what they set their minds to.
It has been so rewarding to be able to share my love and passion for the trade with others. This incredible work is being appreciated today, more than I ever thought it would.
We see all walks of life in the atelier, from businessmen to retirees, to art students and more.
Those who have a natural talent definitely have the upper hand in having a successful leatherworking journey, but anyone who is willing to learn and put the time into the craft can get started. It’s not just a craft, but a way of thinking.
And lastly, 20 quick fire questions...
1. Tea or coffee? Coffee
2. Cats or dogs? Dogs
3. Wine or beer? Wine
4. Day at the beach or hike in the mountains? Hike in the mountains
5. City or countryside? Countryside
6. Favourite music? World music, most specifically African drums
7. Relax at home or Go to a party? A little bit of both
8. Favourite colour? Bright green
9. Work early in the morning or late at night? Early in the morning
10. Last book you read? Been a while
11. Favourite sport? Soccer
12. Favourite drink? Rosé
13. Favourite meal? Steak frites
14. English word that sounds funny to French people.. Shenanigans
15. Golden Gate Bridge or Eiffel Tower? Golden Gate Bridge
16. Favourite TV show? Wonder Woman
17. US plays France, who are you cheering? I am happy either way, one of my teams will win
18. What time do you wake up? 6:30 or 7:00
19. Californian wine or French wine? French for sure
20. Cheese burger or Coq au vin? Cheeseburger
Again, thank you Béatrice, it has been a pleasure getting to know you, we appreciate you sharing your journey and inspiring others who are passionate about the craft.
If you are interested in training at the Amblard atelier in San Francisco, please email: email@example.com for more information.
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All pictures owned by © 2019 Amblard Leather Atelier / © 2018 April in Paris