Grga Leather Manufacture: Favourite Bags, Handmade in Tirol
I first stumbled upon Gregor Mair’s vegetable-tanned leather pieces on a design show; some time later, I discovered them in one of my favourite shops in Innsbruck: Sumptuously crafted calfskin leather bags that are as handy as they are handsome. Handcrafted and finished in Tirol’s one and only leather manufacture. What is it all about?
It All Started with a Tobacco Bag.
I am on a studio visit with Gregor Mair at Haus Viereinzig on 41 Hallerstraße Street in Innsbruck. Two industrial cylinder needle feeds, sewing machines that can sew thick leather, sit in one corner and shelves filled with leather in all hues of brown, black and red in the other. Leather working tools to build a bag from scratch, finished bags and sample bags adorn the tiny space. This minimal production space interweaves the traditional with the contemporary, a vision that becomes manifested through Gregor Mair’s cleanly designed bags. Although he never seemed to have interest in bag making, the first time he sat at his workbench to create a leather piece, he felt as though it was in his DNA. Taking something time-weathered and manipulating it. Handcrafting it. Gregor Mair briefly studied architecture at Innsbruck University. Partially into his degree, he withdrew to pursue a lighting designer career. However, this job too, soon lacked creativity and satisfaction.
Then he suffered a bicycle accident injury, resulting in a fracture of the femoral neck and a long-term patienthood of six months. His interest in leather was initially more in the area of consumption than creation. He started in a necessity-is-the-mother-of-invention fashion when he began creating unique leather products for himself that he could not seem to find elsewhere. A simple, rugged wallet and a tobacco bag. From there, it took off. He realized other people were looking for the same thing he was. He made 150 tobacco bags for friends. The instant popularity of the bags turned Mair’s newfound hobby into a Business
However, it has been a long way to go until he opened his own leather manufacture named “grga” in the year 2013: Bag making is a registered craft in Austria and requires a trading licence. “I struggled hard to provide evidence of my qualifications, and eventually, I received my trading licence.” Gregor Mair has a limited licence; he is not allowed to produce suitcases, for example. By now, he was sure to obtain a full licence, assures the 45-year old Innsbruck native. “It’s mostly about professional experience,” he explains. Gaining an apprenticeship and work experience, however, is impossible in Tirol, as there is no teaching activity available in the country. Once Gregor Mair had incepted the idea of running his own business, he began to study how to create bags and learning all he could about leather. Support came from Helmut Schmarda, one of the last remaining leather bag makers in Tirol. “I still keep on learning,” says Mair.
Was all the struggle worth it? “Yes!” The answer comes immediately. Of course, starting up his own business was a huge step and involved financial risk—buying tools, sewing machines, renting studio space and purchasing leather. However, his dedication paid off: He loves what he is doing and he likes being his own boss.
Fall is a tremendously busy time for the leather bag designer. He often works late into the night, crafting bags to order and producing items for trade shows. “With Christmas just around the corner, my studio needs to be stocked with bags. Customers visit me here to find that perfect gift.” Gregor Mair’s handcrafted leatherware is available online, too. However, he loves to showcase and demonstrate his latest products and meet with trade partners and customers on trade fairs in and around Austria. He would love to grow into a studio at the heart of Innsbruck: His own, tiny leather manufacture, downtown. This would be a wonderful next step, he tells me.
Sourcing Leather Twice a Year.
Until then, Mair assembles (by hand) original leather bags using highest quality leather, entirely out of his small studio on Haller Straße street. Twice a year he travels to Spain to a small tannery that has been making finest vegetable tanned leather for more than 200 years. All of his leather comes from there and from small tanneries in Germany and Italy. The Lather Fair in Milano, Italy, is an annual must-go. This is where he finds things like genuine salmon leather, which he has crafted into a clutch. It is important to Gregor Mair to tell his customers where his leather was sourced. “I focus on mindful over mass production. From hand cutting to the final stitch and rivet. I embrace patina and thoughtful cut to give each item a unique signature—and that’s what my customers really do appreciate.”
Inspired by simplicity and a deep sense of clean form, Gregor Mair’s goal is to offer carefully handcrafted Tirol-made leatherwork that is sincere and simple. “I desire to create pieces that are highly practical yet rooted in rugged individualism. Custom requests for specific details and sizing are considered to a certain extent. With a divided interior, for example, a bag offers a little more separation of belongings. That is what my customers really like. I have sold bags to Luxembourg and to Switzerland.”
The Messenger Bag of the Emperors, ‚Redone‘
Inspiration for his design comes from everyday life, movies or history: “Sometimes I see centuries old bags in a museum, which I want to redo. “This bag here,” he explains, “is a design I spotted in the TV series ‘Der Kurier der Kaiserin’ (‘Courier of the Empress’).”
For Gregor Mair, the attractiveness of a natural leather piece is, no doubt, due to a constantly changing appearance. “I work with the highest quality leather that you can use, leather that’s been untouched so you still have scars, scratches, little marks, everything on it. It is these variations that imbue each item with one-of-a-kind character. And it’s the better for it.”