People: Hughes Low

The world of Tumblr has meant quite a bit to most people involved in menswear within the last couple of years. While there are some downfalls, Tumblr has been a source of great inspiration and treasures. A few months ago I came across photographs of some of the most gorgeous wallets that I have ever laid my eyes upon. They were created by Hughes Low, a leather craftsmen born and residing in Singapore. Oftentimes, the word “craft” is used in the wrong context. Hughes Low is a gentleman who takes extreme pride in his work (leather making) and wouldn’t dare proclaim himself as a master of it. When you are passionate about what you love to do, you live and breathe it. It doesn’t stop there. What was once a “perk of interest” for Hughes has now become a way to make a living off of a pursued passion. This is the life wanted, and Mr. Low made it happen.

Mr. Low tell us a little bit about yourself .

I am Hughes Low , a self-taught leather craftsman. Much of who I am today could be credited to my upbringing and my family background. My mother is an interior designer and I have been drafting for her since I was 7 (started with drawing parallel lines with T-squares). There the love for drawing and crafts grew. I am always taught through hands-on approaches, given free rein to be creative, given lessons by my mother and her mentor, and also learning to make simple toys with my father. My parents are not excessive when it comes to buying me stuff and most of the time, my form of entertainment would be to draw or build things for myself, something which I am still passionate about up to today.

Where I am from, it is crucial for academic qualifications as it ensures a stable job and income. Needless to say, I was hustled into the bandwagon and I have recently graduated with an honors degree in my field of studies. Rather than joining the workforce, I choose to follow my passion and start this little venture of mine, hoping to raise the appreciation of traditional craftsmanship. I work on creating custom leather goods to showcase the beauty behind carefully crafted items.

Do you remember the first toy you made with your father?

The first toy was a rather violent one! It’s a wooden gun that shoots huge brass staple bullets.

With Singapore being so academically focused. How is it trying to be more of an entrepreneur and start your own company?

Starting a business is very tough in Singapore. Firstly, there is the initial objection by parents who obviously wants me to have a more stable job with a fixed pay. Next, crafts are seen as something practiced by the old/uneducated in my country (which is really not the real scenario)! And then there is pressure from peers who have graduated in the same time and secured very well paying and desirable jobs, and wondering if I made the right decision. All these do add up and I am glad to say they motivate me instead of pulling me back. I guess the satisfaction of pursuing my dream and passion does work in my favor.

How did you get involved in the leather craftsmen industry? Why leather crafting?

Four years ago, I tried to unsuccessfully reduce the length of my leather bracelet (it was nothing short of a disaster with broken needles, et cetera) and it perked my interest to learn more about leather crafting and why I failed so miserably at a seemingly simple task. Being very much of a perfectionist when it comes to crafts, I started joining online forums and reading online resources on basic leatherworking. The lack of resources locally also made me more determined to learn the craft, firstly because it is something extremely intriguing. Secondly, I can make presents for family and friends. It really just started with these very simple motivations.

As I plunged in deeper with more knowledge on leather crafting, I quickly realized that it is something I look forward to doing after a hard day at school and it is a craft that will blossom with practice. Being a college student when I started learning leather crafting, I had to save for weeks before I could afford the simplest tools ordered through eBay. It was a huge problem procuring leather as well; tanneries would not entertain a hobbyist like myself. Most of my earlier works are made from leather sourced on eBay and also by cutting up old sofa sets that are discarded. The first three years of the craft was spent reading up, viewing videos, and basically doing tons of trial and error learning and picking out what is relevant from all the resources I gathered.

I had the privilege of learning from some Hermes craftsmen as well just this year. This is their first year showcasing their very popular “Festival of Crafts” in Singapore and I spent seven days just soaking in everything I could learn. I guess nothing beats formal training and seeing the masters at work; their processes filled in the gaps that I missed through self-learning. Realizing that there is much more to learn (they do answer every question posted, and I do ask a lot), I followed them to their next two exhibitions in Malaysia and Hong Kong. This one month was the best and it pushed my craft to a totally new level. I had a chance at letting them critique my work and getting to know more behind leather crafting as a profession.

I have no explanation on the draw of leather. It might be the feel of smooth supple leather, the smell, or just the delight in owning something that will age beautifully. I guess it is like loving my girlfriend in some aspects: I know why I do, but I can’t lay down specific reasons behind it!

What was something in particular you picked up from the Hermes craftsmen?

The most important thing I learnt from the Hermes craftsmen—patience. Especially for a craft like leatherworking, one mistake can destroy the entire piece. You can mask the mistake, but deep down, you know it’s there and it tugs at you so it just feels wrong handing over sub-par work. They taught me that it would be more beneficial to say, pick out all the thread and re-sew, versus trying to convince yourself that nobody will notice. I have stuck to that and I strive to deliver goods that would please me and hopefully my customers with no compromise on quality. I believe that if something bothers me, the customers will find out too as they would be the ones using the product!

What materials do you use and truly makes for good leather?

I am specializing in exotic skins like alligators, crocodiles, and shagreen skins. Shagreen is sourced from Thailand, where some of the best skins are made. As for reptile skins, they are acquired from one of the biggest suppliers of croc/gator skins in the world (Heng Long), and I am lucky that they are a local company and they are willing to supply me the quantity that I require.

Good leather is leather that will age beautifully. Ideally, full grain and not heavily treated with wax or top coats to give it a cold, plastic-y feel. The best leather should not give you doubts when you touch and see it for the first time. The source also plays a huge part and it is always nice to know that your leathers come from age old tanneries using old world techniques passed down through the generations it holds—especially when I had the chance to visit them!

Where do you see Hughes Low in 5 years?

I do not see myself as an artisan yet, and I dare not call myself one when there are masters out there spending years perfecting their craft before they deserve the title. Having spent a good amount of time on this craft I love, my work is now tidy and presentable, with improvements over every new project. Leather crafting is not a skill that can be picked up and perfected over a short period of time, especially for someone like me with no formal training. For now, I am working very hard to reach a finer standard on my finished goods and hopefully gain the recognition of my customers.

I will be visiting both the Hong Kong leather fair and also Lineapelle in Italy next year to get to know more about the industry, as well as to source for more suppliers. In the near future, I hope to be able to find a workshop overseas where I can send special designs to have the pieces made. As for the staples, I would love to be able to find several apprentices working with me at our workshop, producing the same high quality pieces that I strive to deliver. It is a business that I hope to grow, not aggressively, but slowly and steadily.

Plans are for me to gain customers the good old way, from one satisfied customer to another

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Corey Knight

Founder of A&H Group.