Otis Ingrams and Max Hayter are university-educated in literature and business respectively and have known each other their whole lives. They make up the leather goods brand, OTZI London, and operate from a shared workspace next to the bustling Ridley Road Market in Dalston, London.
Their space is surrounded by acquired antique tools, laptops and a 40ft Anaconda skin from Venezuela. This reflects the partnership and brand as a whole: tradition mixed with modern ways of working and a quirk of creative spirit.
The name OTZI is a play on the name Otis and a nod to Otzi the iceman, whose 5300-year-old corpse was found in 1991 in the Ötztal Alps. The leather attire that he was unearthed with – welted leather shoes and a tool belt – were likely to have been self-made. Making something out of necessity with trusted and long-lasting materials is a key ethos of the OTZI London brand.
Tell us more about how you started out
Max: I used to work for a bespoke furniture company called Rupert Bevan. There I used a lot of leather and I started to understand it. This is around the time that Otis was making his first bag. I studied Business and Management at Oxford Brookes University. It’s a great business school and it was taught really well. The course is now proving so helpful.
We were on holiday and Otis said, ‘I want to make a proper bag; I can’t find a really useable hard-wearing backpack.’ I think that’s how a lot of these things start out, you are dissatisfied or you just want to make something yourself.
Have you always been into making things?
Otis: Not particularly. I have always been into the process behind the making and designing. I just wanted a good backpack that was really sturdy and was made out of really thick leather and had nice solid fastenings. I wanted to able to chuck it about and it not break. I wanted for it to be easily repairable; those were the essential elements for me.
I started making smaller leather goods, people started buying them and commissioning items, so of course, I got more interested. I think that as you get older you appreciate the smaller aspects of life more; you know that if you want to use something, you want to use it for a long time and build a relationship with it and care about it.
How did you learn more, Max?
I knew the basics when I first started and then Otis taught me everything – really patiently.
Otis: I left the studio to go and work on a film on the side, Max went in every day and I just said, ‘Get good at doing that basic stuff.’
How long did it take to learn what Otis already knew?
Probably around four or five months.
What’s your business partnership like?
Otis: We haven’t had a bust-up since we started; there’s never been an awkward moment. Having Max say let’s do this together was a big compliment and boost. Initially, I thought I was going to end up doing it by myself for a while.
Max: When you have someone else it takes a lot of strain off and it means you can do a lot more and you’ve got someone there to talk to. Also, it makes you want to go in every day and bounce ideas off of someone else. Working in a good partnership is a really important thing to do, especially when you’re starting up, because it’s a lot of work.
How much work?
Max: It takes over your life but it’s great. We want to create something that we can work on our whole lives.
Otis: It’s a really enjoyable experience and there’s a special feeling about creating an item and knowing that someone is going to use it and get great satisfaction from it.
How did you make your own bag?
Otis: I found information on YouTube: the basic processes of how you go about stitching and what you need – five or six key tools. The first awl (to make holes in the leather) I made was out of a nail and a piece of wood sellotaped together. My first bag was actually made with that tool and looking back it looked so bad, but the basic process worked. I used it for a year before decommissioning it.
We’ve learned so much from the Internet, “the University of YouTube.” There’s a show-and-tell vibe on the Internet, people want to share the creative process. There is a wealth of unconventional yet educational media on the internet just waiting to be used.
How do you charge for your bespoke service?
Max: For both furniture and bags we provide a preliminary design meeting with the client, which is free. Then if they want to proceed, we take a deposit or take the whole amount up front. That includes additional meetings, technical drawings and so forth.
Tell us about your first sale
Otis: It was to a family friend who is a painter and wanted a really big bag to carry around easels and canvases. I made him a huge backpack from oak bark leather, so he could walk across fields and just carry it all. He knows that everything is safe in there and that he can use it for years.
How long did it take to make that first bag?
Max: It took about three days. With bespoke items, it is usually a week from start to finish. As everything we do as bespoke is new, we have to learn a new template for each one and discover the way we want to do it. We’re always finding out new stuff every time. It can be terrifying.
Are there some techniques that you’re still learning?
Max: You’re always learning. As with any craft, you can get really perverse about it. We are not trained so there are no rules for us. We make bags how we logically think they should work. We don’t have all the crazy little pockets and stuff like that – we just don’t think that’s necessary. We have our design aesthetic – if something is going to last a long time it needs to be simple. There’s way too much over-complication in the market today – there are thin leathers and two-year warranties. We’re not rejecting that, we’re just doing it differently.
Tell us about your tools
Max: We try and get antique tools when we can because they’re better made generally. The saddlers’ bench in our studio is the oldest tool that we have, it’s about 150 years old.
Otis: There’s another machine that we could get that would help with little things that we don’t absolutely need to do by hand, like skiving. It takes a while to do, and we are pretty proud that we are able to do it by hand. I remember the first time I used a skiving machine, it took about three seconds to complete a job that takes 30 minutes by hand. At the moment we put the money we make towards tools. There are some workshops you see that are insane and so high tech, the more money you get, the more money you can spend.
I sold my motorbike in October to get a sewing machine. That bike was the only form of transport I had. You find yourself making sacrifices along the way.
How did it work when you first started out with buying materials?
Otis: Some hides were given to us from a film set; they were being thrown away. We try to make the smaller things from offcuts. A lot of companies will use the best sections of the leather, which is the middle part, and throw the rest away, whereas we try and use all of the leather. You can do it, it’s all the same material, it’s just been stretched more. We just use it for an item that suits its purpose. We don’t have huge amounts of money behind us – in the long run, it’s great, because if you have a lot of money behind you, you’ll be compelled to carry out the first idea that you have. If you don’t have money – you have to find ways of getting around that.
How have you invested in stock?
Max: We go and get material when we’ve got orders, because with the bespoke stuff, clients select the leather, and the finish depends on the way it’s tanned. So it doesn’t make sense to buy huge swathes of leather if people don’t want to use it.
Otis: To invest in our first collection I bought a few shoulders of oak bark, it’s the best leather you can get for the type of leather goods we are making. It’s expensive but definitely worth it as it has incredible strength and a wonderfully smooth finish. It’s also light, which is key when using thicker leathers.
How have you managed to support yourselves as a small business?
Max: We supplement ourselves with work – other work in furniture. We have worked part-time, but now we are running the business full-time. It’s on a monthly basis – if we have lots of orders we are always working at OTZI London.
What do your friends and family think?
Max: They are really supportive. We’ve been really lucky to have that support because without that it wouldn’t work. No one has said, ‘This is rubbish, you should stop it.’ As there hasn’t been that, I guess we’ve carried on doing it.
What was it like in the beginning, financially?
Max: I saved my last two months salary from my job. Then we took jobs in a restaurant. We were both working in the same restaurant for about four months.
Otis: We were also doing furniture commissions, he [Max] was working at Rupert Bevan and I was working at Bill Amberg on an informal apprenticeship. We’ve both luckily been able to go back to those companies and work freelance for them, which is so helpful; they’re the best places that we can work at, as we want to get into furniture at some point. We’ve learned a lot from being able to see them work. They’ve had the confidence to let us work on things and we are extremely grateful to both companies.
Max: We did a job for Rupert on some expensive furniture. This was a big test for us, we went there and did the job and they were all really satisfied with it. It can be hard to recognise when your work is good, but when people with such huge experience are happy with your work – it means a lot.
Do you have mentors?
Max: My mentor is Rupert Bevan. He is an incredible man – he’s very, very talented, and has an insane work ethic. He’s been very kind to me and gives me so much advice. I’ve learned more about the importance of face-to-face meetings from Rupert. As it’s all about trust with bespoke stuff – or anything that you’re paying a good amount of money for – you want to have a good relationship and be completely transparent with your customer.
We’ve been very lucky with mentorship, getting in touch with people like Dessy Tsolova, has been so helpful with the marketing side of things. You can never really put a price on good advice from experienced people. We really appreciate the help, and the advice.
What advice would you give someone wanting to follow in your footsteps?
Max: If you don’t 100% believe in your idea, don’t do it. If you don’t believe you can change your landscape and make an impact with what you do, don’t do it. If you have a degree and decide to set up a business, be prepared to start again from the bottom, you can’t necessarily sidestep into a new industry and a new way of working.
Tell us about a challenge OTZI London has faced
Otis: The hardest point for me was when we were doing five shifts in a restaurant from Thursday to Sunday to support ourselves and the business. We would have a few days to work on the business. That’s also why you need a partnership – the mutual support is invaluable.
And a positive…
Max: I’ve never been happier in my entire life than right now, I feel like I’m creating all the time. We are setting up a brand that we can be creative from forever, whether it’s bags, furniture, clothes or the journal we would like to eventually set up. It feels good to be building a platform from which you can showcase everything that you’ve ever wanted to do creatively, and be fulfilled in that respect. When it’s your own thing, it is tough but you get back everything that you put in. At the end of the day, I can walk away and say ‘I made this today’ and see the efforts of my day.
What are you trying to get your brand to say?
Otis: That you should invest in quality items, and you should invest in and support tradition. It is worth spending a bit more time and money to buy something you use frequently. It actually works out cheaper in the long run. Our items are functional and stylish, but not fashion-based; we are going for a timeless and simple aesthetic that doesn’t commit to a particular style. They also have to be easily repairable. We don’t want to commit our products to the rubbish heap.
Max: We’ve got a lifetime guarantee on everything. As long as we’re doing it, we’ll repair the item for free. That’s part of the service, that’s why we’re doing it. We recently repaired a 100-year-old cartridge belt. It didn’t even need much work done – if you hand-stitch something it will last forever.
A lot of what we do has been born in the last five years as a kind of reaction to fast fashion – and so much waste. A lot of people – like us – are saying hold on a second, I want to go back and learn how it used to be done so that a product will last. This creates some really fresh things, born from the hybrid of not being completely trained, and using new ideas with traditional techniques. It also means you don’t have to complete really long apprenticeships.
Thoughts for OTZI London’s future?
Otis: It would be nice eventually to have a line that was made just out of offcuts. We know a lady who gets offcuts from high-end fashion houses and makes one-off pieces from that. She’s managed to build a whole business out of recycling; the pieces are amazing and completely unique and original.
Our current space is perfect for what we are trying to do and the size that we are at the moment. We couldn’t be anywhere better at the moment. We want to keep it in London for as long as we can, and keep it British – Devon is the farthest we’ve gone for leather so far. That’s where a lot of the best cows are reared.
We are never going to hire anyone to work for us in terms of manufacture, but we want to develop a relationship with people like Simpsons, who do some of the finest hand-stitching in the world.
Max: It’s important for us to be environmentally aware because it’s such a big issue, especially for our generation. The more we can do the better. If you’re going to set up a company – you need to be doubly mindful of your mileage, your footprint, but also your supply chain. If you’re getting stuff from overseas, you should be paying people the right amount of money. In Britain, we can ensure that to a higher standard than we would be able to if we imported any of it, that’s one of the reasons we keep it local. Also, we believe in making something with the stuff around us.