Confidences of Containment

During this particular period of confinement, Damien Béal gave an interview to Artisans d'Avenir. This association's objective is to promote the value of art crafts and to give them a central place in our society.

If you could not attend the live, you will find below a transcript of this meeting made by Artisans d'Avenir and also available on their website. You will discover Damien Béal's career path, his vision of entrepreneurship, his advice to become independent...

"I define myself as a craftsman who creates. My know-how is wood, leather and tomorrow it may be something else. The important thing is the path.

On this May 5th, in the middle of the lockdown period, we invited Damien Béal to talk about his career as a craftsman and entrepreneur in this online meeting. Damien chose his path young. Already as a child, his knife was his faithful companion in DIY. In the 2000's, he joined other Compagnons, those of the Devoir, by doing the tour of France for 4 years where he will train in carpentry and cabinet making.

Damien is a craftsman and creator, no matter what material he chooses. He acts according to what he feels like doing with his hands and his brand. Faithful to his values, a craftsman convinced by the transmission, he advances as an entrepreneur and as an art craftsman.

WHAT WAS YOUR BACKGROUND BEFORE YOUR LEATHER GOODS BRAND?

I started my carpentry apprenticeship at 14 years old. After 3 years of work experience in a carpentry school, I joined the Compagnons du devoir at the age of 17. Leather goods came later in 2013 with the purchase of a first skin.

WHAT KIND OF CRAFTSMAN ARE YOU?

I feel above all a craftsman without any particular label. Over the years, being a craftsman is a way to create without fitting into a category. I define myself as a craftsman who creates. My know-how is wood, leather and tomorrow it may be something else ... The important thing is the way.

CRAFTSMAN OR CONTRACTOR?

An entrepreneur must be able to reinvent himself. My wish is to continue creating objects. I was not predestined to make bags. The opportunities are the ones I take as I go along. It's a never-ending construction. I really like the idea that a craftsman creates an object and that this object finds its audience.

In my early years as a freelancer, people would have an idea and I would custom make what they wanted. Then, I wanted to sell creations as I imagined them. I wanted them to be purchased as is without modification. When I created my first bag, that's what happened. What I had created was pleasing! Beyond the bag, it was this will that I clung to.

I went from Artisan to Artisan d'Art.

WHAT SKILLS FROM YOUR INITIAL TRAINING ALLOWED YOU TO BECOME A LEATHERWORKER?

When I trained as a leatherworker, I already had a specific know-how as a woodworker. There are all the more common points between the wood and leather trades as I work with a thick leather, the collar. For example, a paring knife is a tool very similar to a chisel. There is a natural connection to the handling of the material, the cutting, the way of piercing the leather.

For my first bag I only bought three tools. This is one of the particularities of leather goods: we can very quickly make objects with very little material. It's the opposite of wood!

HOW TO DESIGN A BAG?

That's what was more complex! How to design a comfortable and easy to carry bag, combining leather and wood with hand stitching. I went about it in a very intuitive way. It is the experimentation that allows you to learn throughout your life as a craftsman. I looked a lot at people's bags, their assemblages. I listened to the advice of the leather salesmen about the reactions of the material.

To assemble a piece of furniture there are many structural rules. For a bag it's the same thing. It is a volume object, it is just the materials that change.

IMPOSTOR SYNDROME IN LEATHER GOODS ?

No, it all depends on the quality. If your product is flawless it's hard to tell you're a fraud. I remain legitimate as a craftsman and remain humble about what I create.

WHAT IS YOUR COLLECTION MADE OF?

I have a permanent collection that is evolving. When a product appeals but doesn't reach enough people, I take it out of the collection and put in another one. My price range goes from a 280 euros bag to 800 euros. I also sell small leather goods at 40 euros.

I choose French leather tanned in Italy with a vegetable tanning. The leather is tanned without chrome, with water and natural pigments (oak bark, mimosa ...). My stitching is done with linen thread. My curls come from Poursin in Paris, and I also buy a little from Italy.

DO YOU WORK ALONE?

My partner has been with me since the beginning and is in charge of the website. I have an apprentice and an intern. I subcontract the wood part in Nantes.

WHAT WERE THE STAGES IN THE DEVELOPMENT OF YOUR COMPANY?

Eight years ago, I closed my furniture store. I took a year to think about the next step. At that time, a mosaicist friend of mine asked me to make an all-wood bag for a fashion show in Geneva. In parallel to this creation, I started to work on an idea of bag in wood and felt then I went to leather. I made about ten bags and started doing ephemeral sales. I met a craze around this object. Then, after a year, it was time to make the choice of "I continue or I stop". I chose to continue working with leather while putting aside woodworking.

WHAT ALLOWED YOU TO START OUT SERENELY?

I was lucky enough to always have my own woodworking shop. I was somewhat equipped. I started sewing bags at home in my living room. The feeling of being able to create an object and distribute it as such was the key. It was very important to me! With these leather and wood bags, I was entering a playground where no one had been before. It was risky but I felt there was a demand for it. It felt good to be in a less dusty workshop, away from the construction sites.

WHAT FINANCING?

I invested 1 500 euros to sell in ephemeral stores. I sold my bags and reinvested little by little but I was not paying myself a salary. At that point, I had six months of unemployment and I ate my six months of savings. I didn't have to buy a lot of material because I had my tools. This has progressed little by little. The first year my turnover was between 15 and 20 000 euros. Now my turnover is 90 000 euros and I pay myself a salary of 1500 euros per month.

WHAT DID OPENING YOUR STORE BRING YOU?

Thanks to her I have increased the turnover by 20% every year. When you start out with the right choices, things just flow. Thanks to my coverage in the Versailles magazine, a sponsor offered me a free store for 3 years! Everything has changed since that day! From one day to the next, I was a household name. I was able to invest, to make myself known while keeping my carpentry workshop.

WHICH TRADE SHOWS DO YOU PARTICIPATE IN?

The professional clientele arrived through the trade shows. In September 2016, my first show is Maison & Objet, I break my piggy bank! and I had no orders.... The location was bad. (Reminder: price of the stand from 300 to 5 000€, possible help from Atelier Art de France: 300 to 800€). In 2017, top year! I learned from my mistakes. I am now in the Craft hall.

HOW IS YOUR TURNOVER CONSTITUTED?

40% of my turnover comes from professionals (China, Japan and Switzerland) and 60% comes from individuals, of which 10% are online sales.

HOW HAS YOUR ONLINE BUSINESS EVOLVED?

I work a lot on online sales but it requires significant investments and takes time. It would be nice if I invested as much in the internet as I have in trade shows. Instagram and Facebook are real customer levers. I have 3,500 followers on Instagram and as many on Facebook. Instagram is evolving a lot. The algorithms are changing. Video takes a huge place (stories, live). There is an audience attraction to this, but I'm not sure I'm totally comfortable with this staging at the moment!

My online sales are still irregular with a very big peak at Christmas. It is mostly loyal customers who buy. My bags are not the easiest to sell online. Wood can be scary.

WHAT WAS THE BIGGEST RISK YOU TOOK?

To leave the workshop financed by the patron to take a paying store which costs me 12 000 euros in the year. I'm paying for it a bit in this period of confinement! But life is good with risks! That's what makes it happen!

WHAT ARE YOUR PERSPECTIVES ?

With this pandemic, it's a blur! I ask myself many questions: will my customers be there? How can I communicate well with my customers about our complicated supplies (major problems with Italian leather supplies, supplier stock-outs) and its consequences on the number of colors available (currently 16 colors offered)? So be careful with expenses! We'll have to do a lot of work and have less to do. If we have to close the store tomorrow, we'll close it. And we'll reopen another one in a year.

In terms of product perspectives, a new bag should come out after the containment, assembled differently and allowing to go towards other materials. I really like leather and what it becomes over time. But I like the idea of a bag with no leather or less leather. I am very attracted to wool because of its more ethical side. I am also interested in vegan leather: a material that looks like leather without being leather.

DO YOU HAVE OTHER COMPLEMENTARY ACTIVITIES?

I don't have time! I work 70 hours a week. We'll see with the corona... Only small complementary activity, I make key rings for professionals. It's fun so I do it!

DO YOU WORK FOR THE LUXURY INDUSTRY?

No, I want to remain independent. I just collaborated on a concept car for Citroën and created unique pieces for a gallery. I'm not a fan of what luxury means now. I prefer the high end. It all depends on the scale at which you want to work.

DO YOU HAVE ANY ADVICE FOR PEOPLE WHO WANT TO GO INTO THIS PROFESSION?

You have to ask yourself the right questions:

  • Is there room in this business? Is it easy to find a job? I like leather. Jobs are dying. Which professions are lacking in takers? Go to a trade where there is a need: glove-making, sheathing for example.

  • Is my lifestyle in line with the income associated with this type of work? I don't have a high income but I know why I get up. I do a job that I like.

If I have to give one piece of business strategy advice: try to have as little work as possible and be resourceful! Only buy with the money you earn as you go along. Don't invest large sums of money to keep your head above water for a long time.

The status that I recommend to start: the micro-enterprise. You don't get the VAT back but you don't need an accountant at 2500€ per year. If you don't win anything, you don't pay anything. If you want to close it is lighter. The ceiling has been increased for manufacturing/sales to €90,000 and €45,000 for services. After this threshold, there is always a way to switch to another status.

Concerning social networks: communicate about your project with your entourage and then expand it little by little. People need authenticity and love the story of the craftsman who shows the evolution of a product. You have to take advantage of it, it's free. I always tried to keep the exchange real, honest.

Thank you Damien for this LIVE exchange!

Thanks to Artisans d'Avenir for this interview and its transcription.