The secret world of leather restoration

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Clifford Tan and wife Lee Siew Mei with the bags hung out to dry after having been touched up with leather paint (photo courtesy of Carolyn Hong)Clifford Tan and wife Lee Siew Mei with the bags hung out to dry after having been touched up with leather paint (photo courtesy of Carolyn Hong)

The pale blue Prada wallet was brought in with cheerful blue ink circles drawn with the naïve simplicity of a child at play. One can only imagine the child’s glee, and the bag owner’s horror.

Ink stains on leather do not come off.  The wallet was brought to Leather Biz, a leather restoration business run by Clifford Tan and his wife Lee Siew Mei. With painstaking diligence, they cleaned the wallet before applying a similar baby blue colour to restore to its pristine state. (Scroll down for photos.)

This was one of the 5,000-plus leather items, from bags to jackets to shoes, that Leather Biz has restored since it opened in 2010.

“It all happened by word of mouth. For a few years, we didn’t even have a signboard,” Tan said.

He stumbled onto this business, by chance. At that time, he had just left the hectic world of project consultancy, and had taken his car to a workshop where he spotted jars of paint gathering dust on the shelf. They were meant for restoring leather seats but there’s not a lot of demand in Malaysia.

He asked the workshop owner if it could be used for other leather items but he did not know. To his surprise, the man told him to feel free to experiment with the colours. Tan, of course, knew nothing about restoring leather at that time, and had no bags either.

A friend offered two bags.

“We are still good friends to this day!” said Tan, with a grin.

Clearly, he did a good job with her bags. Soon, others wanted their bags restored, and the couple discovered a huge market out there for leather restoration.

Many were vintage items, stored for decades as they fell out of fashion or got damaged by use. The oldest item was a leather trunk made in 1934, and left to a woman by her grandmother. It came in covered with weevil holes.

They now get 80 to 90 pieces a month. It takes six to eight weeks to turn around an item because of the waiting time and painstaking work.

“It’s not something you can rush, or want to,” said Tan.

Most of the items that come in are luxury designer goods. Some had been damaged by tears and cuts, and some stained by ink, red wine or even curry laksa! A few bags had blue stains, thanks to the bag rubbing against blue denim.

Vintage items are often damaged by wear and tear, sunlight fading and mold.

It takes a great deal of patience to get the item looking as close to its pristine state as they can. Often, this requires putting on paint in slightly different shades on different parts of the item, and in many layers. Repairing tears without stitching means using a sealant in tiny dabs applied many times.

Sometimes, the item can’t be restored to its original colour, and will be re-coloured.

The type of restoration will be discussed with the customer before work begins. They will be told upfront if the item can be restored, and to what extent.

“Managing expectations is a big part of what we do. Customers need to know what can and what can’t be done,” he said.

clifford tan

Tan (pic), who is 65, is now thinking of a new phase for Leather Biz. For some years now, they have had people coming to learn the skill, with some later opening their own businesses in Penang and Johor, and even Hong Kong.

They plan to formalise this into a three to four-month training module, with an intensive hands-on segment on actual items needing restoration.

“It’s our way of imparting knowledge,” he said.

Besides their two full-time staff, they also have two trainees at the moment. Lee was supervising closely a young man carefully cleaning the tarnished metal eyelets on a bag, while the other dabbed paint gently onto a pair of blue shoes.

The training module aims to cover all areas necessary to set up a small business, for young people who might see a livelihood in making bags beautiful again.

prada before

Restoring the Prada wallet - before and afterRestoring the Prada wallet – before and after

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