When Deborah Thomas was a schoolgirl, she would wander around her father's factory snipping off little corners of hides she found interesting. She would put them in her pocket and take them back to her collection in the family house. This was back when W. Pearce & Co. was a thriving leather business. Before the rise of cheap imports forced it to shut down and lay off 120 skilled workers in Northampton, England, in 2002 — only a few years before the business would have celebrated its 100th birthday.
Brought down by cheap
When it first opened in 1908, it was Deborah Thomas' great, great grandfather, Charles Pearce, who started out producing leather linings for the hats and shoemakers in the industrial town of Northampton, about 100 km north-west of London. A few years later, the little business was producing heart-warming sheepskins for the British soldiers freezing in the trenches of France, and after the war, an export market started to open.
Before long, the workshop had become a sizeable business full of skilled workers and was now specialising in embossing prints on leather. Quickly earning a reputation for its supreme quality, it came to hold the world's largest collection of plates for embossing leather.
But times changed, and in the 1990s, cheap leather goods imported from, especially, the Far East were flooding the market. Suddenly able to purchase more, many people started caring less about the quality of what they were actually buying.
And in 2002 this trend had become so prevalent that W. Pearce & Co. ceased to exist. Even if the business was a double recipient of the British 'Queen's Award for Export' and was being led by Deborah Thomas' father, Michael Pearson, a passionate promoter of quality, it too succumbed to the tidal wave of cheap from the East.
94 years of history had come to an end, and Deborah Thomas, her father, brother and uncle parted ways. Thomas, who had worked in the export offices in both New York and South Africa, instead found work locally with a leather belt manufacturer in Northampton — and later with a bag manufacturer.
But something felt very wrong. Highly skilled craftsmen continued to lose their jobs while the quality of the products on the streets was not getting any better. And, not least, seeing the family business, and the family story, so abruptly coming to an end disheartened Deborah Thomas.
So she decided to do something. To revive the business under a new name: 'Doe' – the female deer. Thomas wished to conjure up imagery of woods, trees and bark and its association with traditional leather tanning.
Starting whole new production facilities was not an option, so instead Deborah Thomas partnered with a British leather workshop that has been run by the same family since 1875 and survived the change in consumption habits in the 90s and 00s. And this is where the expertise of her father came to good use again. As Thomas says: "What he doesn't know about leather is not worth knowing."
When Thomas was a girl, she often wished that her father could spend more time with the family, but later, she says, she understood that it was his passion and commitment that enabled W. Pearce & Co. to produce such high quality goods. And now, Michael Pearson was in a position to help his daughter with all the knowledge and connections he had acquired over the years.
Pearson not only helped his daughter in finding the best suppliers, but also with sourcing and making tools and going through the boxes and boxes of archived leather prints from the old W. Pearce & Co. workshop. Prints that survived the closure in 2002.
In the spring of 2013, Deborah Thomas was ready to put her first 100% British, handmade leather goods on the market. The hides used were, and are, the finest, hand-waxed, durable and smooth British leathers that can be found.
Pull on history
And although Doe is a very young business with contemporary designs, it builds on a century's heritage and lets you feel this between your fingers: The zip pulls on Doe's products are made from the old pattern-printed leather that Thomas and her father found in the W. Pearce & Co. archives. If you order an item from the company, you will be asked to choose your preferred colour. Doe will then make a zip pull in that colour from a piece of pattern-printed leather from the archives.
W. Pearce & Co. lives again under a new name and provides a great example of consumption habits starting to change once more. 'Quality' increasingly in demand, local production is coming to life. But, with the help of the internet, now discoverable and delivered worldwide.