In Part I of our Portuguese Carry adventure, we travelled to Alcanena, the Land of Leather, where we met the artisan leathersmiths behind innovative carry brands Noise Goods and Ideal & Co, and the heritage tanners of rare quality Portuguese vegetable-tanned leathers. In Part II, we return to the City of Seven Hills and visit a fresh face behind cutting-edge Portuguese carry design.
We settled into our cosy apartment in Alfama, the city’s old quarter, a maze of serpentine lanes and hills, where at night endless soulful Fado music would spill from the doors of family-owned bistros, and you’d hear the clink and carry on of locals drinking and chatting in long hidden plazas deep into the mystic night.
After a single day, we’d met some truly wonderful characters: the mighty souls of the Alcanena leather community. Today, we set out to meet a new player in the Portuguese carry scene, someone mixing up the blend with an innovative take on the local leather legacy.
Founder of the brand of the same name, Ina Koelln works with leather of a very different variety: cork bark.
We met Ina in her HQ and outlet at Ground Floor 119 on Rua do Poco dos Negros, just west of Lisbon’s vibrant Barrio Alto district and the Baixa-Chiado city centre. The space was neatly minimalist with a heritage feel, a former ‘armazem de mercearia’ – or grocery store – repurposed into an open-plan co-workshop, original teal tiles lining the walls, wooden grocery sign still affixed to the rear mezzanine.
Above that sign is where Ina Koelln fashions away her latest lines.
It was sunny and glorious out on the walk over, no sign of change. Koelln, originally from Freiburg, Germany, knows all about the appeal of the Iberian climate. “It’s perfect here,” she said, “we went to the beach yesterday and it was completely empty.”
Koelln gravitated to Lisbon after a rewarding career in the fashion industry, working for a label in London, mostly in men’s fashion design.
“When I came here I tried to get a job in my industry, but I couldn’t, so I started to do some competitions,” she said. She heard about an ecological design competition based in Berlin – this would catalyse her introduction to cork leather, and a whole new career in carry.
Cork leather is nothing new in Portugal: tourist stores all over the country stock perfunctory tote bags made out of the stuff – Koelln came across some of these on her first time travelling through Lisbon, and though the designs left a little to be desired, she loved the fabric. Sourcing a small batch of cork leather, she created a slightly more fashion-oriented prototype and entered it into the Berlin comp. Her bag didn’t win, but it was already in hot demand.
“Few are working with cork the way Koelln is. Her range of unisex backpacks, totes and laptop cases are highly unique, and stick out in the marketplace.“
Refining her design, she moved to Lisbon to build a new enterprise. “It took a long time to get everything structured and organised, to get the right factories, to get the right people,” she said. “But now, there’s a lot happening – I’m set up and ready to get moving.”
Before yesterday’s trip through Alcanena, I knew zilch about vegetable-tanned leather, but I knew even less about cork bark. It’s a pretty neat material – there are over 2.3 million hectares of the stuff across the Mediterranean region; Portugal is home to around a third of it (approx. 736,000 hectares). The country produces over half the entire global supply, generally to wine makers and the construction industry – most of it comes from the southern region of Alentejo, which is where Koelln sources. Her supplier operates in nearby Montijo, on the opposite side of the Vasco da Gama Bridge: here, the cork is treated and transformed into fabric, pressed into layers, glued and added to backing – cotton mostly, to suit her latest range.
Aside from being an eye-catching and unique option, cork leather has a lot of other benefits: it’s waterproof, for one; easy to clean, stable and resistant; plus, the technology behind it is consistently improving, delivering better and better quality.
Few are working with cork the way Koelln is. Her range of unisex backpacks, totes and laptop cases are highly unique, and stick out in the marketplace. I took a particular liking to her black ‘Walt’ backpacks: sleek and stealthy, and ultra-easy on the eye.
Koelln’s experimentation with innovative fabric doesn’t end at cork. “Next week I’ll have the new bags, made of vegetable-tanned leather and fish skin,” she said. She showed us a few samples of the latter – wonderfully colourful: deep reds, greens and tan, scaly and cool, sustainable too. A central part of Koelln’s sensibility to marry fashion with eco-friendly materials. This fish skin, for example, would otherwise end up in landfill, but here it is tanned instead, made over into beautiful carry accessories. Of course, the cork suits the eco-agenda too, a sustainable bark; the Alentejo cork plantation – a certified and protected Forest Stewardship Council area – has expanded to over 150,000 hectares in the last few decades.
Transparency is equally essential for Koelln. “Coming from the fashion industry, you don’t always know where the materials and labour come from,” she said. “It’s very important for me to make my whole process transparent: customers should know where the material comes from, how it’s made, and by who.”
Her talents transcend the carry and fashion worlds: she’s also co-founder of ‘Maria Wurst’, a local food truck specialising in gourmet hot dogs (her German heritage a likely influence).
“Cork leather has a lot of other benefits: it’s waterproof, for one; easy to clean, stable and resistant; plus, the technology behind it is consistently improving, delivering better and better quality.”
With a new line due for later this year, and some smaller runs marked out for 2016, there are a lot of good things on the horizon for the Koelln enterprise. In coming catalogues: a line of fish skin gloves, boutique shoes, hats and additional accessories. The carry aspect remains her focus. “After fashion, I’m just really happy I found my way to bags.”
Lunchtime traffic hurtled past on the street outside; the historic number 28 tram dinged and sliced past the doorway, faces sticking out, people waving, sun relentlessly shining.
“It’s very important for me to make my whole process transparent: customers should know where the material comes from, how it’s made, and by who.“
From Koelln’s workshop, it’s a short stroll to glorious sun-drenched waterfront, your choice of incredible ocean coastline: Estoril, Cascais, Oeiras, Sintra, just twenty to thirty minutes away. I pondered these visions as we thanked Ina, bid her farewell, and promised we’d see her again – sooner rather than later. Something told me that the only sane thing to do would be to follow her lead, move to Lisbon, and fast.
*Photography by Honor Kennedy