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A master of her own leather guild

“When I started I was torn between ideas: design an affordable product that sells or go for a more sustainable line of production.”

8 min read
© Tõnu Runnel

Stella Soomlais opted for latter but has managed to pull of both. Combining sleek Estonian design with sustainable production methods, Stella has built a namesake brand that can be recognised from afar. In certain districts of Tallinn − Telliskivi Creative City is a good example − you might see every second person carrying her bag.

Anyone who orders a custom-made Stella Soomlais leather bag will get it tagged “Handmade in Estonia” with the name of the owner, the maker and the serial number crafted into the leather. If the studio numbered the smaller accessories, there would be more than 20,000 personalised products scattered around Estonia and many other countries near and far.

Despite their rather hefty price, her bags are in such high demand that people are willing to wait in line for weeks and even months to get their own bags or even rent them for a special occasion. ‘I’m definitely not building artificial demand,’ she laughs, but explains that this is just how long it takes to make a bag from scratch if you have to order the leather as well. But she admits her company, which has constantly grown every month, has reached a juncture and quickly needs to decide where and how to grow: ‘We need to get out; out of Estonia. The Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries would probably be the best fit, both in functionality and style.’

A bag to last a lifetime

‘Our designs are crafted to minimize the cutting leftovers,’ Stella’s website explains. ‘The larger cutting leftovers are used to create smaller accessories (purses, wristbands and keychains), and the really tiny bits and pieces gain a new life in our own workshops or are given away as charity to craft clubs. With this we are aiming at reaching zero waste in production.’

If a bag wears out or the person carrying it gets tired of it, the original product can be redesigned into something else. Another growing trend is rent-a-bag: there are more and more people who really dig the idea of a circle economy. Many people would much rather spend €15 to wear a cool purse for a weekend than buy it for €250 (and maybe never get an occasion to wear it again). Mostly young people, who are constantly on the move, simply don’t want to own stuff anymore.

  © TõnuTunnel

Material-wise, Stella’s studio is now mostly using vegetable tanned leather, i.e. leather that has been processed with natural materials, such as barks, branches, leaves and even some fruits in some specific techniques (and unharmful chemicals as is most common in this industry). ‘I have personally visited a tannery in Sweden where we get this leather and although it is much more expensive than the chrome tanned leather we previously used, I will probably use only this in the future as I know for sure how they produce it, plus also the journey from its sources is much shorter to our studio, therefore the ecological footprint is much smaller,’ Stella sums up what really counts.

‘We all learn these things together: how to maximise the life-cycle of a leather product and that every item would be used appropriately and not left littering the universe,’ tells Egle Lillemäe, who claims she had no clue what to do with leather when she started at Stella’s studio five years ago. But at least she knew how to sew a straight line and was very willing to learn. ‘This is important from a business perspective and also nourishes your creativity: so many of our tinier products have been born out of the need to create less waste.’

An athlete-turned-artist

A day before we met, Stella had been speaking to the first graders at her former high school in Tartu.  She shares a story of a kid who made a leather bag sketch and put a price tag to it − €550.50! This kid either has a really good gut feeling about this industry or she’s a really big fan already.

Stella herself was not one of those kids who knew from first grade what she was going to be as a grown-up. As a promising sprinter (400m and 400m hurdles) she obviously developed a strong self-discipline and determination, but never saw herself becoming a professional athlete. She could not decide if she wanted to become a lawyer (‘Almost everyone from our school ended up studying law but I found it to be a bit too overwhelming!’) or study interior design at the Academy of Arts (‘I was not lucky enough to pass the entrance exams.’). So instead, she started her studies in leather design and restoration at Tartu Art College. Studies in Tartu and a semester in Lahti, Finland, opened her eyes to the possibilities of leather.

  © TõnuTunnel

The first ever bag she made was for a cousin back in 2004. Then orders started coming from friends, their friends, and it slowly began growing into a business. In the meantime, she did end up studying in the Academy of Arts for her Masters’, ‘because everyone wanted to make bags, I presented the idea of an artist book and this was how I stood out.’

Rather ironically, her final thesis was on a business model of leather bag recycling. ‘I was strongly influenced by a book I read on recycling, “Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution”. Using products as a service was a totally new idea for me, I had never discovered the link between service and sustainability before, the book opened my eyes to responsible action.’

But it took another detour to finally start her own company. After being laid off from her first ever “real” job as a clerk in the Ministry of Culture, she signed up at the unemployment office and applied for state support to buy her first ever leather sewing machines. So, her own studio was born and she designed her first logo, her handwritten name (‘Years later I started hanging out with some graphic designers and they kept telling me that I need a “proper” logo so finally I had to change it.’)

While setting up her studio, she was also teaching at the Academy of Arts and Tartu Art College, as well as organising the Tallinn design festival “Design Night”. At some point, she realised there were too many things going on to do any one of them perfectly. She started dropping external tasks and hired the first people for her studio to start taking custom-made orders. ‘The first ever time I took a weekend off was my 10th year in the business,’ she says, but admits that being able to divide her time between her business and private life has opened up a completely new perspective.

A studio

‘Running a business is living in constant stress,’ Stella says in a very calm voice, so I find it very hard to believe. ‘I take many things too personally but try to learn from my own mistakes.’

This is the total opposite of what a visitor might experience when walking past the shop area into her studio, a spacious former machine-building factory on the outskirts of Telliskivi district, now dotted with desks, vintage cupboards with cute little drawers and lush green plants everywhere. The masters, as Stella calls her employees, are tinkering away on their benches, each person completely dedicated to making one bag from the start to its final touches. In a way, this reminds me the stories of the Hanseatic League, the merchants union that helped Tallinn become a flourishing city in the Middle Ages. However, these days, the masters and apprentices are all women.

‘The studio is like a common household: there can always be some misunderstandings about who takes out the trash or who does not clean her desk but we try to follow the rule of divided labour: not everyone cooks lunch nor do all people have to take care of the plants,’ says Egle. ‘Stella is unbelievably entrepreneurial and patient. She constantly organises all sorts of events, never forgets to celebrate any birthday or an anniversary and manages to stay neutral in any situation of conflict.’

  © Tõnu Runnel

Once in a quarter a big order comes in − for example, last summer an attorney office ordered 16 “Seal the Deal” satchels as a corporate gift, a startup ordered 30 “Do Some Serious Business” briefcases and 46 “Treasure Box” purses; a bookstore ordered 2500 bookmarks as gifts for their customers − and this is when emotions tend to run high. ‘Fortunately, we have some external contractors we can use in these situations but yes, we do keep hiring new people all the time.’

‘Sometimes I still get the feeling that this is some sort of a game but it’s actually a really serious business,’ Stella says. To not get too serious about it and keep her masters as well as her loyal customers happy and entertained, she organises events in her studio like “Drink & Draw”, an occasional concert or a photo exhibition. ‘But this is for after-hours; people are working here during the day!’

Source: Life in Estonia

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