The economic crisis in Greece has led one talented designer and tailor to uproot his 30-year business selling handmade leather goods and bring it to Northampton, as Ruth Supple reports...
Entering Nicola Firenze in Gold Street Mews, Northampton, is like discovering an Aladdin’s cave of treasures . . . particularly if you are a lover of fine handbags, beautiful sheepskin, colourful leather jackets, stylish belts and exquisite slippers for men, women, children and babies.
The newly-opened boutique is owned by Nikolaos Karampatzias, who recently moved from the Greek capital city of Athens, where he ran a successful business for 30 years supplying top quality leather and sheepskin garments and accessories - all designed and handmade by him - to well known fashion companies and individuals all over the world.
But the well-documented crisis in the Greek economy has forced 58-year-old Nikolaos, known affectionately as Nikos, to uproot from his beloved native country and move to Northampton, which is renowned across the world for its shoe and leather industries.
And five months ago, Nikos, who speaks little English but understands it well, opened his small shop in the town centre, where he not only displays all his amazing creations but, even more incredibly, hand makes every single piece in the narrow space at the rear of the boutique.
“I founded my business in 1986 in Athens and my customers included blue chip companies like Olympic Airways and Aegean Airlines, who I created luxury reclining seats, cockpit seats and curtains for, as well as bags for Cerruti 1881, Cocoon and Fenwicks,” he says, through the interpreter Vangelis, who has joined us at the interview.
Greece has a long tradition of producing tailors and Nikos is from a small town called Siatista in the northern part of the country, which is famous for its leather and fur trade. He learnt his trade from his father, though was originally reluctant to follow in his footsteps.
“I always saw my father at work when I was a child and grew up around the machines,” he recalls. “I didn’t want to be involved in it for a start because I wanted to be a musician first and foremost, as I play the piano. I did get some work writing music for a TV series in Greece, but wasn’t paid for it, so I couldn’t afford to carry on doing that.
“I studied for three years in design and making, then set up my own company. Before I came to Britain, I made 2,500 belts for a German company and more than 200 bags for Cocoon. But the economy in Greece is on its knees and running a business there for any longer wasn’t viable for me.”
One of the reasons for moving to Northampton was that his podiatrist wife, Maria, has a son from her first marriage already living here and Nikos was aware of the leather and shoe heritage associations with the town.
“I was aware of the long-standing history that Northampton has with the leather and shoe industry, but was surprised when we came here that the shoe museum is so small,” says Nikos.
Nicola Firenze is named after Nikos’s first name and Florence, the Italian city he has supplied his goods to for many years.
“It is part-shop, part-studio,” he says. “I draw the designs here, then create a template for them and all the dimensions, before making the items on my machines, which all do different things. I make, on average, 20 pieces a week.”
He is settling well into Northampton life.
“I miss my two daughters, aged 33 and 26, who are back in Greece, but Skype them regularly,” he says. “Apart from that, the only thing I miss about Greece is the sun! The economy in the UK is so much better than in Greece and I am glad I am living here and hope there is the market for my products over here.
“Maria and I are both listening to tapes at night to learn the English language and we both understand a lot more than we can speak.”
Now is definitely the time to bag a bargain at Nicola Firenze, as the beautifully detailed products Nikos painstakingly makes, are often only covering the cost of the materials. One handbag he shows me would normally retail for thousands of pounds but is on sale for a fraction of the price, at £590.
Prices for his bags, which are all different shapes, sizes and colours, range from £45 for cork leather ones to several hundred pounds for beautiful Italian leather laptop bags and handbags.
“I have had to lower my prices to get the business up and running here and because no-one knows who I am over here,” he says. “I want to entice customers to come in and see what I have on offer. It took me a long time to find a shop that was affordable to run and not miles from the town centre and eventually I would like to expand into bigger premises if things go well.
“I would also like to pass on my knowledge of this trade to apprentices one day.”
He can create made-to-measure sheepskin and leather jackets, coats and skirts for men and women.
“If a customer wants a different coloured coat to one I have on display, or a different number of buttons on it, I can do that as well,” he says. “Or if somebody has a design they would like me to make, I can do that as well.
“There are around 100 different designs of bags I make but every one is unique because it is handmade,” he adds. “I love making things and at the moment am making bags with a chequerboard effect in the middle panel of them, which can be quite fiddly to do.”