Tim Johnson

CEO & Founder, Cora + Spink


Cora and Spink is a bag and accessories specialist who pride themselves on sustainable manufacturing techniques and ways of working. They’ve formed a close relationship with their manufacturing partners and producers in Kolkata, India , where they use locally produced cotton and Kolkata’s world-famous leather to produce back to basics range of bags. They have been featured in Vanity fair and The Times for ‘Boutique of the week’ and I have been lucky enough to speak to their own Tim Johnson, CEO & founder to talk more on Best backpack shop in town!
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You use local suppliers for their locally produced cotton and Kolkata’s world-famous leather? Can you tell us more about this and why this is important?

Before launching in 2016 I had been working as a fashion product developer exploring the world’s factories and facilities, learning how the factories want to operate. Time after time you discover and learn that the people doing the do, often know a lot more than you, the customer. In the past where I had designers and accountants ruling my life, I was rarely able to allow a factory to make decisions for me. But now that power was in my hands or rather, relinquishing that decision-making power was in my hands.

When I discovered Kolkata, an area of India renowned for its leather tanneries and craftsmanship, keeping things local made sense for many reasons, cost, availability, and choice are our primary motives. Keeping things local has other huge benefits, it is faster, we have more choice, and a big consideration whilst we grow, is the ability to buy raw materials in smaller quantities than if the supplier was faceless and 4000 miles away. By shopping locally, we can also take advantage of when a tannery may have an overrun of xxxx square feet of leather which would be too little for someone else to fully utilize. Having a constant presence with a wonderful team in Kolkata, who we place a significant amount of self-management, autonomy, and respect we have eyes and ears for small lots, ends of lots and non-paid for goods etc.

 

Can you tell us why Cora and Spink are different to other Premium bag companies and what makes you stand out from the rest?

When I set out to design our first range of backpacks I wanted to rip back to the bones of what makes a good bag. To look at a bag in its simplest form, as a product to carry your ‘stuff.’ I spent years looking at sacks, workers sacks, peoples improvised solutions to carrying things in ancient rural times, modern backpacks, climbers, firemen, military…. I wanted to see what, where and why backpacks (specifically backpacks) had turned into.

I wanted to know and understand the function of a bag/backpack, inside out. Taking this as our mantra, each time we develop a new bag we start by using it, how easy is it to use, can you find your keys when you are desperate for the loo. Are your things secure but accessible, can you reach to the bottom of the bag? Do the zips and pockets have function or do they just look pretty?

Our backpacks standalone in their quality of materials, absolute simplicity, honour to the workers who make the canvas and cloth, leathers, hardware and cut and sew the bags to our end customers, who pay a good honest price for a quality product that will last them a long time. It is unfortunate to say this, but way too many ‘premium’ bag suppliers sell hugely inflated poppycock, bags designed 80 years ago, for people 80 years ago or who harp on about the charity they support more than the product they make, and the workers that make them.

A Cora + Spink backpack has an extremely specific signature. You can tell one of our bags from a mile off. They are discrete but quirky, incredibly simple and very tactile. But most importantly, they are designed for use in today’s world, they’re not designed to summit Everest, or cross a glacier – they’re designed to get you on a plane, train or automobile, to work or university, a weekend away – they’re practical good, long lasting simple backpacks.

 

What are the traditional back to basics processes you use?

Our process for designing backpacks starts with the supply chain. We seek and luckily have found a fantastic range of suppliers who not only produce the quality of goods we specify but who enjoy working with us. We sit down and discuss our objectives as a business rather than just as a customer who wants that design made, for that price. Old fashioned honest communication, so we can discuss how working with/for us can be mutually beneficial.

Once we had established our supply chain, we work here in the studio in Worcestershire to develop the prototypes, ideas then send that information across to the factory. Sometimes the information and specifications are absolute and exact, other times we have sent the most rudimentary sketches via WhatsApp – looking forward to seeing how the pattern cutters will interpret the designs. Receiving parcels and photos from the factory is like Christmass. We do not always know what we will get – and this really works in our favour,  even if it does involve a lot of hair pulling and nail-biting.

 

Can you tell us about this government-run programme in Khadi to support its local workers and why it’s important for the brand?

The West Bengal Khadi Board is a government-run cooperative that looks after the rights of workers involved in the craft and art of Khadi, in all its guises. Khadi has many definitions, but I like to think of it as authentic recycling. Pure simple recycling.

I was introduced to the board in 2016 to see how we, as a company could specifically utilize authenticated Khadi fabric within our products. From that first introduction I was captivated, we use all Khadi fabric for our plain linings. The Khadi board ensures the makers get paid well, that their products are marketed, with no exploitation. For me I am particularly interested in the work they do providing business support in the form of education, improvement, business growth often in areas away from textiles and manufacturing. Khadi is all about self-improvement, self-reliance, and working to free yourself from exploitation.

Working with businesses, companies, individuals, and organisations in an environment where people are getting more than just money for their time and effort, the benefits are self-explanatory. I have not spoken today about karma or my life of coincidences, but if we can do a bit of good in the world I think we should. If we can make people happy then we most definitively should!

The A team who make it happen!

The dyes and finishes used to produce leather are strictly regulated and controlled to a high standard. Can you tell us more about this process?

Making leather, stabilizing a natural product into a long-lasting, strong, and resilient material requires a chemical process. That chemical process, even when it is vegetable based requires careful management.

It’s unfortunate that not everyone is keen to abide by, or even recognize that this is important. This isn’t just an issue in Kolkata but worldwide. We only work with tanneries who employ strict controls ensuring chemicals, dyes, treatments are all approved and meet the criteria as set out with international guides and testing, such as ISO standards, OEKO-TEX, Khadi Board and SEDEX. Part of making this process work, is working with businesses who don’t cut corners, who want to develop themselves. We help this by paying well, working with the suppliers rather than battling them at every stage for money off, or faster production.

 

Can you tell us about the hydroelectrical system Project your working on  in Madagascar?

We all love a bit of charity! But we are certainly not one! One of our large print suppliers based in Germany has a system of carbon offsetting – each print project we run (which is not too many) we have been lucky enough to be able to contribute to various schemes around the world. One of the recent projects we have supported was the continued development of a hydroelectrical system in Madagascar. The project is located about 30 km from Antsirabé on the river Ampamehana within Sahanivotry village, Antananarivo Province, Madagascar.
The project taps the hydropower potential of the country while reducing Madagascar’s dependence on expensively imported energy sources. The 16.5 MW run off river hydropower plant, generates up to 90 GWh green electricity per year with an estimated emission reduction over the project’s total life of 441,960 tonnes of CO2. It’s one of the first verified climate protection projects in Madagascar and plays a key role as an example for the future development of the electricity production sector in Madagascar.

 

You also support Wind energy, in Vader Piet, Aruba, can you tell us more about this exciting programme?

We can spread our support to a variety of schemes, this project is the first wind energy project on the Caribbean island of Aruba, located north of the Venezuelan coast.
Aruba’s electricity grid depends on thermal power plants, which use imported fossil fuels, hence are very carbon intensive. The project has an installed capacity of 30 MW and consists of 10 turbines. The annual electricity yield from wind is around 126,1 GWh, this makes up to 15% of the islands total electricity production.
Utilising wind on the east coast region in order to satisfy energy requirements through a sustainable, environmentally friendly and cost-effective energy source is great for many reasons, but right away the project reduces emissions of greenhouse gases by around 152,783 tonnes of CO2 per year.

 

What exciting plans do you have for Cora + Spink?

We like to hold our cards close to our chest for future developments, but for the last 6 months we have found a new way to produce our signature canvas, the samples received are so exciting we cannot wait to release images. Expect more variety in colours with a new waterproofing treatment.
We are working with a very established designer on some highly creative print designs. And a non-designer who is famous for his outdoors and exciting lifestyle.
We are launching a whole new range in the summer with show rooms in Stockholm, Madrid and London with brand new styles, leathers, hardware, linings… and, and, and…
As we go into our 3rd year we’re starting to find our feet in the market, starting really understand our customers, what they want, why they want what they want, and more importantly working to produce brilliant backpacks that are great for everyone.

 

 

To see their latest collection, go to Coraandspink.com 

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