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A Small Shop Of Big Dreams

How a crocodile might make it to St. Moritz.

Tabea Lörtscher doesn’t like to be photographed. She just doesn’t feel comfortable in front of a camera. She feels much more at ease in her small, but exquisite manufacture located on Via Serlas in St. Moritz, where she designs and sews handbags, belts and other leather accessories. Here, Tabea and her two colleagues are able to live their dreams without limits. It all began many years ago, when Tabea decided to move to St. Moritz and start her own business.

Until the age of 30 Tabea, a commercial clerk, worked as an executive assistant in her hometown of Bern. Then it so happened that a donkey walked into her life, and the fact that she couldn’t get the right harness for her animal friend changed Tabea’s life forever. When she finally found a saddler who, at a rather advanced age, was still repairing handbags, sewing handles and making harnesses in his own garage, she thought, “Wow, this man is so lucky. People will always need him, whereas as a secretary, I will only be growing older while my bosses are getting younger.” So Tabea decided it was time to back a different horse and gave up her job to attend a saddlery training course close to Zurich. Since equestrian sports play an important role in the Upper Engadin, she thought St. Moritz would be the perfect place to open her own little manufacture. “I thought people were actually waiting for a saddler like me. Unfortunately, this was not the case,” she admits, laughing. It took some time for the local clientele to gain trust in Tabea’s craft. However, the demand for horse harnesses was too low to make a living, and that’s where her story took its course. Following a number of customer requests, Tabea decided to learn how to make handbags and other accessories out of exotic leather and fur. She improved her design skills at the famous Slupinski fur fashion manufacture in Duesseldorf, while her shop in St. Moritz continued to grow. “It was a slow, but healthy growth,” Tabea tells us. “It was definitely not a case of ‘came, saw and conquered’, but look: I am still here today.”

On Via Serlas, luxury boutiques are lining the sidewalks. Next to Tom Ford fashion and Bulgari jewellery you will find luxury handbag labels like Bottega Veneta and Luis Vuitton. And in between, there is a little less flashy store sign that somehow steps out of line. But as simple as Tabea’s manufacture may seem from the outside, it is this simplicity that creates its very special, authentic and down-to-earth charm. “You will recognize a Tabea handbag from afar,” she tells us giggling. The distinctive look of her creations is owed to her unique designs and the exotic materials she uses. Her collections include calfskin business bags, shoulder bags made of diamond python skin or Nile crocodile leather, and muff bags made of Canadian red fox fur. Her design business really took off when one of her customers asked Tabea to make a handbag from a piece of crocodile leather she owned. When the demand for leather accessories was growing, Tabea was looking for an importer of exotic fur and leather. Very soon, there were a number of new customers asking for their own crocodile leather bag. “I had never dared to use such expensive materials before, because when you are working with leather or fur, you can’t make mistakes; if you make a mistake, it can’t be corrected,” she explains.  

Tabea Lörtscher is a name well known both among St. Moritz locals and its visitors. Together with her two colleagues she has been creating one-of-a-kind handbags in her tiny manufacture for more than 25 years. The desire to run their own business was what brought the three women together a long time ago, and it is also what has made them grow very close over the years. They haven’t become rich, or so they say, but that has never really been the idea behind their business anyway. To create something beautiful with their own hands and to love going to work every day – that’s what Tabea and her colleagues have always dreamed of. “I was asked often why I didn’t want to move to New York or London,” she recalls, but the three women prefer to produce on a small scale and in the highest possible quality. This freedom to work on individual requests is something Tabea wouldn’t give up for anything. Accepting orders as a big factory would mean giving up her craft. It would mean tearing down the basis of her business and the original motivation for coming to St. Moritz in the first place. “I didn’t want that, so I kept saying ‘No, we stay true to ourselves, the three of us.” And she is proud they did.

She is also proud of every single of her creations. Whether made of crocodile leather, elephant skin or regional red fox fur – each piece is unique and has its very own story to tell. Tabea doesn’t have any ethical issues with what she does, because all of the raw materials she uses are produced in accordance with international laws and regulations. Switzerland was one of the first countries to sign CITES (The Washington Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), protecting endangered wild plants and animals. Since then, international trade in exotic animal skin has to follow very strict rules and “comes with a lot of red tape, but it is worth it every single time.” Tabea pulls out a piece of Nile crocodile leather from the cupboard behind her. She explains how this sort of leather is dyed and which parts are best for what kind of handbag. It does feel a little strange to see the skin of a dead animal lying in front of you on the floor. For Tabea, however, this is daily business. Due to the high cost of raw materials they keep fabric scraps and clippings to a minimum, but when they do have material remnants they can’t use, Tabea gives them to the local kindergarten in St. Moritz or the sheltered workshop for the disabled in Zermatt.

In Tabea’s shop, accessory dreams are turned into beautiful, handcrafted reality. Each piece carries her distinctive thumbprint, combining regional craftsmanship and elegant design with exotic materials. Her products are manufactured with tools that are more than 100 years old, and, if she had her way, would still be used in the next century. Just like the old man in his garage, Tabea wants to be needed until a very old age, and hand down her knowledge to the next generation.

Text: Robert Maruna //
Photos: Heiko Mandl //

Aug. 11, 2017

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