I am hovering over Gabriel Nzala’s sewing machine watching him work. I am silent because he needs to focus on the needle and thread; he can’t afford to make a mistake when stitching. Mistakes, he says, can’t be undone.
I asked Gabriel to make me a clutch bag so I can observe the crafting process. He graciously indulges me.
Gabriel is the proprietor of Gonzala Leathers, a brand that crafts bespoke brown bags for a niche market.
They craft travel, laptop, messenger, clutch and hand bags in tan, chestnut and chocolate brown. There is also the odd black bag, and a handful of other creative mad-doctor experiments in canvas.
The workshop is in the veranda of Gabriel’s home in Santack Estate, off Ngong Road, Nairobi.
It’s mid-afternoon. His daughters, aged 12 and nine, are joshing around with their friends outside the gate. There is someone in the living room watching TV. A song from that Disney flick about an ocean girl is playing.
Gabriel takes me through the process of cutting the leather of my clutch bag’s patterns, skiving it, stitching the parts together and embossing it. He’s now back to the sewing machine to bind the edges. Another 15 minutes and my bag will be ready. It will be tangy with leather and dexterity, and a glue they call passion.
This is Gabriel's story...
“My scholarship ended after I completed high school. My family couldn’t afford to take me to university, so a well-wisher sponsored me to St Joseph’s Vocational Training Centre in Mlolongo. I enrolled in 2004 to get training on the industrial sewing machine. I was there for a year. I graduated, then got a job with the Export Processing Zone, EPZ, as a stitcher.
I source our leather from four different tanneries: Alpharama, Leather Industries Kenya, Sagana Tanneries and Aziz Tannery. Each of these tanneries produces high-quality leather, but there are subtle differences in the richness of the shades. Look at this chocolate brown piece from Alpha Rama and compare to this one from Aziz.
How it works with the clothing line at EPZ is, you are shown a machine and your job is to sit there and stitch, stitch, stitch. I stitched T-shirts and nothing else. I stitched every day for six months. It was monotonous work, but I perfected my stitching skills.
I mostly use cow leather for our products, because it’s tougher than goat and sheep leather. Here, feel how different they each are.
Goat leather is the softest and cheapest per square metre, at Sh150. Cow leather is Sh265. Sheep leather is Sh305 per square metre, but is the most malleable. It’s excellent for certain products.
My next job after leaving EPZ was with a British couple that ran a leather enterprise called Annabelle Thom. I noticed a gap in the market while there. Clients with custom designs would be turned away because we only crafted a limited number of select designs. Constantly hearing them being told “no” sparked a business idea.
We try to have as little wastage as we can. We use the offcuts to make clutch bags, coin purses, wallets and key holders; items that don’t require much leather. Whatever we can’t use on these items we sell to shoemakers.
I left Annabelle Thom in 2009 to set up my own workshop. I continued teaching myself, but I didn’t have the equipment I needed to meet my customers’ orders.
My sewing machine wasn’t an industrial walking foot machine. I also needed a skiving and embossing machine, and a variety of hand tools.
No bank would lend money to an artisan like me, so frustration drove me back into employment.
Our niche is bags. We have made select items for interior decor — such as Butterfly chairs — but I don’t want to get into interiors, it’s a whole other new business. I want to expand our bag market. We’ll soon be moving to a bigger workshop.
After my first stint in business, I returned to work with Rift Valley Leather. I was taken under the wing of the lead designer — a very old, very talented Brit called Robert Topping. He taught me how to design patterns and create prototypes. I became a polished designer. These skills are sought after in the industry, and I was constantly being approached with lucrative job offers.
Our clients come to our workshop here at Santack to share their designs and select the leather they want. I show them all shades of brown and black.
A client’s personal selection informs my decision about which of the four tanneries I’ll source the leather.
I left Rift Valley Leather after three years — in 2014 — to run my business full-time. I bought the equipment from my savings.
The initial model for Gonzala was business-to-business. We got orders from other businesses to fulfil their clients’ needs. It was a profitable and sustainable model. It was only in 2016 that we also began to sell our own products.”