Mary Wing To, Chanel’s Senior Leather Artisan in the United Kingdom, has always loved working with leather. But while her background is definitely in fashion, her skills have come from the traditional crafts associated with equestrian leatherwork. It’s been an unusual journey from fashion college to fashion work, via saddlers, harness and whip makers, and the Royal Mews, but it has given Mary Wing To her unique blend of creativity and craftsmanship with a distinctly equestrian twist.

Mary always felt comfortable around horses: “I always had a thing about horses as a child, had a connection. I loved watching them.” While studying for her MA in Fashion, Mary rediscovered that connection through the materials she was using in her collection, as she explains: “I drew inspiration from horses and I loved the material of leather, so it made sense to look more closely at horses and their tack.” Mary felt, though, that she lacked some of the more artisanal skills that working with leather requires, and so she mined the same area that inspired her creatively: horses.  As she says, “I lacked some of the leather skills, so I looked for someone who could teach me traditional skills. Instead of searching for a leather clothes maker I decided to look for a saddler in the equine world. It changed my career.” She says the reaction from her traditional fashion background was slightly bemused: “It was almost like I rebelled against the norm and decided to take a risk. Everyone else thought I had gone crazy. I remember telling my tutor and he thought it was bizarre.”

She quickly discovered that the artisanal world of equestrian craftsmanship was “refreshingly different” from fashion: “When you work with craftsmen you have to have a passion but you have to be very focussed as well. The fashion world is quite chaotic and it was nice to be out of that environment and focus on what I loved.” 
Mary says she “rocked up” at a saddlers’ course at Capel Manor College in Enfield with her designs and persuaded them to help her; she ended up spending two years there, learning how to make saddles and bridles. It was the same at the Royal Mews, where she completed an apprenticeship in harness making after her MA, pitching her designs to Francis Kelly, the Queen’s Master Saddler: “I had to tell them I didn’t want to work in harness making, I wanted to work in fashion. Those amazing craftsmen that I’ve met have seen what I’ve being trying to do and have taken me in, they saw the potential and took a chance in me and for that I will forever be grateful.” This receptive attitude of the traditional leather craftsman was, of course, partly due to Mary’s innate talent, but also because the concept of apprenticeship and the passing on of these highly skilled techniques is ingrained in the artisan world. 

Mary’s passion for learning and honing her technical expertise didn’t stop there, either. Having learned and continued to master the arts of making bridles, saddles, and harnesses, in 2013 Mary applied for and received a QEST scholarship to study whip-making; QEST scholarships provide bursaries to talented artisans to help them train in rare skills to preserve techniques and craft that might otherwise die out. Mary researched whip-making, and came across a Master Whip Maker called Dennis Walmsley: “I called him up and explained what my intentions were. He was a bit resistant at first but I visited him and brought my tools and he basically watched me work for a day. I spent a year with him on and off, mainly at the weekends, learning how to do it. He was self-taught Master who made every part of the whip from scratch which is very unusual.” Sadly, Dennis has now passed away, but the hours Mary spent with him means that his craft lives on through her. Mary made a bespoke dressage whip for Charlotte Dujardin, engraved with her name, and went to Carl Hester’s yard to present Charlotte and Valegro with the whip.

And how does Mary use her skills now? At Chanel, she runs the UK’s repair and quality control workshop, teaching staff to work with leather to repair and maintain Chanel’s luxury goods range. She also takes on her own commissions: “I make accessories, leather goods, garments, whips, bridles.” Her mixed background in fashion and equestrian leatherwork informs everything she does, as she explains: “There are always elements brought from the two worlds. If it’s not an equine commission there is still an equine element to it. The saddlery craftsmanship brings elements to the work that wouldn’t be there otherwise. I work with leather, but then I have learned all of these other skills.” The mixture allows her to achieve a unique combination of creativity and craft, developing commissions with complex technical elements and daring visuals.

Mary feels that her background is important both in terms of her abilities at working with leather, but also because of the sense of heritage that comes from her training. She explains, “If you have pride in your work and want to do it well then it takes time. I am an artisan. I wouldn’t call myself a leather worker because the wide range of skills and design I have.” Of course, consumer demand now wants everything in the instant, but for Mary, it is hugely important to have heritage brands that still privilege technique and time, as she says: “The commercial market doesn’t want to wait. They want things off the shelf. But in going for that market, you will have to mass-produce, and so you tend to lose a part of the craftsmanship.. If you look at Hermes, who were originally saddlers, they changed changed direction of their brand to start making bags when horses and carriages started dying out. In a way, I am doing something similar to that: I did fashion, then went back to the craft but I am trying to revive those traditional saddlery skills even more today and for the future so that the craft can extend further in fashion than just handbags” Mary feels that artisans like her have a responsibility to preserve such skills: “There is a market for luxury goods and there are people striving for traditional products. But I do think there’s a skills deficit. It’s one of the things that I am trying to push, helping colleges and also in the wider industry.”  

It’s a complex and interesting blend that sings out of Mary’s work and informs everything she does. Her path was a unusual one, but her daring decisions paid off, as she says, “I think I’ve always done that sort of thing, taken a risk and looked at things from a different perspective. It ended up driving the rest of my career.” In preserving artisanal skills and showing how they have a profound relevance in the modern world, Mary’s blend of past and present is as important as it is engaging.