The Merchant Fox is an online retail venture set up by the new owners of the Fox Brothers mill in Somerset, which makes arguably the best flannel in the world. Unlike most online menswear retail, however, The Merchant Fox has a genuine USP: most of the products are made by small artisans local to the mill; many require such personal communication that broader sale would not be possible. This is particularly true with their beautiful leather bags.
The leather comes from the J&FJ Baker tannery in Devon – about a 45-minute drive away from Fox and the only tannery left in the UK doing traditional oak-bark tanning. This means they are the only UK supplier of good leather soles; but their vegetable-tanned leathers for bags and other products are also highly individual.
One of the wonderful things about veg tanning is the local ingredients that go into the tanning recipe, making the leather particular to that region. And there has been a tannery on the Baker site in one form or another since Roman times: the water of the river Coly was the original and still best reason for the location.
But the complex tanning recipe is one reason it is hard to create new colours or leather products. “We have worked to create several new colour tones, with individual recipes,” says Decca Lang of The Merchant Fox, “but the discussion and sampling can be so complicated and unreliable, particularly at such a small, craft-based producer. At certain points I just have to jump in the car and go down there. There’s no other way it could work.”
Above is the rather lovely Dart Messenger bag from the Merchant Fox site – a beautifully dappled brown that shows off all the variegation created by the veg-tanning process. There should be no doubt: this is the best leather available in England: no buffing off the surface, no plastic treatment over the top, just full-grain drum-dyed leather with some wax rubbed in.
The bags are made by a sole craftsman down the coast, still in Devon but on the Dartington Estate just outside Paignton. A third-generation saddler, he makes mostly belts and bespoke bag commissions. Again, Decca and the Merchant Fox team have worked closely with him to redesign several standard products. The Messenger bag, for example, which is made out of oak bark-tanned leather, now has a full calf lining.
The bags are hand stitched, with that saddle stitch that every saddler and – perhaps more relevantly for Rake readers – every bespoke shoemaker will be familiar with. The only time machine stitching is used is on small elements like the gussets.
Buying such tactile items over the internet is of course not ideal, but perhaps necessary in a new venture. Those who wish to see the bags and the other Merchant Fox products up close (including furniture, dressing gowns and other lovely products using the Fox flannels) can make an appointment down at the mill in Wellington. Or, both Fox and The Merchant Fox will be featured at a new event in London, Best of Britannia, in Clerkenwell from October 5-7.
Many online brands and retailers sell Britain-lite products, designed or ‘inspired’ by British craft. Worse, some of them are just old British brands that use the name to sell entirely foreign-made merchandise. It’s good to see a true British retailer collecting together some of the best, local British product out there.