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A Landscape of Leather

A royal descendant creates a new dynasty of art by applying traditional Chinese painting techniques to leatherwork

Liu Zao, the founder of the luxury leather brand Nashici, loved visiting museums while growing up in Beijing. The beautiful artwork that once belonged in the palace always inspired her. But it wasn’t until the 90th birthday of her grandmother, who was a member of the Manchu royal family, that she finally realized the essence of luxury.

As a gift, Liu gave her grandmother a box of makeup powder from the world’s most popular brand. Upon opening the gift, the grandmother looked disappointed. “It is just a plastic box,” she said. Liu couldn’t understand what she meant.

The grandmother described to Liu the makeup powder she used in the royal palace. The face powder was made from pearls, and stored in an ornate enamel box. There was a silk embroidered puff to apply the powder, and a double-edged silver comb on the powder. When the comb turned black, it meant the powder had gone bad and needed to be replaced.

“This is the life of our ancestors,” the grandmother told Liu. “They had such a refined lifestyle.” Liu was deeply moved by what her grandmother said, and realized that authentic luxury is based on fine crafts. It also reminded her of works she had seen in the Palace Museum in Beijing. She had a vision of making a special Chinese leather bag that would remind her, and today’s people, of that refined lifestyle from China’s past.

Liu’s idea for leather bags was unique; she wanted to turn the leather into beautiful gongbi Chinese paintings. Gongbi is a detailed, realist painting style, the opposite of the interpretive and freely expressive Chinese painting style.

She bought bags from different brands, and took them apart to better see the details of workmanship— the construction, stitching, and engraving. But she couldn’t find any techniques that could help her craft what she envisioned. Liu realized how difficult and distinctive her vision was, and continued her research. She studied ancient and contemporary leather engraving techniques.

She found that all the Western leather engravings use fixed patterns. Craftsmen punch the surface of the leather vertically using various tools and molds. But those methods didn’t create the gentle, fine lines of realist Chinese paintings.

In the process, Liu sold her villa in Beijing. In 2011, she invested her money into establishing Nashici Studio. Her aim was to bring back something of the refined lifestyle that her grandmother told her stories about.

After endless experimentation, together with a team of young craftsmen, Liu finally deciphered how to depict fine lines on leather: using wrist strength to press down on a pen made of steel.

“Many of our techniques are original, that cannot be learned from predecessors,” Liu says. “Craftsmen must first be skilled at traditional gongbi Chinese painting, and they also have to be energetic young people with good eyesight.”

With its breakthrough engraving technique, Nashici was able to engrave Chinese motifs on bags, as well as turn leather into ornate pictures illustrating China’s rich history. For example, her 8.8-metre-long leather carving Ode to the Silk Road features ancient trade routes adorned with travellers on camelback, and Buddha resting among the mountains. It not only tells Liu’s cultural heritage, it’s symbolic of her and her craftsmen’s long journey materializing the Nashici vision.

The new leather painting technique is just one of many puzzle pieces used to create her bags. Since’s Nashici’s vision is uncharted territory, Liu constantly challenges her craftsmen to not only understand the ancient crafts, but to innovate as well.

Next, Liu wanted to replicate famous Qing culture in a bag. Nashici’s iconic Ti Hong bags are inspired by the Qing Dynasty Qianlong Emperor’s favourite craft, the deep red Ti Hong lacquerware. Liu and Nashici artisans first studied how Ti Hong lacquerware was originally made. Each lacquerware piece would be given 300 layers of paint, taking years to make. Engravers would then hollow precise patterns on the painted surface. With the slightest error, years of effort could be wasted.

To recreate that look for the Ti Hong bag, the artisans had to soak the leather red, inside and out. They dyed the entire leather piece in vermilion (a special red pigment), so that the hide was fully penetrated with colour. The craftsmen could then sculpt Chinese patterns into the fully dyed leather.

“There is no need to worry that the bag will have scratches,” Liu says. “Because the dye is penetrated totally, you just need to polish it. The leather will leave no traces of time.”

The process of making such a bag involves more than 100 steps, including drafting, hand-drawing, finishing pictures, modelling leather, engraving, dyeing, and finally sewing. Often it takes ten failed products to get one perfect bag.

“Nashici” is the transliteration of the Mongolian word for leather. It also means in Mandarin “those ten times,” emphasizing the virtue of perseverance.

Like the artists who painted the famous Buddhist murals and frescoes in the grottoes and temples in Dunhuang of Western China, Nashici’s artisans wish to convey a similar spirit: they are fully devoted to China’s beautiful craftsmanship and heritage.

In Liu’s heart, Nashici is more like a belief. “If I can’t finish it, future generations will keep up and continue to do it.”

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