On arrival in Millau, southern France, the first thing to catch your attention is the majestic viaduct. Designed by British architect Norman Foster, this striking feat of engineering stands at 1,104 ft tall making it – at the time of writing – the tallest bridge in the world. Close to the River Tarn, just a few minutes’ drive away, is the Bleu de Chauffe workshop. Nestled in the valley, the timber building is surrounded by wildflowers and billowing grasses, an impressive outlook dominated by the cable-spanned skyline.
It’s here, in the Aveyron region known for its glove-making industry, that Alexandre Rousseau and Thierry Batteux decided to build their bag and accessories business. Established in 2009, Bleu de Chauffe (the name is taken from the French workwear jackets worn by 19th and 20th century factory workers) creates traditional work bags by hand, using the highest quality local materials including vegetable-tanned leather and organic cotton canvas, crafted by their team of artisans.
With backgrounds in the luxury goods sector, the founders experienced first- hand the impact of producing on a global scale. “I used to travel around the world for production and found it disconcerting to say, buy a material in Europe, send the material to Asia, then back to Europe, and that’s before it is shipped to the consumer,” says Alexandre. With Bleu de Chauffe, they wanted to operate differently – sourcing all of their materials as close to the workshop in Millau as they could and investing in upskilling local workers who make one bag from start to finish. It’s an unorthodox approach that eliminates a fast-paced factory line entirely. “We are creating products with care and for life, not for one year or one season,” says Alexandre. “Our bags are not made by robots, there is a human with a name who has knowledge and experience behind the product,” he adds.
Localising their material sourcing and production is as much about lessening the environmental impact as it is sustaining craft heritage in France – from supporting tanneries and rivet workshops to organic cotton farms. “It’s really important to know our suppliers and, being in close proximity, we can really get to know their quality and how they work,” explains Alexandre. Their leather is sourced from environmentally accredited tanneries in France, where hides are tanned with plants including mimosa, acacia and chestnut, depending on the desired colour. Vegetable-tanned leather adds a richer depth of colour to the grain rather than a flat overlay of colour that chemical treatments such as chrome affords. They buy not just for colour but for characteristics in the grain, for the touch and hand-feel and for purpose – for example, using thicker saddle leather with less flexibility for handles. Building long-standing relationships with tanneries helps Alexandre and his team to really understand their material. As he explains, “it takes many years to understand how the leather will perform and develop a patina over time.”
The term “Made in France” may give the impression that all products are made with the same localised approach, but it only guarantees that the main aspect of manufacturing happens in France. So, there is no accounting for where the materials come from or other aspects of a production. “We can say that 100 per cent of our product is made in this workshop and are made by hand by our artisans,” says Alexandre. Controlling the manufacturing chain in-house means they can offer full visibility on where each component comes from.
Each Bleu de Chauffe bag is made by one of their 15 artisans – from start to finish – and signed and dated on the inside. “When our artisans start in this workshop they begin with small leather goods, and year after year they gain experience and move on to more complex pieces.” Myriam has worked at Bleu de Chauffe for four years and is currently creating the tan leather Postier bag for TOAST. “We’ve been producing bags for TOAST for a few years now and share an appreciation for how something is produced, not just the style. It’s a shared passion for quality materials and a passion for the artisan made,” says Alexandre.
When making a bag or accessory every step is considered, with close attention to detailed finishes. This includes the signature of the artisan on the bag’s internal zippered pocket. “It’s nice to receive messages from our customers who wish to thank Myriam or Héloise for making their bag,” says Alexandre. “It’s this close relationship we want to foster. We don’t want to produce with a mass production spirit, we want to make things well, to know the product and to do things differently.”
Interview by Andie Cusick.
Photographs by Marco Kesseler.