Teo Tze Ling traded her cushy bank job for a career as a craftswoman, designing and making custom-built, handcrafted leather goods which stand the test of time.
Working with vegetable-tanned leathers and other fine materials, the 28-year-old produces a diverse range of handcrafted leather goods, from full-size bags to wallets and even watch straps, under her own label, Secondnatvre. The letter “v” symbolises ‘vita brevis, ars longa’ (‘life is short, art is long’), an ancient Greek principle of how the pursuit of an art form never ends, a belief that Tze Ling subscribes to.
True to the ethos of the creative community, every piece is handmade and boasts top quality, excellent workmanship and meticulous attention to details. Personalisation, in the form of embossed lettering and colour choices, is also offered. To the discerning consumer, Secondnatvre is an accessible handcrafted leather goods option which treads the fine line between mass market and luxury equivalents. The former uses cheap artificial leather and is notorious for its inability to last, while the latter is usually reserved for connoisseurs with top dollar to spend.
In fact, it was the unique characteristics of leather itself which drew Tze Ling to this line of work. “Not many materials look better as they age, but vegetable-tanned leathers will,” she said, referring to the weathered texture and vintage finish which show up on a well-worn piece of quality leather. “This intrigued me to learn more about the craft and offer an alternative to using exotic leathers.”
Armed with this passion, Tze Ling embarked on a journey of honing her skills from scratch. “I learnt the techniques needed by attending workshops from local leather schools, binge-watching video lessons, practising and really just going through trial and error,” she admits. “I even read a whole stack of Japanese leathercraft books with the help of Google Translate.”
During her university days, she cut her teeth as an intern for Mark Ong, a renowned artist and sneaker customiser in Singapore who goes by the moniker, Mr. Sabotage (SBTG). Mark would order leather passport covers from her, and before long, demand started building up, giving Tze Ling the chance to create a small but solid range of handcrafted leather goods.
Upon graduation, Tze Ling landed a job as a bank executive, which meant that leathercrafting stayed a sideline. But her interest in it never waned, and when Mark offered an opportunity to share his studio workspace, she saw no reason to turn her mentor down, taking the leap and embarking full-time on this career in June 2016.
This affiliation, strengthened by the parallels in style, aesthetics and expression between both creatives, would pave the way for Secondnatvre and SBTG to come up with collaborations and passion projects, the latest being Charlie, a complete collection of military-inspired leather products which include tote bags, card holders, valet trays and more.
For Tze Ling, a typical day entails more than slicing up leather and stitching them together to fulfil orders. There’s also the design thought process of deconstructing existing products and mentally piecing together a whole new version that carries signature aesthetics and full functionality.
The job has also taken her to the land of Japan, where she’s sourced for leather from famous tanneries like Tochigi and Shinki Hikaku, and brushed shoulders with the who’s who of the leather world. “Visiting distributors, artisans, leathercraft stores and attending Tokyo Leather Fair are always eye-openers,” she says. “Also, I was very impressed with Japanese professionalism and ethics in the processing and handling of leather. They have their own Japan Eco Leather Standard, which ensures that no carcinogenic dyes and hazardous tannery chemicals are involved.”
Her biggest work to date is a recreation of the iconic Hermès Birken B35 handbag, made in collaboration with local e-retailer Excluniqueeee. Instead of producing an exact replica, she reinterpreted the bag and crafted it entirely from vegetable-tanned leathers and shell cordovan, a high-end horsehide that’s widely considered to be the undisputed king of leathers. It took five full days to handcraft and hand-stitch, but the result speaks for itself.
“My objective is that everything that I have crafted must be fit for my own use,” she says. Through her work, Tze Ling has even managed to let her personality shine through. “I express myself through subtle details like the colours, fabrics, font types and packaging designs.”
Would she consider herself a gamechanger in the industry, much like her craft heroines Nerb, Chester Mox and Judy Augur? “I don’t think my goal is to change perceptions, but if it’s the by-product of my works then that would be really cool.”
There’s certainly a lot going for this talented individual. During this interview, she lets in on the fact that one of her initial aspirations was to be an architect. Though it may seem that she has veered off this path entirely, all signs point otherwise. “It’s funny how I ended up an ‘architect’ for bags and leather products,” she says. “I think Steve Jobs’ quote on how you can only connect the dots looking backwards is very apt!”