Driven by passion: Connolly

Isabel Ettedgui talks about how she has revived the famous motoring-focussed leather company Connolly in a Georgian townhouse in Mayfair

Style 10 Jan 2018

Isabel Ettedgui by Jamie M Smith
The Connolly store in Mayfair

I first became acquainted with Connolly when my late husband, Joseph, the fashion retailer and entrepreneur, was approached by the Connolly family to host a chair competition using Connolly leather. The first piece we ever did with Connolly was therefore a chair.

We set up a design competition with the family for the project and Deyan Sudjic – who is now director of the Design Museum in London – designers Ross Lovegrove and Andrée Putman, and Joseph judged it. We manufactured the winning design using the famous Connolly leather. It was on sale in Joseph’s store in Brompton Cross, where we did sell some furniture – mainly by Ron Arad – at that time.

That was how I met the family and really began to understand the history and heritage of this incredible firm. They had supplied the leather for Mies van der Rohe’s original Barcelona chair, for Eames chairs, for the upholstery for countless car marques, including Ferrari and Aston Martin, for the desks in the British Library, and so it went on…

Connolly, for me, had this incredible soul. They’d made First World War flying jackets, but then buses in London had Connolly leather on their seats, too. They had developed acid green leather for the London Electricity Board, and the leather for the benches in both our Houses of Parliament. They seemed to be part of our common history. And they had amazing expertise. Connolly had found a way to treat leather so it didn’t crack –coaching hoods had been made of heavily-painted leather that did crack; Connolly, which had been around since 1878, had discovered a technique to finish it so it didn’t. People started to talk of leather being ‘Connollised’.

At the time we first met Connolly, I was not just working with my husband. I also had an advertising and graphics agency, and Connolly became our client. Following on from that first chair design competition, all these people who had worked on the project said that we should design something else with Connolly. I looked at it and thought, this is a ‘boy’s brand’, with a great history of working with old classic cars. So, we asked Ross Lovegrove to design a small range of leather goods inspired by the spirit of motoring to be made from Connolly leather – a briefcase and a backpack; and then I realised I needed to have a shop in which to sell them.

I found these old stables in Belgravia and I asked Andrée Putman, who had just done this incredible museum in Bordeaux, to design it. I felt she had the strength and power to understand the beauty of Connolly. Then I realised that if I had a shop I had to add more than just leather. So, what would work with the smell and tactile nature of Connolly? The answer was a combination of cashmere jumpers, car shoes and Fifties-classic-sports-style clothing and accessories. Soon it developed into this collection inspired by the driving heritage of the company and it became a little destination shop.

We’d do photographic exhibitions and I’d buy things on my travels and sell them – things that you could only get there in the UK. We started working with Sebastian Conran too. In Milan, I saw a beautiful boat tool kit, so I asked him to design a car tool kit for Connolly. Sebastian, being the inventor/designer he is, grasped this immediately and created a jump-lead kit and a travelling espresso set as well!

In 1999, the Connolly family decided that they should concentrate on the core business of outfitting motor cars and wanted to sell the retail side, which I’d been creative director of. At that point, Joseph decided to become involved so we took it over. We stayed in our stables, where we’d been very happy since 1995, but in 2001 we felt we had outgrown them and moved to a new location on Conduit Street. That’s where we were until Joe’s death in 2010. The lease came up and I felt I had to close it down then and it remained shut for seven years.

“You don’t need to be producing lots of different things all the time, that’s just a wasteful reaction to over-consumerism. When someone pulls out a much-used wallet they bought from Connolly 20 years ago, I love it. That’s the sign of a brand that has genuine good will”

Around a year ago, I reopened it. It was a decision completely driven by the fact that I found a new building, at 4 Clifford Street, just around the corner from the last shop. I’d been approached four or five times to sell the brand name but I never quite got to the altar. I thought, one day if a little freehold comes up I’ll take it and relaunch Connolly. This beautiful Georgian house in Clifford Street became available and, unusually, it was being sold as a house with a retail gallery. I actually thought I’d lost it to a big Russian family estate, but my friend, a Chinese feng shui expert, said, ‘No, it’s yours’. He was right. It then took two years to get it up and running. I signed the lease on our wedding anniversary. It would have been Joe’s complete dream to live above the shop – which is what I decided to do. It was my idea of a complete nightmare! But this building would always have had people living in it and working in it. When you love a building, and have restored it and cared for it, it knows it’s loved and has a really good atmosphere and good feel about it.

I knew that I wanted a house for a shop – I wanted to have a different sort of space to show the goods in. That may be more difficult for retail, but it’s more interesting for the customer. This place was previously the Alison Jacques Gallery – Mapplethorpe was first shown in London here. This inspired me to think that the first floor should be a gallery space, where I could display art, and also put objects together that I could sell. I also wanted to show off the work of our architect-designers, who make furniture. They are the French duo Gilles & Boissier, and no one had seen their furniture in the UK. I’d worked with them on my flat, so had great faith in them to sensitively restore and update this building.

What has been so nice since we opened is how many people have come in and remember us from before. I’m amazed at the customers who say, ‘We missed you; we came 20 years ago.’ There is a real sense of continuity. This has been fostered by us very consciously – for example, when we came to relaunch, I bumped into Sebastian Conran at 6am at Paddington Station and from that meeting we have developed our cold picnic bag, our binoculars case and our jump-lead kit, version two!

We’re making quite a few leather things now – not just with Sebastian, but also with a friend of mine who was working for a major French luxury leather company. She had just retired, so it fell into place. I love what she does – we’ve done bags and wallets, playing with the leathers and the colours and the textures. You don’t need to be producing lots of different things all the time, that’s just a wasteful reaction to over-consumerism. When someone pulls out a much-used wallet they bought from Connolly 20 years ago, I love it. That’s the sign of a brand that has genuine good will.

Essentially, I want to create things that people can wear and use for years, that won’t date but are still relevant and interestingly designed. The past few years have seen developments that are quite fashion-forward in menswear – I actually find it more exciting than womenswear at the moment. We’re near Savile Row, but we can’t do what they do there – that’s more about centuries of tailoring knowledge. We design classic sports pieces for men that can be worn by women as well: suits, coats, jackets and knits.

Of course, you do need to move on and provide new things too. Design is about changing and finding different things, having new ideas. But we always try to make classic pieces that are well-made and well-priced. We try to offer value for money. That might sound odd when we have a £2,500 cashmere coat, but the cost of the fabric alone for it is astonishing!

Five great pieces from Connolly

Connolly Driving Tweed Trouser
Connolly Driving Tweed Trouser

1. Connolly Driving Tweed Trouser – made in Italy using the finest exclusive tweed from Lovat, Scotland, in brown, and electric Bugatti blue, stretch wool; £590

Connolly Sheerling Hoodie
Connolly Shearling Hoodie

2. Shearling Hoodie – in thick suede and shaved shearling; £2,150

Connolly Car Cow Cufflinks
Connolly Car Cow Cufflinks

3. Car Cow Cufflinks – these silver Car Cow Cufflinks are hand-enamelled, cast and made in England; £800

Cigno x Connolly Hand Made Bike
Cigno x Connolly Hand Made Bike

4. Cigno x Connolly Hand Made Bike – its frame is made of high-quality tempered steel, and is entirely hand-crafted in Italy with a thick layer of chrome plating and decorative joints in 1950s style. Leathers and hides are manufactured with artisan expertise. Placed on the stem is an elegant chrome-plated newspaper holder, recovered by today’s owners, the Bernardi brothers, from the original Fifties’ patent; £3,000

Connolly Cashmere Yellow Driving Sweater
Connolly Cashmere Yellow Driving Sweater

5. Cashmere Yellow Driving Sweater – King’s yellow driving sweater in Scottish cashmere; £850

Connolly is at 4 Clifford St, Mayfair, London W1S 2LG;