For Mary Wing To, leather is a luxurious material to work with. The very nature of leather allows for every piece its used to create, to have a unique texture, appearance, and age. It’s this very quality, that likely played into Mary’s decision to pursue crafting goods from leather as a passion, but as a career. Mary is dedicated to preserving Saddlery Craftsmanship with her deep passion for leather, and has won both national and international awards for her workmanship. She currently works as the Head Leather Artisan for Chanel UK and as a Creative Director for her own brands, Mary Wing To, and Whip in Hand.
Her day to day includes running Chanel’s UK Atelier, ensuring that client handbags, costume jewelry, and shoes, are repaired to the exceptional standards of the brand, as well as insuring the high quality of new products. Under her own brands, she’s taken on commissions from various industries in Fashion, Equine and Film, with a list of high profile clientele including Fox Searchlight Films, Eva Menz, Charlotte Dujardin OBE, Nick Skelton CBE, William & Son, Nicholas Oakwell Couture, B.Akerlund, Camper, Prince Michael of Kent, Princess Benedikte of Denmark, the Crown Equerry, and Her Majesty the Queen.
We sat down with Mary and asked her a few questions about her lifestyle dedicated to design and leather craftsmanship. Read on to learn about her craftsmanship and leather skills.
How exactly did you acquire your incredible leather crafting skills?
With a lot of training, determination and hard work!
Some would look at my training and say I studied a long time, but it was the journey that kept me going. In a nutshell, I got a Masters in Fashion Design & Technology at The London College of Fashion, which then encouraged me to go back to college to study Traditional Saddlery Craftsmanship at Capel Manor College with master saddler Line Hansen. This was really a turning point in my career and the moment I fell in love with leather. I’m also a Queen Elizabeth Scholar and have undertaken training at Simpson London making Luxury leather goods for brands in London’s West End.
I would say I’ve been very lucky to come across some amazing leather masters who have taught me over the years, including The Queen’s master saddler Frances Kelly, and renowned Whip Maker Denis Walmsley. All these skills I’ve had the chance to accumulate over 10 years have brought me to where I am today, but the truth is that it wasn’t always easy — money was tight, my education was self-funded. I had other jobs while training, to pay the bills, and it took patience and a lot of hard-work. I guess I’m a very determined woman who wants to succeed, and I worked hard to convince myself and others that I was good enough, which wound up encouraging me to excel in what I do. The more I learn, the more intrigue and fascination I have with leather.
What is your proudest moment to date, as a working creative?
Working for Her Majesty the Queen everyday was a proud moment for me, especially when I worked on preparing the horse harness for Kate and William’s Wedding day. I’d also say making a whip for World Olympic Gold Dressage rider Charlotte Dujardin OBE was cool and winning The World of Wearable Art competition in New Zealand with my outfit ‘Hylonome.’
Tell us more about working on Her Royal Majesty’s saddle?
I worked at the Royal Mews under the Queen’s Master Saddler, where I trained in making and restoring Harnesses for the Queen’s horses which were used in processions such as state visits and the Opening of Parliament, and Lord Mayors Show.
What’s your favorite spot in London today?
I’ve recently discovered Dennis Severs House at 18 Folgate Street, Spitafields. It’s a house that stopped in time 200 years ago, it’s so enchanting and worth the visit if you want to be taken back to the 18th century. I love that in all the time I’ve been in London, I’m still able to discover new places.
What was one of the craziest projects you’ve worked on to date?
Making a black all leather horse head sculpture with bridle for the 60th Anniversary of the Queen’s Coronation in 2013. It was beyond anything I’ve ever made and my biggest challenge to date. There was a lot of blood, sweat, and tears and by the end I felt as if I had given birth! But it was a one-off and I am proud of it.
What inspires you?
Horses (obviously) and documentaries. Real life stories. They always give me a perspective on life, whether I’m having a good or bad day. Everyone needs to be reminded now and again that we are all humans at the end of the day.
How do you define your womanhood?
I believe that being a woman is a state of mind. On one hand, it doesn’t define me in my career or creativity, on the other it gives me strength to think differently in my approach to what is traditionally a masculine profession.
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