Derek Choo, owner of Choo-P Leathercraft
Leathercraft is as old as history, thought to have existed 400,000 years ago when hunters made clothing out of animal hide. Although machines have replaced human hands in much of the industry today, there are many artisanal craftsmen and craftswomen who still meticulously make leather products by hand. In Singapore, the leather craft scene is small but growing, partly thanks to Derek Choo, owner of Choo-P Leathercraft, whose passion for leathercraft is evident in his products and workshops.
On a business trip to Taipei, Derek picked up a leather crafting book at the prompting of a colleague, but didn’t think much of it just yet. However, Derek was an avid collector of bags, and when he couldn’t find a clutch bag that fit him, he decided to dust off the covers of the book and try crafting a bag instead. That morphed into making a computer bag, and the ex-IT professional even found himself bringing his crafting tools along so he could work on it in his hotel room during his work trips.
Today, you can find him at his corner shop in Chinatown, where you’re greeted with rolls of leather in different shades of brown waiting to be formed into bags, wallets, and belts. Here, Derek makes bespoke products and hosts workshops, where he teaches the traditional techniques of leather crafting that he’s honed over his 15 years of experience. In the next part of our series with Singapore Tourism Board, we watch Derek work on a custom piece, admiring his attention to detail and skilled hands, and chat with the master crafter about the leather-crafting business and creative design.
Where did you source your leather and other materials from when you first started?
As a small shop, it was going to be very expensive to buy leather from Europe because I wouldn’t meet the minimum order quantity. When I was deciding to start a business, I contacted a few shop owners I knew in Taiwan and Hong Kong whom I bought materials from before. One of them had a few shops in Hong Kong and bought leather in bulk. He kindly agreed to supply me with leather at the start. It was truly a blessing.
When a customer comes to you, what’s the process like?
Customers show up with a design in mind and ask me to create something custom for them, usually because they’re looking for something in a specific size and shape that fits their body. With a crossbody bag, for example, I take their measurements so I know how long to make the strap. They then choose the material and colour.
Some customers might not understand why a simple design can cost so much. Why is that?
It’s easy to underestimate the workmanship and number of hours dedicated to a product. A lot of detail goes into the crafting; for example, drawing and coating. The leather is expensive even if it only a small piece is used. Often, smaller products are tougher to make because it’s easy to spot imperfections. So you need to make sure the finishing is perfect.
We understand you have students who come in for leathercrafting lessons as well. Can you tell us more about the students that you have?
In the beginning, I was worried that I was teaching my competitors! But one day, my sister said this: “If they can master 15 years of skills when you teach them, they’re a genius.” So I became at ease at teaching anyone. I have students from all sorts of backgrounds—working professionals, retirees, and young people. In fact, some of my customers become my students after seeing the products I made for them. And I always tell them that if they’re my student, they’ll forever be my student. I’m happy to continue coaching them. That creates a trainer-student relationship. They feel comfortable in approaching me.
What are your workshops like? Can anyone join and learn leather crafting?
My workshops go from 10AM to 9:30PM. You may be wondering why it takes the entire day to make a small pouch. That’s because I’m actually training you in the traditional way of leathercrafting. If you’re holding the tools wrongly, I’ll correct you. What you learn at the end of the day are the techniques you can go on to use and make your own products at home.
What do you think keeps students coming back to you instead of other leather crafters?
The workshops are quite intimate because we spend nine hours together and we’re having conversations throughout. My students get very comfortable during the session and share quite a lot. Some of them are stressed when they come in so I create an environment where they feel relaxed. I tell them they can visit me anytime but don’t have to buy anything. I’m always happy to grab coffee.
What are the benefits of in-person workshops versus virtual ones?
Some companies have approached me to conduct online classes but the costs for me are equally as high. When you give Zoom classes, you have to prepare much more in advance. I’m a one-man shop. And I’m using good quality, costly leather, and have to mail out needles and threads to the participants. The cost adds up. Although you will gain recognition by delivering classes, I don’t believe that a 3-hour online class is long enough or suitable to really teach.
What’s something about leather and crafting that excites you?
I like to explore new designs. There’s one thing that I keep telling myself—I want to create a design that is so unique, unlike any other piece, that people want to imitate it. I also try to explore new techniques that other crafters and designers use. It’s always a learning process for me. If you ask me why I bring my work back home sometimes, it’s because I’ve got more free space to concentrate and develop new skills there.
Do you have any favourite designs or items that you’ve made? Can you tell us more about them?
Handphone sleeves. They do take a long time because each step is handmade. They often have unique designs because the size and shape of each sleeve is specific to the phone. Using wet-form techniques, I soak the leather until it becomes very soft. The leather is pressed onto a wooden mould, also handmade by myself, for four to five hours. What you get is a sleeve that fits your phone perfectly. Designer labels have stopped making phone-specific sleeves, favouring looser sleeves to fit more phones.
What do you think of the younger leather crafters?
The leather crafting scene in Singapore is rather small today. It has grown since I first started but it still hasn’t gained as much popularity as other hobbies such as painting or pottery. So when other leathercraft businesses pop up, I find that it’s actually a good thing, because it promotes leather crafting. And for consumers looking for products and materials, it’s great for them to have so many choices. I even buy materials from other stores myself. I don’t worry about them but just focus on my passion of creating and perfecting my techniques.
What is the most memorable experience that you’ve had with a student or customer?
Years ago, there was an elderly lady who came in for a bag repair. It was a men’s Bally bag. I was a bit reluctant with repair jobs because it can get complicated. She started sobbing; it turned out that the bag was a gift from her son who passed away. She wanted me to make it more feminine, so I decided to add a rose pattern. It felt great to be able to bring her happiness by restoring this bag and customising it so she can carry it everywhere she goes.
This series was produced with the support of the Singapore Tourism Board’s SG Stories Content Fund Season 2. View more stories here.