Katka and Zuzka Griesbach: “Life is a bag full of emotions.”

 

 

In 2005, Griesbach & Co. was founded by two sisters. Today, their luxury leather goods are available in some twenty-odd shops in Switzerland and abroad.

The church bells at Kirchplatz (church square) toll nine o’clock as Katka Griesbach approaches from inside the shop with a buoyant step, hastily wiping a few crumbs from her mouth before directing a welcoming smile at us through the glass panel of the door. She is wearing light-colored jeans, white sneakers, and a denim shirt; her blond curls bob up and down, keeping time with her lively pace and complementing her cheerful appearance. Wearing only a little – if any – makeup, her blue eyes framed by large spectacles are bright and cheerful. Leading us to the back of the long sales space, we reach the studio, where she and her sister work on new designs when they’re not tending to customers. We see two workplaces opposite each other, divided by slanted wooden beams, with leather samples, sketches, a lot of clean, white details, and a couple of mugs of steaming tea to round off the picture.

“We were extremely lucky to get this location,” Zuzka Griesbach tells us while she makes herself a cup of coffee. The elder of the two sisters wears wide trousers, tan-colored leather slip-ons and an elegant dark pullover. The slender golden chain around her neck is her only piece of jewelry. She wears no make-up, and her long hair falls loosely down her back. As she turns around to continue her tale, we see that the frames of her glasses exactly match the color of her eyes, which look out of a soft, calm face. “Before us, the premises were occupied by Tuchinform, an association that promoted over 100 textile labels on consignment,” she tells us. “Somebody involved with one of the labels told us that the space was becoming available.” The sisters immediately put in an application and, to their delight, the cooperative gave their approval. Katka Griesbach carries a plate with a croissant to the desk. (Is it an indication of a chronic lack of time that she has simply flipped it over and spread butter and jam on the flatter side?) She tells us: “Running a store is like starting all over again. It’s so different, and your clientele changes completely. Now we have passing trade, that kind of thing.” A number of necklaces dangle from her neck, and her wrists, too. One of them, with the intriguing slogan I love Ibiza, keeps catching the light.

The feedback that you get in a shop is much more direct and specific. It teaches you a lot.

The siblings have been running the Winterthur shop since spring 2013. Its premises are located directly on the cobblestoned Kirchplatz. Framed by a couple of bicycles, wooden benches and some low traditional buildings, the square has an almost idyllic, village-like air to it. Previously, their studio was located in a former factory site in the industrial part of Winterthur, the so-called Grüze. Surprisingly, despite frequent mentions of the Griesbach brand and its location in the same breath, Katka and Zuzka both feel the city has only had a minor impact on their creative work. “Of course, we both have a connection with Winterthur. This is where we’re based, we like it, and meanwhile both of us live here, too.” “Still,” Zuzka Griesbach tells us, “to me it’s not home.” And Katka Griesbach says: “I feel at home everywhere. Yet I don’t really have roots. Maybe that’s what happens when you’re uprooted as a child,” she muses.

Zuzka was nine and Katka seven years old when their parents fled with them from then communist Czechoslovakia to the West. After arriving in Switzerland, they lived in different parts of eastern Switzerland, which explains their round accent. After finishing her commercial training, Katka Griesbach studied at the Lederinstitut Gerberschule (Leather Institute and Tanning School) in Reutlingen, Germany, learning how to work leather; she then worked in various leather workshops. Zuzka Griesbach studied object design and attended several schools, among others the design and jewelry school Metallo Nobile in Florence, where she studied design. She then went on to do an internship, also in Florence, at Studio Blam.

Their parents, busy building a new life in a foreign country, didn’t have a lot of time for them. “They couldn’t always be there for us, which created a strong bond between us. And taught us to stand on our own two feet early on,” Zuzka tells us. “To have everything, but not be allowed to do anything. To be allowed to do everything, but not have anything. We know both sides of the coin and have learned to take it in stride.” The sisters have two other siblings – a sister and a brother – who are 15 years younger than they are and who are also engaged in creative endeavors. The shop’s Griesbach logo was made by their brother, who wants to make a career in industrial design. Anna, a graduate from the Bern University of the Arts, runs her own publishing house “Edition Happy Birthday.” “To you, Slovakia feels more like home,” Katka says, turning around to face her sister, intuitively taking her hand. Zuzka promptly answers: “Family life, the way it’s celebrated in Slovakia, the food, the language, that does mean home to me, it’s true.” Katka smiles and says, “I, on the other hand, feel more like a tourist there. It’s beautiful, but it’s not home.”

To have everything, but not be allowed to do anything. To be allowed to do everything, but not have anything. We know both sides of the coin and have learned to take it in stride.

At the outset, Katka sewed every single item herself. Today, once the new models are ready for production, they are handmade in a small center in Ticino, the Italian part of Switzerland. “At some point, we had to decide whether we wanted to remain a workshop or become a label,” Zuzka clarifies the operational decision. Production in Switzerland does not come cheap, but it ensures high quality standards. Production in Switzerland also means that the Association for the Promotion of Swiss Products and Services, SWISS LABEL, accepted their application and that Griesbach is allowed to use the quality label to promote their products. Zuzka believes this increases the brand’s credibility for the customers. “It underlines our commitment to fair and sustainable production methods.” Did they ever consider production in Slovakia?” We would love to produce leather goods there as well, but a project would be very time-consuming and it just can’t be done at this point in time. Although it certainly would feel good to give something back to the old country.” But, Katka says, for the time being, the Griesbach brand would not catch on in Slovakia. “Understatement, sustainability, an unknown brand name, and expensive to boot. It simply wouldn’t work – yet.” All through the interview, the sisters keep glancing out on the sales floor to make sure that no customer is left unattended in an apparently empty shop. Zuzka Griesbach explains her sister’s statement: “The people in Slovakia had to do without for so long, that now, when they have something, they want to display it. The appreciation of sustainability only develops in societies after the appetite for brand names and wealth has ebbed.” At this point, a customer enters the shop and Katka jumps up, saying: “I’ll go.”

Without each other, I’m sure we would have given up several times over.

The sisters only use high-quality leather in a wide range of varieties. The leather is ordered exclusively from certified tanneries. Mainly, they order large cowhides, Zuzka Griesbach tells us. “For aesthetic reasons, we don’t want to cut the leather more than absolutely necessary. This results in a certain overflow, which makes the bags more expensive.” Often people don’t understand how the price of a sustainably produced bag is calculated. “The younger generation is more aware of the issues involved, but they don’t have the means. Older customers often need to be told how the price is calculated before they appreciate the quality they are getting for their money,” Zuzka Griesbach tells us. Minus one bag, Katka Griesbach comes and joins us in the back room again. Another major factor to the final price tag is that Griesbach products aren’t mass-produced. “Even our best sellers change from season to season. First, because the leather is never the same and second, because we only make a few pieces of each model,” Zuzka Griesbach tells us. “For us, the high pace of the fashion industry is actually too fast. And for our customers, too,” Katka Griesbach continues. “Some people like to fall in love with a bag slowly. They come and peer at it through the shop window again and again, and think about whether they should treat themselves to it or not. Quite often, though, when the decision has finally been taken, the object of their desire has been sold – and can’t be reordered, either.” Zuzka Griesbach adds: “There’s never enough time, something always needs to be done. And being self-employed is hard work, so it is good there are two of us. That way you’re not just accountable to yourself.” Katka Griesbach nods in agreement. “Without each other, I’m sure we would have given up several times over.”

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