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Out of the box
WANT a customised trunk for your bonsai plants, complete with shears and horticultural portholes; or another for your gaming console, equipped with two Formula 1 racing seats, Thrustmaster steering wheels, 1,800-watt sound system, a 55-inch Sony TV and a slew of other gilded geek accoutrements that the likes of William Ding would covet?
Now you can, if you have about US$90,000 (S$124,796) to drop on a croc, shagreen or full-grained leather hand-crafted case by Parisian malletier Pinel et Pinel. Rather than a historical family brand like Vuitton or Goyard, however, this trunk maker has only been in business for 17 years, and its eponymous founder had zero training in the age old craft. In fact, when Fred Pinel woke up one morning and realised that he no longer wanted to work in advertising, he had no idea he would become a designer of old world steamer trunks.
"One day, my grandparents were about to move from their home and I went to their house and found an old suitcase in one of the rooms," says the founder of Parisian malletier Pinel et Pinel over a glass of champagne.
"It was a revelation for me and I knew I wanted to make a new style of suitcases and trunks. My grandparents said, 'you don't know anything about leather!' but I told them to let me keep that trunk."
Pinel then took it apart and learned to rebuild it himself, which inspired him to start a leather-making workshop on his own. The lack of formal training, however, did not equate to amateurish work. A veteran artisan who went on a six-month residency at Pinel's studio was amazed by the latter's workmanship.
"He did not believe that I never went to school to learn the craft," recalls the winner of the 2008 Talent d'Or award presented by a French committee of luxury design, who was in Singapore to present his designs at a Club 21 showcase.
"He stayed six months to teach me specialised techniques. But at that point I realised there was a problem. Only Louis Vuitton still made trunks and you have Goyard, but they make very, very few trunks nowadays. There wasn't any hardware and I needed money to make them bespoke."
Instead of fulfilling lofty dreams of creating OTT trunks from the get-go, he started small, and made luxurious leather cases for cigars, cigarettes and lighters which were sold at famed Parisian shopping destination Colette.
"I saw the kinds of cigar cases that were available at the time that came in four or five colours, so if you wanted to be really eccentric, you would probably get one in brown," says the designer.
Instead, he went on to make crocodile-skinned cases in 135 colours. He started out with selling just one case at Colette and it sold within the day, kicking off a two-and-a-half year relationship with the boutique. After chancing upon the designs, British luxury retailer Joseph Ettedgui paid Pinel a visit at his studio and immediately placed an order after seeing a prototype for a trunk to store a foldable Brompton bicycle.
"I told him it'll cost an arm and a leg, and Joseph said that for him, it was just a fingertip," says the jocular gent. "He was my first client and that was the beginning of my trunks."
Apart from private clients, a slew of brands also approached him with fantastical collaborations: Champagne house Krug had him make 20 picnic trunks to store a small table, stools, champagne flutes, an ice bucket, tableware, a truffle shaver and even mother of pearl caviar spoons; while Bang & Olufsen had him outfit a trunk with a 250-watt speaker system and drawers for 480 CDs. His most challenging commission to date? A request from Nike for a bespoke trunk that will allow Michael Jordan to store his 22 pairs of Air Jordans, as well a TV just in case the basketball legend wants to re-watch his fave Nike commercials or games.
Just like other famed malletiers, Pinel has now ventured into smaller leather goods like women's handbags and clutches, including a box-style trunk bag that can be slung from the shoulder. As for a trunk design that's still on his bucket list?
"I've had a vision of a trunk for ladies shoes," reveals Pinel. "And I want to make it with Christian Louboutin. It'll be one of the world's most famous shoemakers along with one of the world's most famous trunk makers. We need to get together to create a new story."