Ettinger of London is renowned for its stylish handcrafted travel accessories (we’ve got our eye on their beautiful bridle hide billfold purses, weekend bags and classic captive-top hip flasks for Christmas this year). But this luxury leather-goods label is less well-known for the dynamic adventurer, cross-country cyclist and former ski instructor at its helm. Who better to chat to about travel? Robert Ettinger (no, not the cryonics expert) talks travelling across Oman in a Land Cruiser, sailing on WWII landing craft, and skiing in Alagna, Italy…
Tell us a bit about Ettinger, Robert – what makes is such a strong brand, and what made you want to stay in the family business?
It’s strength is its quality – which is illustrated by its popularity in the Japanese market, so much so we’ve recently opened our first shop in Tokyo. I used to visit the Ettinger factory as a child, and had the skills and training to take over when my father retired. The brand really started to grow when we received the Royal Warrant from HRH The Prince of Wales; Ettinger is now sold in over 20 countries worldwide in exclusive stores.
Everything is handmade in our factory in Birmingham, and although we are a very traditional brand, the products have a contemporary look and feel to them. I’ve always had the dream to develop a luxury brand and it has only been in the last 10 years or so that we have built up the Ettinger name. We now even get commissions from other luxury brands, such as Bentley motor cars.
Who, or what, has been your greatest inspiration?
I think the best leather luxury brand in the world in terms of quality, manufacture and design, is Hermès. And I think I was always groomed to carry on the business from my father – although he did send me to work for other luxury goods companies: I made desk accessories and lamps in Germany for 18 months, and went to Mappins jewellers in Canada where I sold luxury jewellery and watches for 1½ years. When I came back from my travels, it just felt natural to join the company, although at the time, people were saying to me that manufacturing in the UK was a disappearing business – in fact that just made me even more determined to make it work.
You’ve travelled extensively and lived in many different countries, including Canada, Austria, France and Germany. Where in the world have you felt most at home?
England will always be my home – however I Iove Oman, particularly down south in Salalah, and feel at home there. On my last trip, we went through into Muscat and hired a Toyota Land Cruiser with the aim of driving 1,600km down to Salalah – taking a tent, lots of water and provisions for camping. One of the most exciting things was visiting Masirah Island off the coast; the only way to get there is on an old 2nd world war landing craft which takes a couple of hours crossing. It is a fabulous, completely unspoilt island, with virtually nobody there except a small town of local people.
I’m a huge fan of the Musandam Peninsula for the same reason: that rugged landscape, the culture of hospitality, the relatively untravelled paths and the inky waters of the Gulf… it’s very romantic in the old-fashioned sense.
I agree – of all the Middle East countries, the landscape in Oman is by far and away the most beautiful. It not only has the amazing dunes of the Wahiba sands, it also has high mountain ranges and fabulous wadi river beds. I only started going to Oman about 10 years ago, but have fallen in love with it. It’s huge open spaces and so very few people and visitors. The people, also the Bedouin, are wonderful people and so hospitable. Camping on the beach last year where we thought we were 50 miles from the nearest village or town, we were surprised to find a small fishing boat come ashore and offer us fish – a whole bucket of sardines and they would not take a penny. It is one of the few places left if one does get away from the main cities where one can live with nature in total peace.
I have two very different favourites – the Conrad in Tokyo and the Oberoi Rajvillas in Jaipur; they both have atmosphere, style and comfort. The Oberoi Rajvillas in Jaipur is built in the old style with cottages scattered around the extensive grounds – although it’s a relatively new building. Some of the most fabulous Indian food I have ever tasted has been there, and they have a great yoga teacher, too.
The Conrad was built five years ago and rises from the 28th floor of a skyscraper. Very contemporary, zen-like design and feel, with a Gordon Ramsay restaurant (pictured) and a fabulous swimming pool. It is great for entertaining and for business and entertaining when I’m over there visiting the Toky0 boutique.
It has just opened in the Ginza area, next to the department store Barneys, and has been designed using old English bricks, stone, wood and glass (left). It’s modern, minimalist and based on iconic shops – timeless, really.
You’re a qualified ski instructor with 25 years of experience. What have been your best skiing experiences?
Some of the best skiing I’ve ever done was with a mountain guide in Alagna in Italy, skiing steep and deep in fresh powder snow. We did some videoing of it and when my wife saw it she said the 40% slope looked almost flat! My favourite thing to do with a mountain guide is to get some touring skis (which have a base to them which allow you to walk uphill) and climb for 2–3 hours, with nobody about, and then enjoy skiing down.
We’re very proud of our luxury ski chalet collection, Smith Ski. What’s your favourite ski destination?
I worked in Zermatt for the Ski Club of Great Britain as a ski guide, and it’s still my favourite destination.
Describe your ideal weekend away – where do you go, what do you do, where do you eat?
Over Easter last year we took a flight to Kalamata in the Peloponnese in Greece with our bicycles in the hold and then started cycling the 60km to a little town in the south at the beginning of the Marni peninsular called Aeropoli. It is a fabulous ride, passing through the hills, past Byzantine churches with views of the sea and beyond.
We tend to stay in either private accommodation or small hotels, and eat in traditional Greek restaurants. There’s one in Aeropoli that is still run by four generations of the same family – the women in the kitchen and the men serving. My favourite dish in Greece (if one can find a restaurant that still cooks traditional food) is a dish of rice and meat wrapped in cabbage leaves and served with a lemon cream sauce. I love the pork chops in Greece, followed with honey and fruit for dessert.
Where’s next on your holiday wish-list?
Udaipur in India and cycling through the Chilean wine district north of Santiago. I find India one of the most exhilerating countries to visit and I’ve never been to Chile, so that’s also on the list.
In a perfect world, who’d be your ideal travel companion?
If I want to stay married – my wife. She is an ideal travel companion as she is a traveller rather than a tourist.
What do you never leave home without?
My Swiss army penknife. It is one of the bigger models and is heavy, but it has got me out of trouble so many times. It has a screwdriver, a cork screw, scissors, pincers and even a toothpick.
What’s the most romantic thing you’ve ever done with your partner?
When we camped on the beach in Oman on Masirah Island: there was no-one around and the full moon gave us light, the fire was burning and a glass of wine was on the table. I do believe in being comfortable when camping and things like tables and chairs are necessities. We just sat there, looking out to sea with the reflection of the moon dancing on the water. To us this it was so peaceful and quiet – and a bit of an adventure.
Ettinger of London is available online, and at Ginza 7 Chome 8-9 in Tokyo.