If you see beautiful tapestries gathered from Thailand, Vietnam and Morocco incorporated into expertly crafted, distinctive leather handbags, you’re probably looking at the unique and stylish work of Durbanite Madeleine Zietsman who set up her company, Mandara Bags, three years ago. 

She uses first grade upholstery leather and buys the skins and cuts everything herself. Many of her pieces are hand woven, so they take a lot of time. Amazingly, she also sometimes includes woollen and hand dyed Turkish Kilim carpets that date back 90 years that she sources during her travels in her designs.

Before starting her business, Zietsman lived and worked in Thailand as an English teacher north of Chiang Mai near the Ping River. A friend owned a small bar tourists where would stop in at every now and then and Zietsman would help him serve beer. Over weekends, she would “play with leather”. It was during this time that she was taught professional hand weaving.

On her return to South Africa, she decided to start making bags as a business.

“It’s been a long journey and the product has changed drastically to when I started. I taught myself how to use a sewing machine to speed up production because, unfortunately, the hand stitching takes about three or four days for one bag,” she explains.

Having studied industrial design in Cape Town, she says she was able to think in a certain way about the bags. After that, there was a lot of trial and error.

“My early bags were very rustic. Clients would ask for what they wanted depending on their needs, so you do listen to what everyone wants and try your best to incorporate what people want and develop the range.”

She has two ladies who work with her. She is training them up to look after her manufacturing but is still very much in the production even though she would like to manage the processes and focus on the marketing side. She also loves travelling and sourcing materials.

“There’s so many places I have yet to go to like Mexico and Peru. I like third world travelling, whereas I find Europe a bit disappointing. There’s nothing inspiring about it, but there’s such a vibe in India, such colours and smells and excitement. There was a bit more going on in Spain, but I’m keen to go to South America,” she reveals.

Zietsman admits that working independently means that she has both good days and bad. “It can be stressful, you have to push and drive yourself, but there isn’t anything else I’d rather be doing. There are always difficult times when starting a business.”

Over the past three years, she has built up a regular client base. “Once people believe in the quality, they can start believing in the product,” she says.

Her stockists include Present Space in Kloof Street in Cape Town, a collaborative space in Woodstock called Platform 8, a boutique in Tokai called Sand Lifestyle Boutique, a Johannesburg boutique called Me and You Clothing in Braamfontein, opposite the Neighbourgoods Market and at Forge, a shop that she shares with jewellery design company, Rollin Vintage at 8 Morrison Street.

Her products, she says, are guaranteed to last, but she will happily replace and fix if something wears or tears.

Speaking about the prices of the bags which range from R350 to R2 500, she says: “A major problem with putting your products in shops is the mark up. I prefer to keep prices reasonable but the moment you put it in shops there is a mark up plus vat. But we are not mass manufacturing and can’t push out a lot of the product and sell it cheaply. We have three people. One person makes one bag from start to finish, much of it is hand woven which makes it more expensive than mass produced items, but it’s cheaper to buy directly.”

Then she adds one very important point: “Supporting a local designer is not supporting a sweat shop industry, and you know you are getting an investment piece.”