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Portrait of an artisan

Unique custom-made handbags

Dominique 'Mien' Vieren used to work as an architect, but she still wanted to work with her hands. When she became acquainted with leather processing a few years ago, she got a taste for it, re-educated herself and became independent. In Mien Kaba studio in Sint-Andries, just outside of Bruges, make an appointment and get the unique handmade bag of your dreams! Dominique also welcomes old handbag restoration projects or transforming other leather products into bags.

It’s a point of principle for this craftswoman to work to order, and not to carry any stock. She wants people to buy a handbag with the intention of keeping it for a long time and of putting it to good use. Her bags are custom-made so you can get them fully suited to your needs, and if you want a little more variety, she can make you a bag with interchangeable panels.

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Chrome of vegetable tanned leather?

Opting for sustainable materials: an ongoing quest

There are two main types of leather: synthetically tanned (often with chrome) or vegetable tanned (this can be done with mimosa bark, chestnut bark, oak bark...). In terms of sustainability, it is impossible to decide which is the best because it depends on much more than just the tanning process. The living conditions of the animals, the transport of the leather, the working conditions in the factories, and finally the environmental requirements of the country are all big factors that affect sustainability ratings.

Dominique is not sure that vegetable tanning is always cleaner and safer than chemical tanning. For example, with chemical tanning you can often find out what happens to the used water. In Italy or Germany they deal with this used water in a different way to low-wage countries outside of Europe. Dominique does however opt for vegetable tanned leather if it has the suppleness required for her design. She has made ultra soft bags made out of rhubarb-tanned leather from Germany.

The new luxury leather

Fish leather as an alternative to exotic leather from endangered species

Dominique mainly works with cow and pig leather, but also experiments with different kinds of fish leather. In all cases though, she uses animal skins that are “waste” from the food industry.

Salmon leather can easily be imported from South America, but Dominique doesn’t think that’s very sustainable because it’s too far away. She went in search of local, sustainable fish from the North Sea to use. Unfortunately, fish tanning is not done much in Belgium because the quantities of fish caught are too small. The most local fish leather is sole. If a customer at Mien Kaba chooses sole leather for their bag then it will come from Bordeaux. She also has cod and catfish leathers to choose from which come from Iceland.

Dominique also buys other skins closer to home. From Germany and Italy often, and through wholesalers in the Netherlands and independents who buy stock and resell the skins. Wherever she gets the leather from though, she always handles it herself because she wants to select them carefully after seeing and feeling them.

Repair & Upcycle

The most sustainable handbag

“ the handbag you already have.” That’s why Dominique repairs handbags as well and makes them out of previously used materials.

Dominique works with old leather as well as new leather. She can transform anything from leather boots to a leather seat into a bag. She once turned a grandfather’s leather jacket into handbags for the daughter and granddaughter.
“Customers come from Brussels and Limburg to get their leather handbags repaired. That’s also why I can’t stop doing handbag repairs.” Commercially, Dominique should really only design and make handbags but she loves repairing people’s beloved handbags. She views these repairs as her contributions to society.

Within the leather industry itself, there are already many initiatives that use leather leftovers from the production of bags, belts… Dominique really wants to get involved in this huge stream of post-consumer leather but she is still looking for the right people to do something structural with it. In the meantime, she has already collected many leather jackets, belts, old handbags, leather from old chairs, etc lying around that are just waiting for a project. Many people donate these old leather products to Dominique but she has now had to start refusing people because she doesn’t have enough space to store everything.

Packaging and zero waste

Example of a circular economy

Dominique wants to be as zero-waste as possible and is a good example of a circular economy. The goal in circular economies is to completely re-use materials which she nails in most aspects of her work!

To start with, she saves all possible scraps of leather in her own workshop, which she sorts according to size and colour. Smaller scraps sometimes find a new owner and are used for accessories or craft activities, and the larger ones are used for repairs. “I just can’t throw away any leather”, she admits. Even leftover thread from the sewing machine or small scraps of fish-leather go into a cup.

The furniture in her cosy studio which used to be a cafe comes from a second hand shop. Circular again! Other furniture was designed and made by local makers. Lastly she uses old paper and cardboard that others no longer need to draw her patterns and designs - recycling!

The accessories that come from her supplier are often ‘well’ packaged because they need to be protected in the transport. The packaging is therefore usually reused, or recycled correctly! When she sells a handbag, it is packaged in a matching handmade fabric sleeve she has made from leftover fabrics.

Handmade in Bruges

Recognized craftswoman

Dominique has acquired the labels Handmade in Bruges, Handmade in Belgium and Erkend Ambacht (Recognised craftsmanship).

Are you looking for a unique handmade bag that is also sustainable?
Make an appointment with Dominique, go feel, see and is waiting for you!

Dominique recently worked on a unique collection of handbags together with the famous calligrapher Brody Neuenschwander. She really loves doing projects like that and wants to do more in the future. “International artists can apply”, laughs Dominique.

Would you like to have a handbag made or an existing one repaired? Or are you the leather artist Dominique has been looking for to collaborate with on a unique collection of handbags?

Where to go: Mien Kaba, Gistelse Steenweg 417, 8200 Sint-Andries (Bruges)

Where to buy Mien Kaba?