Despite spending most of his adult life working as a photographer, Naj Jamai was practically born to craft fashion. “I started working in leather years and years ago, as a kid,” he told us. “My father’s in the leather business making shoes in Paris where I grew up, so I’ve always been around leather and leatherworking machines. After school or when I was grounded, I’d spend time stitching or dying leather.”
Even though working in the shop may have been a form of punishment, it soon became a passion for Jamai. He now has turned those lifelong skills into a business, creating one-of-a-kind, handcrafted bags and belts in his L.A. home.
We recently joined Naj to see him in action, and he shared with us the steps to making one of his iconic styles, the envelope clutch. Each step—which include punching, carving, painting, and stitching—gives him a chance to express the creativity that he utilizes in both his photography and in his leathergoods. “My photographic work is based on shape—often the shape of a woman’s body,” Jamai said. “And that can lead me to imagine pieces while I’m shooting. Also, I love texture and try to add it to my photos wherever I can, so I do that with the pieces I create too. They feed off each other—my photography and I what I design; they always come from the same creative place.”
Also learned from his father is Naj’s drive for craftsmanship and quality. After extensive research and hunting, he finally found a tannery that met his needs for the leather he was looking for, St. Louis-based Hermann Oak. One of the country’s oldest tanneries, they still use plant-based dyes in the tanning process, a practice utilized by less than 5% of tanneries today. “The way that they tan their leather uses tree bark—like when you boil tea bags in water,” Jamai told us. “It was important to me that the leather be the best quality, but also that it’s organic and better for the environment.”
This passion for quality in the details is at the heart of everything Naj makes. “I love the bags so much that I’m happy there are few of them that are made,” he said. “It helps the pieces to feel special, not over-producing them—that’s not the philosophy of what I do. I want to continue to put the right product out there—it’s about the craftsmanship and quality, about creating something that will last a very long time.”
Scroll on for a step-by-step look at the work that goes into each and every piece Naj makes, then head over to Barneys to pick up one of these beautiful bags for yourself.