At home with the Maestro of Leicatime
Last week the Travel Gods threw me
for a loop. I was scheduled to have
two days in Rome before heading
to Sardegna, but the flight was
oversold. My biggest fear was
I might miss my appointment with
leather Maestro and Leicatime
creator Luigi Crescenzi.
— The Front Door
Last year, I decided a Leicatime Half Case was in order. We were in Venice for New Years when I it hit me. The weather was cold and windy. The body of my Leica M9 turned into an ice cube. The electronics did not fail, but the vulcanite was freezing. It was the first time that I wanted a wrap for the camera. A leather half case would have made made my fancy ice cube manageable and add a touch of Italian flair to my Leica.
The Leicatime Cases are legendary in the Leica Community. Since the 1980s the founder of Leicatime, Luigi Crescnezi, has made leather accessories for Leica cameras of all sizes (and a few other companies too). Whenever I get together with Leica photographers in NYC its like a Luigi showcase. There are straps, cases, and accessories that decorate the community.
A few weeks before I arrived in Rome, I asked Luigi if I could stop by to discuss a custom case. He said he would be happy to get together. I was invited to his house on the outskirts of Rome for a visit. My girlfriend and two friends, who were living in Rome came for the ride. I was hoping that all the camera talk would not bore the pants off of them. Little did I know Luigi, who prefers to be called Gianni, and his wife Patrizia, would have us laughing the entire time.
Like most of us, Luigi has a Leica problem. Patrizia, being a good wife, simply rolls her eyes when I ask how many cameras he owns. Without turning my head, I could feel my girlfriend thinking, “Ok, so I am not the only one in a relationship with a retard who loves cameras.” Gianni’s collection, of over 400 Leica’s could fill a small gallery. He has models from the early Leica 1A (with a fixed lens), 1B, 250 GG Reporter, up to the M9 Ti. The bookshelves behind us could have been an antipasta plater of camera bodies. Next to many of the cameras were family pictures, which is why I did not ask to take pictures of the cameras. It just did not seem right. But I can assure, it was an impressive collection.
The million dollar question was “Why did he start making leather cases?” Luigi explained how he started dealing Leicas and how he used to review Leica-made accessories. The Leica accessories were good, but the the focus seemed to be on their cameras and lenses. He would write reviews in magazines and people trusted him as a source of reliable information. Eventually he decided to give up on improving Leica’s accessories and make some of his own.
The case I wanted to discuss with Luigi was a suede half case for my M9. I like the look of a well worn piece of leather. I have always preferred the backside of the Luigi strap, which is smooth now from years of sweat, dust, and wear. So I wanted to see if he would entertain making me a suede case.
He explained to me that I might be interested in a “reversed case” instead. He brought out some leather swatches and flipped them all upside down. Instead of a fine suede, he suggested we just turn the leather around and use the backside. Why on earth would I want to turn a beautiful piece of Italian leather inside out? I like how reversed leather eventually becomes shiny with use. I am totally seduced by the idea of having a case that does not look brand new and will develop a smooth patina in the areas where my hand holds the camera.
Luigi now makes aged leather which is beautiful. In fact it was so nice I am considering a case for my M6 too. My girlfriend took particular interest in the aged samples he had on the table. But the reversed leather would be one step further and it would take years to break in properly. My axiom for design, which I learned as a builder is:
“If it looks its best when its brand new, its a bad design.”
This axiom explains why glass buildings look terrible as the years elapse, why cheap furniture just looks old when its chipped, and why a good pair of leather shoes will outshine a pair of Nikes any day. Age is an inevitable part of design. If a product fails to recognizing the flipping calendar, it will eventually be replaced by a better looking object. The purpose of designing a reversed case is to explore the visual life of a piece of leather. After about thirty minutes of samples and sifting through completed cases we were in agreement. I will be the proud owner of the First Ever Reversed Leather Luigi case.
— The Future
For those of you who are not familiar with Luigi, he has been buying and dealing in Leica cameras since the 70s. He used to run a shop in Rome, but scaled back in 2007. He maintains a stable of six Italian artisans who produce most of the cases. He still works on some of the details himself. And he said recently his daughter Ginevra decided to work with him. She wants to keep the handmade leather tradition alive. For those of you who are just getting into Leica Cameras, you can breathe a sigh of relief. Ginevra will insure the production of the cases will continue in years to come.
If you visit Leicatime.com there are notes that Luigi is always busy with orders and to please be patient. How busy is Luigi? He looks pretty busy. There was a line of finished cases on the sideboard behind the sofas. Each case was wrapped in a plastic with a strap tucked inside. Luigi took the opportunity to show me some of the details that get lost when we view images on line. One thing to understand about these cases is they are all hand made. Some are even hand stitched. When you consider the man hours that goes into each unit, the price tag becomes much easier to grasp. I read endless comments on Leica blogs about how Chinese cases are just as good and less expensive, but who buys tires for their Ferrari at Walmart? It is an exageration, but Luigi and Leica are a good match. Personally, I feel like he could charge more, but fortunately he does not.
— A New Line
Luigi explained that his two biggest markets, percentage wise, are Korea and Japan. He showed me some of the Korean photography magazines which were stunning. I think American editors should take a trip to Korea to pick up a few pointers. They run advertisements for his cases, at their expense. They looked fantastic.
In total volume he sells the most to the US, but the Asian market is steadily gaining despite their smaller populations. To cater to the needs of a growing rangefinder population Luigi created a mid-range case, that is not as expensive as his top of the line cases. The differences are fairly subtle. His high end cases are completely custom. Like a Neopolitan or Saville Row tailor, you can pick every detail. With the mid-range cases the options are limited, but there should be something for every photographer. The leather feels a little different and the stitching is done on a machine rather then by hand. As with all of his products, there is an extensive prototype phase where he perfects the solutions. Most of the half cases on the market are taken from his designs.
— After Business
There is a range of people who make up the Leica community. Based on someone’s website its impossible to tell how someone will be in person. Over the years I have met some great people (guys like Thorsten Overgaard, Craig Semetko, & Jeff Johnson) and some others who were less than wonderful. Meeting Luigi was an absolute delight. He indulged our mutual love of Leica and then we chatted about life, travel, and living in Rome. He went out of his way to use his english, so my girlfriend could follow the conversation, though her Italian is getting better every day. His wife, who is a stunning former Italian model, charmed my friends while Luigi and I talked shop.
After we had chatted about the cases, we joined in the conversation my friends were having with his wife. It turned out we are all on our way to Sardegna. Luigi suggested that we get together for a meal on the island. He had some friends who were hosting him up the coast from our house. Sardegna is not a tiny island, so it was a stroke of good luck that we were staying within thirty minutes from each other.
A few days later we met up in Costa Rei for a day at the beach. One thing that consistently impresses me with Italians, in general, is their hospitality. They are phenomenal hosts and can make you feel welcome within minutes. We actually spent the entire day with Luigi, his wife Patrizia and their friends Cesare (whose family owned the property), his wife Maura (who gave me a talking to about not visiting the Caravaggio’s in Rome, she was right to do so), and Roberto and Terry who had come down from Treviso (home to the worlds greatest Radicchio). You can find it all over Venice in the late Fall and early Winter.
For lunch we enjoyed a fresh seafood salad and a swordfish pasta accented with eggplant, pinenuts and capers. Our wine was a local white wine varietal called Vermentino which goes brilliantly with the seafood. For dessert they brought out fresh melon, pineapple and a bottle of Mirto (a local liquor made from local berries). Luigi joked that they were serving us a nearly empty bottle, but after the wine a shot of Mirto was plenty. Set in the backdrop was the pool like waters of Costa Rei.
So where are the pictures? I barely took any. It was a day to experience and I gave myself the time to relax, without the click of a shutter. Sometimes a Leica starts the conversation, but its best left in the camera bag.
If you would like to see some of Luigi’s cases click on the link below.
And when my new case arrives I will be sure to post a picture, I can’t wait. If you use a Luigi case send me a picture. I would love to put a small gallery together of all of our cases. Shoot me an email with a Jpeg.