Connolly has upholstered the sleek lines of Jaguars and Ferraris; now, for a paltry few thousand the company will upholster you (or at any rate your luggage). Chris Maume discovers the ultimate in leather fetishism
When you spend a couple of grand on a suitcase, you want more than something to carry your holiday gear around in. You are declaring to the world - and reminding yourself - "I am more than comfortably off. I am affluent, moneyed, well-heeled. Let's be clear about this. I am rich." There's no getting round it. That's what it's about.

There are two ways of doing it, though. You can tap into the predictable iconography of luxury, go for the names that everyone knows and few can afford, or you can plot a rather more singular course and stand out from the in-crowd. Which is where Connolly comes in. Leather manufacturers for more than a century, intimately associated with the car industry (and upholsterers to 14 parliaments around the world, as well as the QEII), a few years ago they branched out into luxury goods, but with the determination to be distinctive.

Their shop, a former stable, is in a mews just off Hyde Park Corner, a few doors down from Christine Keeler's former pad. Unlike the panelled opulence of Bond Street emporia, the Connolly shop, designed by the grande dame of French design, Andree Putman, has a light, spacious, vaulted feel. "Her design is so strong, it just doesn't suit elegant boutiques - it has a masculine feel, just what we wanted," said Isabel Pritchard, the company's creative director, when I met her at the shop along with Jonathan Connolly, who, with his father, brother and several of his father's cousins, keeps things in the family.

The story began just over 200 years ago, when a blacksmith called James Connolly came over from Ireland. His grandsons, John and Joseph, pioneered while-you-wait shoe repairs in London, and in 1878 began manufacturing leather (Edward VII's coronation coach in 1902 boasted Connolly leather for the royal behind). Moving with the times and into cars, the brothers soon enjoyed a virtual monopoly, upholstering marques both famous and forgotten, from Arno and Straker-Squire to Jaguar and Ferrari. The family still own several old beauties, and Jonathan, like his brother Benedict, is a veteran of several rallies. "My grandfather loved to race cars," Connolly says. "He was a real loony - he built a go-kart, and my father's uncles used to have a track through the factory. I can remember hysterical races, with my grandfather in his Herbert Johnson leather racing helmet, and that's what made me and my brother take up racing. We raced karts and then went on to bigger things."

Car upholstery is still the main interest, worth around pounds 35 million a year and accounting for 90 per cent of the business. But in 1989, they looked at the likes of Hermes and Louis Vuitton and saw an opening. The original conception was Pritchard's. "It all started when we sponsored a competition for young British designers to design a chair for Isi's husband, Joseph Ettedgui, using Connolly leather," says Connolly. "Isi persuaded us it would be a good idea to do something with the name. The family is quite conservative but we were intrigued."

It took two years to get off the ground and was often hard going, and it wasn't until 1995 that the shop opened: "There were times when I was lucky not to have a pistol," Connolly says. The key was finding the right designer. Ross Lovegrove came with the right avant-garde credentials, having been a member of Phillipe Starck's Atelier de Nimes group. His designs are sumptuous but unstuffy. Compare one of his suitcases with one of the opposition's and you see the difference between the ancien regime and the nouvelle vague, formulaic opulence versus clean lines and unpredictable touches.

But then, they are expensive. The suit-carrier, for example, comes in at more than pounds 3,000. But it is an extraordinary piece of work, almost fetishistic in its grandeur - as I fingered the sensual black leather I half expected it to come to life and set about me with a whip. "It'll go down in history," Pritchard says. "It's engineering." "It's a mother, it's a mother," Connolly murmurs.

Luggage aside, there are exquisite car shoes, hand-made from a single piece of leather, and even car boots (though, at pounds 250, you are unlikely to find them in a car-boot sale). There is a spectacularly packaged tool kit designed by Sebastian Conran, even a dinky set of jump leads, dubbed "The Chauffeur's Friend", as well as a panoply of cashmere sweaters, sunglasses and the like. My favourite is the rubberised leather belt, which stretches an inch and a half to accommodate the kind of lunches that cost the average weekly wage. The prices mean that sales are hardly enormous, but that's almost irrelevant. "It's really just to increase the brand awareness," says Pritchard. Connolly customers aren't just buying something, they're buying into something. "That's what branding is about anywhere," she says. "If you walk into Hermes in Paris there's a whole philosophy there."

The Connolly doctrine resides in otherness. "One of our concerns is trying to be different from the crowd," Connolly says. "I saw an old poster for Goodwood a few weeks ago with this great caption," says Pritchard: "'The right crowd and no crowding'." The Connolly philosophy in a very exclusive nutshell.

Connolly, 32 Grosvenor Crescent Mews, London SW1, 0171 235 3883.