From the desk of Contributing Editor, Eli M. Getson–
The term “luxury brand” gets thrown around a lot today, and as someone in the branding business, I can attest that every brand secretly covets this moniker as a way to charge more for products and services around the world and dupe the masses into even more consumption. Yet, somewhere along the way, I think we lost sight of what true luxury is and we bought into a lot of superficial hype about what constitutes luxury.
In the last few years, when ostentatious displays of wealth became a sorry substitute for understated class, it became harder and harder to sift through all the junk. A luxury in its purest form, so the thought goes, is not a necessity; it just makes life more fun to live and delights you in small ways. I think I derive pleasure from certain things because I like that they are well made, have a story behind them, and most importantly are not out there for mass consumption– I get a small thrill knowing that not everyone has it. You can call it small batch, artisanal, or limited edition– all would apply.
I like the term “Heirloom Brand” — the idea that true luxury is something you can pass on to the next generation and have it be as relevant as when it was first purchased. With that in mind, I recently interviewed Jen Guarino, one of the principals of the bag maker J.W. Hulme, a 105 year old institution in St. Paul, Minnesota where they have forgotten more about the making of the best quality canvas and leather bags then most of us will ever know.
The J.W. Hulme Classic Oxford Field Messenger (washed)
I’m curious about something, why with a rough economy and a consumer who rationalizes every penny, why would you get into this business?
Yeah, I know, you can start any kind of business but when my partner and I found JW Hulme it was so solid, so real, so true– it was just the right fit. When we first saw the factory we were stunned by the level of skill these artisans have– you just can’t find this type of history or knowledge in people anymore. We recognized this as a huge asset and bought it in 2003. Prior to that JW Hulme was a 100 year old manufacturing company sitting on its heritage– dating back to WWI. We just recognized a diamond in the rough.
Incredible, so you saying this company that makes some of the finest bags in the world was just sitting up in St. Paul and no one knew about it?
The history of the brand, I guess like all great American brands, was that of a manufacturer. The Hulme Brothers started their business making tents for the War department during WWI and WWII. After the Second World War ended, they made awnings for Minneapolis society and began to make gear bags for Minnesota sportsmen. The company really served as a manufacturer for brands like Orvis and the (now defunct) Gokey. We had all the craftsmanship under our roof, we just chose to celebrate it as uniquely our own.
The J.W. Hulme Classic Field Oxford Briefcase (washed)
How has the business changed?
The business was 80% wholesale, really a third party manufacturer. Today we are 80% direct to consumer and 20% wholesale to retailers. We are really tight with our consumers, short of our artisans, they are our greatest source of inspiration. We developed our Sporting Originals line from customer feedback. People would bring us their old Gokey bags and beg us to repair them. Every bag had a story beyond just something they used in the field. We replace their old bags– we just make them better then they remember. We use the same high quality canvas, leather, and webbing. The biggest difference today– we use real brass hardware, the originals were plated. These bags are heirlooms, they are priced to be that way, but we are not making a mass produced product. We are making a unique product that can be passed from father to son. The product has a history of getting better with use; we just like to think we made it a little better for today’s consumer.
What kind of materials do you use?
We source as much as possible from the U.S. All of our leathers are from U.S. tanneries (Horween anyone!), we are a big believer in American tanneries. The leathers we use are beautiful and they get more beautiful with age. The patina they develop is amazing. We use all brass hardware. Our canvas is made in the U.S. which is virtually unheard of today. We use the best Maring canvas in the world. We use materials that speak to quality and durability. Combine this with an artisan who hand makes each bag and you have something unique, and ruggedly beautiful.
Not just “Made in America, J.W. Hulme also supports American tanneries– using them exclusively.
How are you training the next generation of artisans?
We bring in master tailors, so there is a tremendous knowledge of sewing and construction– we have an apprentice system, the same system small manufacturers have used since the Renaissance. The apprentices learn from a master, so the knowledge is always getting passed on. One of our masters in an Inuit Alaskan, who learned to sew on seal skins, she teaches a lot of our sewers. Our environment is different than a standard factory, we don’t measure on quantity of output, we measure on quality of output. There is an incredible exchange of information and learning. We are not really a factory; we are more of an artist’s workshop.
I always ask this: What inspires the design?
Amazingly our archive is largely intact, so we really mine this and just tweak some of the original designs and update them for today. A lot of our inspiration comes from our customers– people call us constantly and describe a bag they had that they can’t replace and it sparks an idea for something new. The rest come from old films, vintage photos of travel, British Ghurkas, stuff like that. I really get inspired by the movies of the ’40s & ’50s. Remember, pre-plane travel your luggage was supposed to be rugged and elegant and last for a long trip. Travel was not nearly as convenient and people usually travelled for multiple weeks at a time– plus grand tours were a big deal then. I always get excited by old photos of Hollywood stars getting off a plane or train with all of their great luggage, dressed to the nines for their studio photo. It was a more formal era. I love the fact they we are bringing this to a younger audience and that this “old school” glamour and class is making a comeback. In today’s world you see the same five luggage brands all over. True luxury is having an extremely unique, beautiful piece that withstands fashion and is immune to trends. It is something that you hand down. This is really our passion at JW Hulme. This is truly a labor of love.
The J.W. Hulme Classic Field Duffle (washed)