J.W. Hulme: Making it in Saint Paul for over 100 years

Our Craft Culture series explores Twin Cities artists, makers and brands who consider craft a way of life.

By Emily Weiss
Photos courtesy of J.W. Hulme

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In the last issue of The Growler, we kicked off our Craft Culture series with a profile of Katherine McMillan, founder and CEO of Northern Grade, a pop-up menswear market that focuses on handmade goods, heritage brands, and American-produced products. This month we’re continuing the series with an in-depth look at a local business that is truly committed to craftsmanship and has been a part of the fabric of the Twin Cities for over 100 years. J.W. Hulme is a maker of fine hand-pieced and hand-sewn luxury leather bags and other accessories. The Growler caught up with Laura Smith, vice president of brand management for J.W. Hulme, and Kim Magnuson, the company’s direct to consumer manager, to talk about craftmanship, the consumer shift responsible for the renewed interest in their brand, and appealing to younger audiences.

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The Growler: Before you came to work at J.W. Hulme, what did you know about the brand and what drew you to the company?

Laura Smith: I had heard about it in a Wall Street Journal article. It was about the effects of the banking crisis and how this 100-year-old company was on the brink of closure. I realized I had been driving by the building once a week and became really intrigued by its story. I had an opportunity to talk to the then-CEO and because of that meeting and the exposure they got from the article, we were able to find an investor and start working on bringing the company back to its feet.

Kim Magnuson: I started out at Abercrombie & Fitch and worked my way up to their corporate offices in Columbus, Ohio. Then, in 2011, I decided I wanted to move home to Minnesota and when I was job hunting I came across J.W. Hulme. I really didn’t know about it before, but I was immediately attracted to the fact that everything was handmade, a lot of the raw pieces were domestically sourced, and that it was all manufactured right in this one place in St. Paul. I felt the brand has this really authentic identity, a very strong sense of company self.

 

G: One of your brand’s sales taglines is “artisan crafted.” What does that phrase mean to you? How do think J.W. Hulme delivers on that promise?

LS: When we think about that phrase, artisan crafted, we are referring to an individual person who is sitting and hand making an individual piece. It’s not buzzword or a loosely used term. Not everyone can do what they do. Even people who can sew can’t necessarily do this type of sewing. Our master cutter, who cuts the leather pieces from a 19 square foot piece of cowhide, can look at that raw piece and know the parts that are best for straps and flaps and everything else. That is really a true craftsman. It’s intimate knowledge, closeness to the materials they work with, and real passion for it, too. The level of integrity involved at each point in the production process of making our bags is I think how we really live that promise of being artisan crafted.

 

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G:  How do you find these artisans? It seems like you need really specific, sort of old-world skills in order to make these kinds of bags.

LS: We have been fortunate enough to work with local community colleges and we have a lot of sewers come to us from there. But mostly the artisans themselves are the biggest sources. When you talk about leather workers, cutters, and master sewers, it’s a relatively small world. They know each other and they know who does the best work—they can see it. So we do hire quite a bit from referrals.

KM: We do train here, too. We have artisans who come in with some industrial sewing experience and then really fine-tune all those skills here. But I think there is a whole new generation of people who have been raised with the ability to just click and buy something. They have never made anything, really made something from scratch on their own, and now they are interested in learning how to do that. I think part of that also has to do with the fact that a four-year degree doesn’t necessarily guarantee jobs any more. People are considering trade schools and that type of training again, which is great for us. It’s great for everyone because it ensures these skills will still be present in another generation of artisans. G:  How many people are involved in the making of each bag?

KM:  First, there’s the leather cutter; then the person who cuts the lining fabric; then the sewer; then someone who buffs the leather; and the person who packages and ships it. So that’s probably five people total who touch each piece. It’s a small operation but at the same time we distribute globally.

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