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

G: With such an established company, you obviously have some name recognition with the older customers, but how has your brand evolved to reach a new audience?

LS: There is this really apparent shift going on in the retail world. The same way people have glommed onto the farm-to-table movement and the “know your farmer” thing in food, people are thinking about all the steps behind where their clothes come from. They want to “know their maker” now, too. Since that is something we have always been able to provide to the customer, we didn’t have to evolve in that sense, but the market has evolved that way.

KM: I think people are getting more thoughtful in general about why they buy and are looking for integrity in their product. They are scrutinizing a lot more and wanting clothes and accessories that say something about their values and communicate those values when they wear those items. Younger customers also seem to attribute greater value to a unique product, the one-of-a-kind-ness that comes from something being handmade. I think we have evolved in terms of keeping up with more current fashion though. Being aware of trends and how they can translate to our bags in a way that is still true to the original brand.

 

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G: That’s an interesting point about the market evolving to you, rather than the other way around. Do you find that your older and younger customers both place equal value on the idea of your bags being American made?

LS: “American made” used to mean you were paying more for less, but it was patriotic to buy American. Now it’s a luxury thing. And it’s also about a more emotional connection, which I suppose there is also an element of in the patriotic motivation.

KM: Older customers have this respect and nostalgia for American made. Younger customers are just discovering it for the first time. It’s a new wave but to us it is not a trend.

 

G: What was J.W. Hulme’s first product? Is it still your biggest seller?

LS: We started out as a field and sport company, so the first things we made were shell bags and shotgun cases for another company called Gokey that was later bought by Orvis. We manufactured for Orvis then, until they decided to start outsourcing work overseas and we ended that relationship. Anyway, that very first shell bag is sort of the iconic one, but now we sell it mostly in its more modern form, which is the Legacy collection. The shape of Legacy bags are based on that original shell bag and those are the ones that really launched the brand and brought them to a more current, fashion-y sort of audience. Barney’s New York picked them up. Lena Dunham carried one of our bags in the pilot episode of Girls and Emily Blunt carried one in The Five Year Engagement.

KM: It’s not an easy transition to go from field and stream to fashion. It’s pretty cool that we did.

 

G: How many bags do you each personally own? [Both, laughing]: Oh no! Please don’t make us fess up…

KM: Well, I don’t carry any other handbag and I like to change mine a lot. When it’s your job to look at these beautiful things all day long, it’s hard not to lust after them.

LS: I have a regular rotation but there is always a new favorite, you know? It makes sense to wear them when you represent the brand. People find out what you do for a living and then their next question, without fail, is always, “Is that one of your bags?”

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