In the wake of last month’s Northern Grade Men’s Market, I was invited by J.W. Hulme’s Head of Sales and Product Development, Larry Felitto, to stop by their St. Paul storefront/factory for what ended up being a four hour tour!
Talking at length with Larry, it really struck me what an exciting and empowering time it must be working within an American heritage goods label in 2010, with consumer trends being what they are. Just years ago J.W. Hulme was on the verge of collapse, and now their bags receive top-billing at Barney’s.
I find it endlessly interesting to look across our great land to see the various ways in which these “comeback companies” are altering their business or design approach to either celebrate, capitalize on, or sourly shun the undeniable trends in men’s fashion and the new generation of buyers now interested in old-timey out-fittings.
Speaking with Larry, it’s clear J.W. Hulme’s approach to these changes in the market and their customer-base is as solid and sturdy as the goods they produce.
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WR: A few years back, just as the rugged, heritage movement was about to make its way into the men’s fashion scene, J.W. Hulme had a near-death experience. How did that come about and how was the company revived?
LF: After our current owners bought the company in 2003 the company began to grow very rapidly. The rapid growth out-stripped the company’s ability to fund that pace. At that point an investor was brought in to re-capitalize the company. With a healthier balance sheet we were able to make some strategic moves to grow the brand. We contracted with the Steven Alan showroom to represent our line in New York; they started getting our products into high-end retailers such as Barneys. A broader customer base began to respond to American products, and we were able to expand our collection while staying true to our quality craftsmanship and design.
WR: With a younger and perhaps more trend-driven demographic suddenly interested in J.W. Hulme, has that affected how your company is approaching business, either in marketing or product design?
LF: We are not a company that chases trends; our designs are timeless, made to last a lifetime or more.
WR: What have you learned from your customers who’ve been buying your goods for years and years?
LF: They have taught us that “legacy” really means something to them. It gave us the liberty to tell our story more fully; touting our truly American-made product philosophy and history. We used terms like “heritage” and “legacy” long before the recent heritage buzz started. Those terms have had true meaning to our customers for decades. Many of our customers have shared sentimental stories like remembering “the bags in the attic” that their parents took out to the summer cabin, or the shell pouch their grandpa always took hunting. When our customers invest in JWH products they know they are choosing family heirlooms.
LF: Our customers regularly tell us that quality is worth paying; some say “cheap is expensive; I have to replace it every few years!” They make a direct link between quality and made in America; it’s one of the key reasons customers buy JW Hulme. The quality they expect from us also applies to our customer service. All of our products are guaranteed for life; we even repair and recraft vintage JWH bags. The fact that we are made in the USA allows us to deliver that kind of service.
(Photo: Vintage Gokey dopp kitt on display at the store. J.W. Hulme produced many bags for the Gokey label up through the early 1980s.)
WR: And then, what would you say you’re learning from this new batch of younger customers?
LF: When our products become heirlooms the next generation is confident we are there to take care of them too. The most exciting thing we have learned is that this younger consumer has really started to appreciate quality. This is not a throw-away generation. They place a high value on authenticity—they see right through gimmicks and faux brand stories.
(Photo: Left, a vintage Gokey bag. Right, the traveled/pre-washed Sporting Originals Canvas Carry-On Bag created to invoke the worn-in wonder of the original.)
LF: We didn’t have to make our story up; customers in the younger generations are engaged and intrigued with our 105-year history, and continue to ask us great questions about it. They want to know how things are made and who made them. It is fun to see these younger consumers discover JWH. We just keep doing what we do best and that’s exciting to them.
WR: Since coming on board at J.W. Hulme last year to work in sales, you’ve since stepped over into product development as well. What’s been informing your work in that area? Do you feel constrained by the legacy of the company or empowered by it as you explore new designs?
LF: Working closely with our sales reps at Steven Alan has been incredibly helpful, in that they are really listening to the desires of our national–and international–wholesale buyers.
LF: I have the unique opportunity (being a small company) to answer customer questions personally, and listen to our retail consumers’ requests and desires as well.
(Photo: Prototype for an upcoming JWH tote.)
LF: At least once a day I read through the old Gokey catalogs that we have archived (some dating back to the early 50’s). These catalogs are chock full of old designs just waiting to be updated to meet the demands of the modern customer.
LF: Definitely, I feel empowered by the JWH collaborative environment in creating new products, modifying traditional designs. It’s incredibly exciting that in our small company ideas become reality in just a few months, rather than taking years!
WR: Having co-hosted the Northern Grade Men’s Market with Pierrepont Hicks earlier this month to celebrate American/Minnesotan-made goods, what insight did you gain that you’re taking back with you to J.W. Hulme?
LF: Authentic matters! Additionally, it was very insightful to see a young “fashion forward” consumer excited about our products and the whole idea of made in America. Maybe there is hope for my grandchildren to know what an antique store is.
WR: You’ve got a lot of new endeavors coming up at J.W. Hulme. Looking out at the year ahead, what’s exciting you most?
LF: Obviously, I’m really looking forward to our new line of bags coming out in Fall 2011 (my first foray into product design for an entire season) but in the meantime, we’ve got a series of small leather goods that are really going to be fun… leather can coolers, snap hook key chains, and our recently unveiled Hamline Pocket Journal, an iPad Case to name a few.
(Photo: iPad case prototype.)
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After my half-day field trip with Larry, it seemed to me that what JWH seems to be doing so smartly in navigating the current trends in the men’s market is they continue to honor their company’s past without being imprisoned by it. They both acknowledge and invite the interest and input of their younger customers, and adjust their designs and product-lines to serve the men (and women) of today with the quality we all associate with yesterday.
The best part is, it isn’t calculated, and it isn’t a strategy. It’s just who J.W. Hulme is.