Fashion Fieldtrip: Inside The J.W. Hulme Factory (This Is Where Handbag Magic Happens)

I got to see what makes this brand's leather goods so worth the dough.
Publish date:
March 12, 2014
bags, handbags, Made in America, investment pieces, J.W. Hulme

If you're anything like me, your handbag is full of stuff. It's probably pretty heavy. It might be beat up, and not in the cute, "weathered" way. Maybe it's not even real leather and you perhaps don't really LOVE your bag the way you should. I fully believe in the oneness you can experience with a handbag you really, truly adore.

So if you're like me, you've probably debated spending a chunk of money on a bag that will last you more than a couple of months. You might have hit some setbacks along the way. (For me, that is the disappointing Rebecca Minkoff bag I bought -- the straps constantly come loose and there's a wire poking out from the boning.)

Designer handbags with their $1000+ price tags are tempting. Believe me, I've been lusting after an iconic Balenciaga since they were launched. What makes a bag worth the money? It could be the name; the status symbol. Sometimes it’s the material: lambskin, fur or the legendary Louis Vuitton Epi Leather. But for other bags, like the ones created by J.W. Hulme in St. Paul, Minnesota, it's the insane amount of craftsmanship and attention to detail that justifies the cost of their products. I have a few friends that own J.W. Hulme bags and they can’t stop raving about them, so I jumped at the chance to visit the J.W. factory to see how they're made.

The company has been around since 1905; they got their start making canvas tents for WWI, then began selling gun cases and other sporting bags -- sort of like Abercrombie used to do before it became the flip-flops and shirtless guys emporium it is today.

Every bag sold by J.W. Hulme is made by hand right in their factory in St. Paul. Nothing comes from overseas, which gives them more flexibility to do smaller runs of a style and to give their customers the best of everything. They're a direct-to-consumer business, so if you purchase a bag, it never leaves their factory from initial design to assembly until it ships to your house! The leather is domestically sourced, too, typically from Wisconsin, Maine and Tennessee.

From start to finish, a handbag takes the team at J.W. Hulme just one day to assemble. Most of their 50 employees have been with the company for many years. One staffer, named Martha, came from Alaska where she honed her craft sewing sealskins. I watched each employee go about their jobs, from leather cutting to hardware selection to the final buffing that gives their leather its understated, lovely shine. These are real, built-to-last bags. Their leather is double-tanned and of finest quality; in person, it is completely gorgeous. While the more fashion-forward styles are made of flawless leather, other pieces showcase the unique quirks and flaws of the natural leather.

The most popular bag for women is the Legacy, which comes in three different sizes. It's modeled after the gun cases that helped make J.W. famous. It's a classic and feminine, but not girly.

The brand has also begun to release new collections every season, including holiday and resort, to appeal to a new, slightly hipper customer. J.W. Hulme has long appealed to businessmen who want a quality briefcase or travel bag, but it's recently enjoyed a boost in popularity due to the heritage trend that's especially popular here in Minnesota. (We're also the home of Red Wing boots, don'tcha know.)

J.W. Hulme bags are not cheap. When I asked product management associate Alfred Yeung why he thinks they're worth their price tag he said, "Attention to detail takes effort. [One of our duffels] is $1000, yes, but it will last you the rest of your life." J.W. Hulme offers a warranty on its products so should anything go wrong, they'll fix it for you free of charge. (They’ll monogram it for free too!) A handbag like the Legacy will run you anywhere from $240 for the small size to $490 for the large. Think about it like this: Your money is paying for increased job stability for the artisans and employees of J.W. as well as the ranchers and tanners who provide the leather. You’re helping keep business in the U.S.

Fast fashion has its perks, it really does. I love a good stroll through Forever 21 every once in awhile and I’d be a huge hypocrite if I said I didn’t buy clothes from fast-fashion vendors. I totally do. However, when it comes to something like a handbag that I'm going to bang around with every day, I want to spend more on it. I want to know where it came from. I want to know whose hands touched it. And most importantly, I want to know that it is going to last and look more beautiful as it ages.