HAND CRAFTING LUXURY LEATHER BAGS IN AMERICA
Handmade products have enjoyed a resurgence in recent times, in part because consumers have grown tired of the monotony of homogenous, mass-produced goods that are lacking quality, character and spirit. Recognition that an endless purchase and throwaway cycle is no longer acceptable for the health of our planet is but one reason for this reflex against mass-produced goods. Part of the appeal of a quality high-end leather bag is its uniqueness. Another part is the spirit they emit – added slowly through the hands and passion of the craftsmen.
The Prairie bag was inspired by century-old Gladstone travel bags and over a decade of teaching about luxury at Northwestern University.
Steven Fischer, Founder
In America, home to the mass manufacturing model, the appeal to consumers of distinctive hand crafted goods is on the rise. Leather bags are one of the most visible and popular category of hand-crafted products. Super luxury brands like Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Hermès and Gucci as well as their more recent American counterparts like Coach, Kate Spade and Ralph Lauren dominate the category.
What they all have in common is that their bags are made in Italy or France, and increasingly China and India – none are produced in America. Consumers have been trained to believe that made in Italy or France is better than anything made elsewhere. A glance at those publicly traded brands financial reports tells a story of high profit margins earned for their handbags – yet none choose to manufacture in one of their most lucrative markets. The question of whether it is even possible to produce a 100% hand-crafted leather bag in America today seems preposterous to even ponder given the obstacles to overcome.
MOMENT OF DISCOVERY
Enter Northwestern University style and design professor Steven Fischer, who has endeavored to do something no one else dares to try. Fischer’s take on luxury leather handbags is rooted in Midwestern American craftsmanship – the kind of leather bags a traveling doctor in early America may have carried. His eye for subtle refinement was honed through his experience living in Japan, regarded today as the pinnacle of modern culture and craftsmanship.
The inspiration for Fischer Voyage came when, after driving down an old country road through Kentucky, Fischer came across a farm auction. Once inside he spotted a beautiful leather bag that looked to be about 100 years old. So enchanted with its character, Fischer decided to splurge – at a price that surpassed anything he’d thought he would ever pay for a leather bag. The bag had a timeless quality that told stories through its worn and weathered imperfections. The Japanese have a word for this kind of beauty – they refer to it as wabisabi. For those who hold an appreciation for wabisabi, price is of less importance. Such rare objects become part of life’s greater journey.
From this Fischer started to think about what it would take to make something like it in the United States. His benchmarks for production included using only the very best American materials and that it be hand crafted using traditional techniques. He believed that if the bag achieved this standard, the bag would be different enough from all the others on the market. Fischer’S next step was to find the Midwestern artisans capable of producing his vision of the ultimate leather bag.
Historically, the very finest leather goods houses were created by harness and saddle makers – think Hermes and Gucci. A century ago horses were the main mode of transportation so finding the right producer would have been much easier. Where to look for the right supplier in the age of the automobile took Fischer on a journey through America’s back roads. Eventually he found fourth generation harness and saddlemakers still working with the traditional tools and techniques needed to produce the leather bags.
THE FISCHER LEATHER BAG DETAILS
Constructed of hand-selected reserve hides from Horween Leather Company. Horween Leather Company was founded in 1905 and for more than 100 years they have sought to make the world’s best leather. Their website describes the process to reach that goal as “doing lots of little things right … never mistaking fastest or cheapest with the best … using formulas that do not cut corners and choosing components strictly for their quality.” Looking at their leathers it is immediately obvious that traditional, old world tannages and techniques have given the Horween Leather a special visual and tactile quality that is rarely seen today. The Latigo leather is chrome-tanned with a vegetable overtan. Chrome-tanning allows for water resistance, a quality not found in a pure vegetable tan. Steven Fischer personally inspects each hide to ensure it meets his exacting standards, which means he accepts only about 5% of what the Horween Tannery presents for review.
One of the most remarkable aspects of the Fischer Prairie leather bag is that it is entirely hand-stitched. The uniquely shaped ergonomic handle is patented and conveys solid construction while its gorgeous smooth curves entice the onlooker to reach out and grab hold of it. Constructed by a fourth-generation harness-maker it takes three days to cut and stitch before it is finished by hand with a burnishing solution and beeswax. In order to provide the strongest construction possible, Fischer Voyage products are stitched with a waxed polyester thread sourced from Maine. Hand stitching was chosen for its superior strength and longevity. Whereas a machine will push and pull threads at a 90° angle, a hand stitch can be made at an angle, allowing more surface area contact between the leather and thread.
The tab is constructed of Latigo leather on the outside whereas the underside is made of horsehide. Combining the two materials in one bag results in greater strength which, over time, translates into a longer lifespan. On the underside of the tab a logo discretely identifies the bag as an authentic Fischer Voyage. On the inside of the bag a number unique to each bag is stamped, allowing future owner of the bag to trace its origins and age.
All of the brass hardware used on the bag is machined entirely by hand from 350 brass – known for is strength and resistance to corrosion. The bag’s frame architecture is constructed of precision-bent stainless steel that permits the bag to close precisely across all points. The striker plate (lock plate) is made of solid brass to provide both strength and aesthetics. Inside the bag, American-made woolen felt lining that is rated for 40,000 rubs ensures its function and aesthetic will last for many generations.
The buckles featured on Fischer Voyage products are forged by a blacksmith, whose only form of communication is via posted letter. In keeping with tradition of fine harness hardware, the buckles are made of brass. Studs attached to the bottom act as feet and are individually turned on a lathe. When the bag is placed on the ground, the five brass studs make a solid “clanking” sound, a reminder of the endearing quality this bag affords its owner.
HAND-CRAFTED – IT’S ALL IN THE DETAILS
To represent the idea of hand-crafted in the most authentic sense of the word is increasingly rare and difficult in modern times. The Fischer Voyage Prairie bag delivers on this ideal by combining high level of leather craftsmanship with hand-machined brass hardware.
By insisting that all of the Prairie bag’s hardware is made in America – a huge challenge given the century-long decline in domestic parts suppliers – Fischer has delivered a distinctive regional product of extraordinary quality. Cultured travelers and connoisseurs of history will appreciate the deep historical ties to a period of early America when quality and durability were what was most appreciated. It is the kind of bag one might imagine a frontier doctor carrying as he traveled across the the unspoiled natural landscapes by stagecoach. The commitment to produce a leather bag at this level is astonishing. To do this in America today, a market where no one else dares deserves the highest praise. The trickle down effect of buying such a bag is that the buyer becomes a contributor to the continuance of an historical lineage of the hand-crafted movement in America – a movement that continues to produce the best quality leather products on the planet. The Fischer Voyage Prairie Bag is unquestionably a connoisseur’s leather bag for the ages.
HOW TO GET ONE
The Prairie overnight bag is available online at the Fischer Voyage website. It takes roughly three months to make one bag and is part of what makes this bag so special.
WEBSITE: Fischer Voyage