There are a few unavoidable truths about the luxury leathergoods market. For one it is oversaturated. A category long dominated by brand-powerhouses such as Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Chanel and Hermès; luxury megaliths with deep pockets, iconic monograms, rich heritage stories and global retail networks.
It is a category of the industry that has effectively trained consumers to believe that luxury goods Made in Europe hold the most cache. The majority of consumers seem to be of the belief that no leathergoods manufactured in the United States or China will ever stand up to those made in France or Italy.
These are not necessarily barriers to entry, but they are potentially daunting considerations for a lone-entrepreneur looking to launch a luxury leather goods brand. Particularly one 100% Made in America, 100% hand crafted – as opposed to hand made – with a flagship model priced upwards of £8,250.
“ I knew that the only way to differentiate the product would be through colour, shape, texture & workmanship ”
But that is indeed what Steven Fischer has set out to do with Fischer Voyage, debuting The Prairie overnight bag at Harrods London flagship in September. The professor at Northwestern University is not your typical creative director. Instead, he has spent the past eight years lecturing MBA students about image, style and design in the luxury industry.
And the inspiration for Fischer Voyage came from far outside the classroom. “I was driving down an old country highway through Kentucky and I came across an auction at a stud farm, and there was this gorgeous leather bag.”
“It must have been 100 years old – and I felt like it spoke to all the places it had travelled throughout the world. I bought it for way more than I thought I would ever pay for a bag, and all the way back to Chicago it was all I could think about."
“Trite as it may sound, I had never seen anything like it. I started about what it would take to make it in the United States, but to be able to distinguish it from all the other bags on the market by only using the very best materials, and best techniques.”
“I knew from my teaching that the only way to differentiate the product would be through colour, shape, texture and workmanship. For example when Apple launched the first iPhone, it was white and flat, in a landscape of black, candy bar shaped mobile phones.”
With such a romantic notion in mind, Fischer set to work trying to find components that were 100% American made, and artisans who could produce a 100% handcrafted product. It took him nearly a year.
“It certainly is a competitive marketplace out there, with many brands”, Fischer reflects, “There are also many companies producing ‘hand-made’ products in the United States. But I am not aware of any that combine the high level of leather craftsmanship with bespoke-produced brass hardware that my product delivers. We really do represent the idea of hand-crafted in the truest sense of the word."
“ Our products are hand stitched and not machine stitched, as this offers a better quality stronger product ”
“To bore you with the details, our products are hand stitched and not machine stitched, as this offers a better quality, stronger product, because of way the thread goes through the material. A machine will push and pull the threads at a 90° angle, whereas a hand stitch can come across at a 45° angle, allowing more surface area contact between the leather and thread."
“And I insisted that all of our hardware is made in America, which was a huge challenge as there aren’t a lot of parts suppliers in the U.S. anymore, it seems that everything is made in China. I searched exhaustively for two months before I came to the conclusion that I would have to commission someone to make all the hardware specifically for the bag. “
“Otherwise there was no way I could guarantee that it was made in America, let alone hand-crafted. This meant finding a machinist who could make the parts for me, and that means that all the solid brass fixtures are hand-machined.”
“After speaking with over two-dozen suppliers of bottom studs, only to find out all of their studs were made in China, I worked with the same machinist to turn all our studs on a lathe. We are sourcing our leather from Horween Tannery, which happens to be the last remaining tannery in Chicago.”
“The buckles are another good example," he enthuses. "They are made by a blacksmith who still communicates via post, as in letters. He did have a number listed but I was never able to reach him, so I wrote a letter to him explaining what I need and he came back to me explaining what he could produce and a price. Now I send him a cheque and ten days later my buckles arrive in the mail.”
“To meet with the harness and saddle makers I drive about four hours out of Chicago. It is no wonder that so few brands are making 100% American products anymore, because the majority of suppliers no longer exist here. And when it comes to the parts, most cost at least ten times more than buying something foreign made, off the shelf.”
“ Adherence to achieving the best quality possible meant that my product was going to be expensive ”
Which brings us to the discussion of price; £8250 per bag for the Prairie model, a comparative position to that of brands such as Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Hermès. But Fischer remains undeterred. “This attention to detail and adherence to achieving the best quality possible meant that my product was going to be expensive,” he smiles.
“The point of differentiation had to be quality; aim high and stay high as Leonard Lauder once said. If I were to acquiesce and produce at a lower quality level, there would be no turning back. Neither in quality or price point. And I do believe that luxury consumers are looking for products that are niche, which are rare, which have a story. Though my story is young, it doesn’t mean it is any less valid.”
And perhaps just as Burberry saw an opportunity in championing its ‘Britishness’ in a marketplace crowded with European heritage brands, Fischer sees an opportunity to champion the fact that this product is 100% American. No matter the cost to manufacturer or consumer.
“ If I had acquiesced to cost savings and produced outside the U.S. I’m not sure I would have been invited to launch at Harrods ”
“It is my firm belief that if I had acquiesced to cost savings and produced outside the United States I’m not sure I would have been invited to launch at Harrods,” he explains.
“This bag is just as high quality – if not even higher quality – than other comparable products on the market. Once consumers experience the product and understand the lengths to which I have worked to achieve it, I am confident they will feel comfortable with the price.”
After Harrods, Fischer is exploring distribution options in Asia, parts of Europe and Central and South America, and of course searching for the right retail partner to bring the Made in America product to the American luxury consumer. Though production will be limited – it takes roughly three months to make one unit – and for the moment, the web will be used to educate consumers rather than to sell.
When pressed on the name, Fischer remains fluid about the interpretation of what constitutes a voyage. “The consumer for Fischer Voyage is one who is passionate about all life’s journeys. Those can be voyages that bring us to new places and cultures, or it can be a voyage into new areas of knowledge. But at the end of the day, and perhaps above all else, my consumer is passionate about the very best possible.”
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Published on Oct. 10, 2013 under Leaders
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