Herschel Reveals the Secrets of its Success

Interview by Maria Hunstig via Sportwear International.

Lyndon Cormack had been taking care of Vans’ sales in the western part of Canada for about a decade when he had the idea that instead of selling other people’s products, he might as well bring something to the market himself. So he and his brother Jamie got together and launched their bags brand Herschel out of Vancouver in 2009. Nine years on and Herschel is a globally known lifestyle brand which has long expanded across the borders of the bags category. We recently met up with a jet-lagged–but still very awake–Cormack in Berlin.

When you started Herschel, did you think of it on a global scale from the beginning?

Yeah! But that’s maybe more of a Canadian misconception (laughs). We were 100% sure we wanted to have a product and a brand that resonates globally.

Herschel apparel for fall/winter '18

Photo: Herschel apparel fall/winter ’18

What was your breakthrough moment, was it the “Little America” backpack (that was suddenly everywhere I remember…)?

The Little America came in our second season and it’s certainly one of our products that we’re globally known for and that still sells like crazy today, but the breakthrough would probably be when we started concentrating on the backpack in general. If we go back ten years in time, there wasn’t really a clear lifestyle brand for backpacks. There were a lot of commodity brands or high fashion brands serving the category, but many of the brands in the middle were sneaker companies like Vans, Converse, Nike or Adidas. We cared about something I don’t think many people cared about at that time–although everybody wore them [backpacks].

Yes, it’s like with everything: If you give it a stage inside retail, a category to perform on, then the other performances will come. We definitely carved out a little niche inside retail and there are other people playing in it now. When we first started talking to the really big retailers, Nordstrom would be an example, they would simply say, “Well, we don’t sell backpacks, it is not our business.” So we had to break down a whole lot of walls to make sure that those retailers care about that category. If you have a shoe brand and there is a shoe wall or department, then it is easy to sell your idea, but if there is no department and no budget, no wall, no merchandising, it’s difficult. That was probably one of the hardest things in the beginning.

Herschel for fall/winter '18

Photo: Herschel Fall/winter ’18

So you think how people see the category of backpacks has changed now?

Yes, for sure. A lot of things in life have a utilitarian purpose: Shoes protect your feet, sweaters keep you warm, bags carry your stuff. But there wasn’t this great importance attached to them. If you think about luxury, it’s oftentimes handbags and footwear which are the anchors for these brands–so luxury has always been really great at telling stories through bags. And there was just this open hole for us to also tell a story in a more accessible environment.

I compare us to sneakers a lot: if you like it, you can most likely afford to buy it.

How has your product line diversified, especially towards women in the last years?

We’ve always considered ourselves unisex, especially in the backpack category, where guys and girls wear the same bags. Early on, we probably were supported by the whole tomboy trend which was very relevant when we started. So, as trends change, we’ve adapted to them, and now we have a much more feminine perspective on how we can be relevant to the female consumer beyond just the unisex aspect.

We offer more feminine, smaller silhouettes, and pay more detailed attention to how the girls are going to carry it. For instance, our travel program, which is on fire right now, is generally unisex. We have done hardshell luggage in a whole bunch of colors in, but there is one particular one in ashrose, a pink color, that is just going crazy right now.

Herschel travel collection for Spring '18

Herschel travel collection for Spring ’18

Are there any further product extensions planned, similar to luggage?

We have recently introduced diaper bags–for guys and for girls, which is pretty amazing. We also started to get into the apparel space with rainwear, packable windbreakers and fleeces. We thought these products would be a good gateway before launching an apparel line (which is definitely coming!), because they almost felt like accessories and so we continued that language of being accessory driven. And that grew into quite a substantial apparel selection by now.

Where is your biggest business market-wise?

The US is our biggest business. But it is quite nicely spread, one-third North America, one-third Europe and one-third Asia. It’s actually a very healthy mix–also when it comes to creativity and design inspiration, as it allows us to pull from anywhere and also to offer one global collection for everyone. We know that some products in our catalog are not going to resonate as well in North America as they might in Europe or Asia, but we still offer them there. So if for example a retailer wants more of a Japanese or Korean style in North America or Europe, we have those things available.

Which one is the most interesting market for you right now?

Maybe China is the most easy one to pick. I have been traveling to China a lot over the past seven years and you always had the inclination to think that the Chinese consumer just wants to consume things from abroad. And it is true that they want foreign brands, but it’s not like everyone is going to want something only because it is from overseas.

We have to actually launch products that are on trend for China and adapt our thinking for that because they are really progressive.

China is full of creativity and amazing designers by itself. The big cities there have worked with some of the top architects and I think China is actually helping us to speed up trend, because of how fashion aware the market is. I find it very inspiring.

Herschel office in Shanghai

Herschel office in Shanghai

Do you sometimes happen to be somewhere and suddenly think “oh we have to do this product” or how do you find product inspiration?

Yes, every day (laughs). I am surprised there is still space for anything else on my phone because of all the photographs and notes I take all the time. Whether it is about things that help people travel better, because we travel all the time or discovering a particular product or a retailer or a new brand that we should maybe talk to in order to work with etc…the inspiration comes from the road!

So what was your last product idea that you had?

Well, for instance, we have just launched travel accessories. We find that the industry around those is rather commodity driven–whether it be neck pillows or packing cubes, eye masks, or earplugs. But we think those items are quite interesting so we took a stab at it and did a 30-piece-collection of everything that you could need to travel with. And those were probably mainly derived from when you see those generic brands at the airport and think “how do we do something that is not ridiculously more expensive, but do it with a little more of a design point of view” or where the displays look nicer.

Over the next number of years we want to try out new things. We make bags as our main business, we also make wallets, headwear, now apparel and luggage as a main business, but rather than just go and start making just T-shirts and sweatshirts–stuff where I would say it’s relatively easy for us to introduce–we are going to test how our design principles and point of view might look on things that are less expected. Like, what would it look like if Herschel made a bike?

Is there anything in the pipeline yet?

Oh yes, so many things! In recent brainstorms, we have been talking about how we love stationery. And we also really like utilitarian city bikes. And if we love it, usually we are trying to get into it. We think we can make anything, whether it is a T-shirt or a hotel, we are interested in it.

Herschel apparel for fall/winter '18

Herschel apparel fall/winter ’18

So you are not scared of overusing the brand or anything?

No, not at all. I think we are not abusing the brand, or simply putting our name on everything. I mean we don’t license our name out to anybody or have categories we do not have control on. I think our passion for attention to detail protects us from that. It’s not like we couldn’t have made everything–like footwear and full apparel lines, but we keep the reigns in tight. But when we are interested in doing something, we go and find people who know a lot about those and we work alongside them.

I think if you are doing something good, then there should not be a problem about doing everything. And if you are just doing it for the money–which some brands obviously do–that’s probably when you see the failures more than the successes.

But you know we are a young brand–although to me it feels like we have been in business for 50 years. When we reflect back in 20 years, I want to see all the fun things we have done and the sky is the limit with opportunities. What gets us out of the bed in the morning is the fact that we have the opportunity to make stuff.

So you still want to stay in full control–or are you receiving a lot of investment offers that you are considering?

We still are in full control and have no outside capital in the business. But of course, everybody in a position like Herschel gets hit up. Brands like ours that have disrupted the industry will always get people interested and see if they can be part of it. We have had many interesting conversations with a lot of big companies. Obviously, the selling of the brand would mean a huge financial uplift for me and my brother personally.

But what we are looking for is a strategic partnership that really makes sense for us and allows us to do what we want to do but do it way better.

Is there cash that could be infused in the business that helps us get to a place where we would not have been able to get ourselves? Those will be the dialogues we look for rather than just purely to take the money off the table. We are too busy anyways and I would not even know what to do with the money. At the end of the day, we’d probably just wanna to go to work.

So what king of big things could trigger you to go for such a financial partnership?

Like if we said, “Hey, we want to open up 250 stores in the next two years,” then we’d probably would want to find someone to do it with. But we are not opening 250 stores in the next two years (laughs) and so far, we have been able to do whatever we wanted ourselves, so there just has not been the necessity for an investor at this point of time. That being said, the offers are constant, but that is true for any successful brand.

How is technology directing or influencing your design?

The things that people carry with them on a daily basis are changing. For example, sometimes you don’t have to bring your computer to every meeting which maybe in the past people did. We are adapting to the new technology trends and products to make sure we have storage solutions inside our products. Like, we are introducing luggage with charging in July: It is built in and accessible from the exterior but it’s also able to be taken with you, so you are able to bring your charger with you rather than having it stuck in your luggage back in your room.

As a brand, we are into smart solutions; but we are not into gimmicks.

Portable power is such a huge and important thing, but it does not necessarily need to be attached. For us, there’s a balance between: Are we doing it as a gimmick or are we doing it because it is smart? I think the word “innovation” sometimes gets confused with having to have a smart device.

Other ways to benefit of new technology is if there is a new machine or technique to manufacture something. Like if rather than stitching, something can be welded or pressed together…we got a lot of prototypes of bags that are not at all made by hand, but completely by machine. That is more how we use innovation. Understanding how we can engage with technology and make the products we make better.

Last question: Why should someone buy a Herschel bag compared to that of a competitor, like, let’s say an Eastpak?

The thing that runs through our design process is individuality, creativity and attention to detail. The ladder is something we are probably exceptionally good and meticulous at. There are design decisions that we take that might even get discovered by the consumer a year after owning it, something that just makes the product nicer. We want–even through our plethora of offerings–to be able to complement someone’s personal style and do the best we can for quite a reasonable price to let the end consumer love our products.

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