J.W. Hulme, the 113-year-old leather goods company brought back from the brink of extinction to become a shining star of the American-made heritage trend a decade ago, is shutting down its St. Paul manufacturing center and outsourcing manufacturing operations to Minneapolis-based Softline Brand Partners, which will likely result in products made overseas.
Twenty-eight J.W. Hulme employees were notified Wednesday morning that their jobs are being eliminated as of Nov. 16. J.W. Hulme CEO Claire Powell says all of them will be interviewed for positions with Softline, but there are no guarantees.
“It’s a tough day for everyone here,” Powell says. “It’s difficult for a very small brand to be fully vertical. We haven’t got the scale, and we haven’t been able to figure it out.”
J.W. Hulme, which sells almost exclusively online, has not been profitable since Olympus Capital Investments came on board nine years ago. “They’ve invested millions,” Powell says, adding that the company explored all options to continue manufacturing in St. Paul, including modernizing equipment, investing in increased marketing and taking on contract manufacturing work.
“Despite these efforts, we’ve concluded that manufacturing in-house simply isn’t sustainable at our current scale.”
Softline is a manufacturing and supply chain company with plants in the U.S. and overseas. Its customers include Room & Board, Love Your Melon, Allen Edmonds, and Red Wing Shoes. Powell says Softline is “looking at domestic and overseas manufacturing for J.W. Hulme, with quality being the No. 1 priority.”
Founded in 1905 as a high-end brand for anglers and outdoors enthusiasts, J.W. Hulme grew into a major catalog business, known for its durable American-made leather bags. But as competitors proliferated, styles changed, and price become more important to the average consumer than quality, sales lagged. The company was grossing just $450,000 and losing about $150,000 a year when business partners Jen Guarino and Chuck Bidwell bought it in 2003. Guarino saw the revival potential, but it wasn’t until a 2009 profile in the Wall Street Journal and the ensuing post-recession wave of interest in American heritage brands that J.W. Hulme took off, with sales rebounding to $2.5 million in 2010. The bags even landed on the shelves of designer stores around the world including Barneys New York.
But the economics never matched the hype. In 2013, Guarino relinquished her shares to Olympus Capital. She is now vice president of manufacturing for Detroit-based Shinola and is building a new Industrial Sewing and Innovation Center there to address the complexities of American manufacturing for small companies.
“It seems like a perplexing decision given the trajectory of reshoring,” Guarino says of J.W. Hulme’s announcement.
According to a 2017 report from the Reshoring Initiative—an association of American manufacturers— more than a half million manufacturing jobs have returned to the U.S. since 2007. Guarino says the fashion industry is reshoring at a fast rate than most—due to practicalities like cost, but also more abstract factors: image and brand.
Which begs the question: Will consumers be interested in a $995 J.W. Hulme leather briefcase made in China?
“We believe what people buying into (with J.W. Hulme) is the quality, the look, the leather,” Powell says. “Having a variety of sources – domestic and overseas, in Europe, China—can really offer the quality our customers expect from us at reasonable prices. We’re hoping to bring prices down a bit.”
J.W. Hulme will continue to source American leather, Powell says. “We’ll continue to offer a unique look. We’re not sacrificing quality at all.”
Heritage is not the selling point it was a decade ago, but Guarino believes consumers care more than ever about the process. “Now it’s more about knowing where the goods are coming from, a local workforce, a non-wasteful approach. You have to point out the different benefits to stay relevant beyond heritage.”
Softline will take over production of J.W. Hulme products on Nov. 19.