Just months after making the difficult decision to cease manufacturing in St. Paul, 114-year-old leather goods company J.W. Hulme plans to stay visible to hometown fans with a new retail store on Grand Avenue.
J.W. Hulme signs are up in the windows of the old Garden of Eden space at Victoria’s Crossing. The store will open by early April.
After years of failing to turn a profit despite generous media attention that made J.W. Hulme symbol of the American made heritage movement, which came into fashion around 2010, the company, owned by Olympus Capital Investments, made the decision to outsource manufacturing to Minneapolis-based Softline Brand Partners, a manufacturing and supply chain company with plants in the U.S. and overseas. J.W. Hulme will vacate its longtime production facility on West Seventh Street in St. Paul at the end of March.
That building housed corporate offices and a retail showroom as well as manufacturing. CEO Claire Powell wanted to avoid being out of touch with local brand fans for long.
“Being a local company is important to us,” Powell says. “We were pleased able to find a location in the heart of St. Paul, where we belong, to anchor the business. It’s a great showcase for the brand.”
There’s space in the basement where the corporate team, which includes seven full-time employees, will office. The brand's design and merchandising directors may work right in the store.
“We want it to be an experiential place—not just a selling place,” Powell says. Expect a sofa, hot coffee, and a monogramming station where customers can get leather goods monogrammed while they wait.
Behind the scenes, Powell says she is navigating new realities, like minimum order quantities. No longer able to walk into the workroom and request a new style, “planning the business is very different,” she says. “We want to make sure our customers are not disrupted.”
Products on the shelf when the store opens will be a mix of goods made in St. Paul, and beyond. “The key is transparency,” Powell says. “We’ve had some really positive reactions from customers, and some who have told us they’ll only buy if it’s American made. I totally respect that.”
Decisions on what to manufacture domestically versus overseas will depend on quantity, timing, prices, and capabilities. “ We want to make sure we’re relevant, up to date—not just in look but functionality,” Powell says. Updated design details will include the pockets to fit today’s tech gear and improved bag linings. “It’s all coming along—it just takes longer than I’d like.”
Additional J.W. Hulme stores are a possibility down the road, but for now, Powell says, she wants to focus on theis transition and on getting the messaging and experience right in St. Paul.
As for J.W. Hulme’s legendary sample sales? Powell says she’ll find a way for those to continue—if not at the Grand Avenue store, than elsewhere in town.