As you might have guessed from the title, Frank Clegg’s bags are not cheap. Affordable, perhaps. An investment, absolutely. Worth it? One hundred per cent. If you’re going to pay three to four figures for a backpack or a briefcase, one expects it to last you to infinity and beyond. Clegg doesn’t disappoint. At its most elevated, there are a few things one can be sure of when it comes to luxury leather goods; exquisite craftsmanship (check), unparalleled quality materials (check), a genuine heritage and history (check), and, if you’re lucky, an intangible yet undeniable passion and commitment in the people behind the product (check, check, check).
During a rare moment of quiet in the firm’s Massachusetts workshop, I managed to catch Frank’s son Ian. He explained that what started out as a hobby after Frank’s wife bought him a wallet-making kit, soon turned into a business that snowballed with every product he made – his sons’ friends wanted them, and so did their parents. This, Ian tells me, hasn’t changed. “I have kids coming out of college who email as saying ‘I’m ready to buy my first briefcase, I’ve been saving up!’ and then I have clients who buy ten bags a year and gift them out”. It’s not unusual for customers to bring in the bags they’ve had for thirty, forty years, needing a well-worn lock to be replaced so that they can pass it on to their child.
Surpassing the title of humble hand-me-down, these are heirlooms of the highest order, and everything about Frank Clegg’s design embraces this trans-generational appeal. “All our hardwear is custom made for us, and our locks are from Amiet, a Swiss company. We researched the best locks in the world, and through trial and error have found the best” Ian says. The hardwear is seriously tough, surviving daily use and braving conditions in all corners of the world. The Frank Clegg ‘man’ is hard to pin down; the professional, the traveller, the sartorialist – aren’t these one and the same today? Ian agrees; “It’s so hard to say – I feel like he appreciates a well-made product, and doesn’t necessarily care what other people think about what he has, it’s not like he’s into designer labels or using his purchases just to show off, he appreciates the thing for what it is and the story behind it.” The leather, too, tells a story – unlike cheaper leather of a lower quality, Frank Clegg’s use of gentle vegetable tanning allows the leather to retain a more natural effect and take on a patina as it is used and loved, developing its own unique personality in the process.
"“All the designs are an extension of who he is”, Ian says of his father’s vision."
From the top-secret European tannery they employ, to the custom made hardwear, there is serious consideration, research and commitment to the people that bring together the products. Hand-crafted in their Massachusetts workshop, the FC team openly embraces top of the range machinery to assist their exceptionally skilled craftsmen. “If we don’t, the price point goes up and the quality goes down, so both the product and the client suffers. Why would we do that?” I don’t have an answer, and with all the most important parts of construction being completed by some of the most highly-skilled artisans in the country, who could argue? “Hand-cutting and some of the other skills are truly lost arts in many areas, so we’re lucky to have an incredible team who are very much about the brand and love what they do. It’s nice to see they appreciate what they’re doing, and it also means we rarely have hiccups, because there’s a personal level of quality control at every level.”
The designs are personal, too. “All the designs are an extension of who he is”, Ian says of his father’s vision. If anyone can bring back the backpack with aplomb, it’s someone whose mind-set has never been ‘how can we make the most money?’ but ‘how can we make the best bags?’ Now, Ian tells me they are stocked more than ever in “independently owned stores that have an appreciation for the brand. That way they can explain exactly why we do the things we do, and that’s very important for us and the client.” One of their most noteworthy clients is indeed the (now sadly former) President of the United States. Despite the fact that Obama probably has six men to carry all his paperwork, he has carried a Frank Clegg briefcase on many occasions, which speaks highly of his affection for the hand-crafted leather and American heritage.
As for his role, Ian reels off a list of the things he does within the company – marketing, accounts, PR and online sales all seem to be his bag (excuse the pun), whilst his brother takes on the enormous job of the cutter in the workshop, and his father “can make the whole bag from start to finish”. I challenge anyone to come away from a conversation like ours without their own family feeling rather inadequate, but it’s a testament to Frank’s unrelenting passion for the business that it seems to have passed down to be quite literally in the DNA of his sons and the stunning leatherwear they produce.