Herschel Supply Co. co-founder Lyndon Cormack feels the same way about the brand’s 10th jubilee as his daughters, now 13 and 11, felt about their own. “I’m not nine anymore, I’m 10!”, they would shout around the house. Now that the brand best known for its stylish backpacks is sold in over 10,000 locations across 90 countries, Cormack cannot help but feel old. “We’ve already done so much”, he says. “But then I remember how young my kids still are and I realize there’s so much more we can do. We’re just getting started”.
FashionUnited met Cormack for 30 minutes at the brand’s showroom in Amsterdam to talk about just that: what it still aims to achieve ten years after Cormack left his job at Vans to start a new business alongside his brother, Jamie, with whom he shared the opinion that most backpacks were “boring”. The brand skyrocketed thanks to Little America, a backpack style featuring two straps in the front. Between 2011 and 2013, the brand experienced an astonishing growth of 5,000 percent. Little America in black is still the company’s best selling product, but gone are the days when all Herschel Supply sold was backpacks. Although they still account for 50 percent of the company’s sales, Herschel’s product offering now includes wallets, luggage, apparel, headwear and travel accessories.
After securing a strong wholesale presence (9,000 of those 10,000 retail points are wholesalers), the brand is betting its future on branded stores, preferably wholly-owned. The first one was opened last year in Vancouver, Canada, the same place where it all began. Will these stores lead to another period of mindblowing growth? Only time will tell. Between 2016 and 2017, the company grew 20 percent.
Herschel Supply is currently present in 90 countries. In your view, what is it about Herschel’s style that makes the brand popular among consumers from so many different cultures?
We concentrate on the end consumer as a common thread that allows us to have a diverse business: there’s a culture-craving consumer that likes to explore cities, take the scenic route, and explore new cultural happenings such as gallery openings. Whether it’s by tackling modern travel solutions or offering a modern outdoor look, we’re just helping those people who love design and attention to detail, who love simple products with a modern twist. Streetwear, action sports and utility fashion are the pillars of our style.
Herschel is best known for its backpacks, but the brand has also expanded to more categories, including luggage and apparel. Can you tell us more about the decision to expand?
The foundation of our business was definitely that we thought backpacks were boring, and we wanted to make sure they weren’t boring anymore. We became quite famous for that, which was a sort of gateway allowing us to do other things. The earliest things we went into were adjacencies to the bag. Even when we got into apparel, we were still tackling travel solutions: packable windbreakers, rainwear… It was almost accessory-based apparel.
We kept our offering quite tight at first, but now we’ve expanded to logowear, for example, for the fans of the brand who want to be a part of the Herschel story in more ways. But we’re still very travel inspired, we’re still focused on this idea of aspirational travel. More and more consumers move around the world, so we want to make sure they have a good trip, no matter if it’s a short trip or long haul.
Does Herschel Supply intend to expand into more product categories in the near future?
I think so. Our goal is to own the modern traveler. When I look at the bag space for travelers in general, I think the one spot that is missing is this idea of how people are moving around, whether it’s commuting, biking, taking an Uber or checking into Airbnb, taking an EasyJet or Ryanair and flipping off to a low-priced destination… There’s no brand that really owns this idea of modern travel. I think there will be more and more products in time, we need to double down our energy on figuring out how to produce solutions for the consumer who’s bouncing around from place to place in search of cool new things.
Herschel Supply is also known for its frequent collaborations with other brands. Is there any collaboration in the pipeline that you can already tell us about?
If two mutual parties can come together and tell an interesting story, then it’s the perfect time for a collaboration. Oftentimes we see people just throwing logos at other people’s products, but we’re trying to do something broader than that. We also try to get out of our capabilities sometimes: for instance, we’ll be dropping three New Balance shoes in the coming months. We’re also working on a fun little playful collection with Hello Kitty, there’s a Casio G-Shock watch coming out and a project with Oakley. We reinvented one of their sunglasses.
Herschel works with an extensive network of over 9,000 wholesalers. Any tips for fashion entrepreneurs interested in expanding their wholesale reach?
Many people try to figure out how they’re gonna sell to wholesale, how they can best approach retailers, but if you rewind all that and focus instead on how to solve a need for the end consumer who’s shopping in all those different places, then retailers will come to you as your popularity grows. Focus on having a good product that the consumer wants. It’s all about working with momentum. Any sports analogy would say you should try to win a lot more than you lose, but the teams and brands that win the most are always trying to figure out why they won and what they can learn from that to move forward.
In addition to its wholesale network, Herschel is moving towards a model of branded stores and wholly-owned stores. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
We have about 70 partner stores in Asia, that’s how we got our start at retail. Generally, they’re small format, spanning over 50 to 120 square meters. Most recently, we’ve opened a couple stores in Vancouver, a flagship in downtown and then a store a little bit further out. Yeah, I think it’s important for us to pivot retail, not that we’re trying to abandon wholesale by any means, but it’s important to allow people into your home. When you get invited into a home, you learn a lot about a person, you go like “oh, that’s what they care about”. So, when you come into our stores, you figure out a lot of things we care about. You see that we love art, architecture and design, we love experience… I think that’s what retail can do best. In the next five years we’re going to be expanding our owned retail network quite rapidly.
Which markets will this retail expansion focus on?
The US and Canada, for sure. As we perfect the model, we’re definitely going to roll it out in a number of key spots in Europe as well.
If you allow us to ask a nosy question… You founded the company alongside your brother. How is it to work with family?
For us, it just works. I wouldn’t say that every family should work together, but for Jamie and I, it really works. We understand each other’s strengths. Jamie is better at attention to detail, while I’m more into the bigger picture, so we leverage off that. Because we are brothers, there isn’t a lot of sugar coating going on: if I don’t like something or he doesn’t like something, we know it right away. It’s not like talking to someone else in the office: “well, maybe we could look at this from a different angle…”. No, we’re like: “f**k that, it doesn’t work”.
We’re friends first, brothers second, and business partners third. Of course there are times when we disagree, but it’s minutes, not hours or days. Sometimes we have “get out of here” moments, but it’s a brother thing, I would do the same if I didn’t work for him. I mean, with him! [laughs] He'll want to frame this article now!
Herschel is turning 10 years old. What are you most proud of?
I guess the thing I’m most proud of is bringing people together, the way the team collaborates, because Hershel started with just the two of us. Sometimes, standing in front of everyone, I think: “wow, this is pretty cool, look how many people we’ve brought together towards a common goal”.
What do you expect from the next 10 years?
I think the brand will exist forever, which may sound a bit crazy but when we go to consumers and ask them that question, they answer “yes, of course they’ll be around forever”. In the next five years we want to take a little bit more control into our hands in terms of more robust e-commerce operations, especially in Europe, and more direct-to-consumer stores that we’ll be operating ourselves. We want to invest in storytelling and customer experience because there are still so many people that may have not even heard of us yet. “Oh yeah, that bag with the straps and the little logo”. We still have a lot of work to do on that front. We want to be the largest and most impactful backpack brand in the world and a robust brand in the travel space.
Picture: courtesy of Herschel Supply and Herschel Supply Facebook