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Inside Steven Alan

A Conversation with Lotuff

  • June 13th, 2012 | Spring 2012

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    Lotuff’s new Zip Leather Tote has arrived in our stores and we can’t stop staring at it. Already fans of the New England brand’s classic American-made leather totes, the updated version with its zippered compartments suits us city dwellers perfectly. We recently spoke to Joe Lotuff about the multi-generational family-run company:

    All of your bags are made in your workshop in Connecticut. What are some of the challenges and rewards of crafting leather goods in America?
    My brother Rick and I started Lotuff Leather so that we could precisely do just that – manufacture world-class leather goods in New England. The biggest challenge we’ve encountered is bringing the right folks back to the table. It is not just the human skills that are rare but also the supply of quality raw materials, from leather to hardware to glue and thread.  With foreign manufacturing and imports completely transforming the marketplace for American-made goods, it has been tough to find people with the talent and mindset needed to achieve that best quality. Many of the old guard have given up their trade and moved on.

    The rewards, though, are immense. Because our workshop is close to our homes, we get to spend significant time there, intimately working on each step of the process with people who care to do the best they can. If something isn’t right with a particular piece, we make it better.  It’s a great feeling to see a finished piece come out of our shop and make its way around the world, but it’s an even greater feeling to see a few more names on our employee roll or to see a quiet Connecticut shop humming with activity again.

    Your history in manufacturing goes back three generations. What do you think each generation contributed to the evolution of your brand as it is today?
    It’s been our defining experience to grow up around American manufacturing and to live through its ups and downs. My grandfather was part of the old guard and lived through the glory days of American manufacturing. He worked out of central Massachusetts and grew a business manufacturing high-end women’s garments for stores across the Northeast. His generation contributed, in an extremely crucial and indelible way. Not only did his company manufacture a great product, but it also enabled a whole generation of immigrants to create a life in Massachusetts. Our dad enjoyed early success, and then had to deal with the difficulties of emerging foreign competition and the pressures that came with having an American manufacturing business when cheaper imports were threatening his livelihood and the livelihoods of so many others. Unfortunately, many did not survive the changes. My generation and my children’s generation seem to be ushering in a recalibration of sorts – a refocusing on American manufacturing and a rediscovered appreciation for everything associated with it – high quality, thoughtful craftsmanship, and jobs that stay right here.

    {Polishing the edge of an English Briefcase}

    We love the timelessness of your designs and the quality of the leather, which just seems to age beautifully. Can you tell us a bit about the Origins leather you use, as well as any unique part of your process/design detail that makes them last?
    The key to our specially formulated Origins leather is that it is vegetable tanned and tumbled. Vegetable tanning utilizes organic elements and ancient techniques to convert the food chain byproduct into supple, long lasting hides. Vegetable-tanned leather avoids the use of chromium, which is bad for the environment and leaves metal flecks in leather. Chromium also decreases the life of the leather by allowing it to rust, crack, and peel. Our natural materials react favorably to the animal chemistry, allowing the leather to develop an enhanced patina over time. Only 10% of the leather used for commercial purposes is vegetable tanned. Additionally, we use only solid brass hardware, extra thick bindings, and durable polyester threads. And each step of the process, from the fitting to the assembling to the finishing to the sewing, is done on the workbench. All of these factors result in our ability to guarantee each piece for life.

    {Carefully sewing thread onto the collar of a tote bag}

    Do you find that function dictates the style or is the aesthetic something you try to nail down first?
    The convergence of beauty and functionality is necessary. We start with something aesthetically pleasing and, by nature, classic. From there, we move onto thinking about how the piece would function best. Whether it’s the extra wide zipper on our duffle bags or the double-layered leather bottom on our totes, we make sure that the piece is as functional as it is beautiful. We’re creating something that’s meant to last a lifetime, so we need to make sure it actually works well.

    {Each thread on the handle collar is trimmed by hand}

    Do you have a favorite bag, or is there a style in particular that seems to inspire your design?
    Many of our styles are inspired by things from the past, whether it’s the English schoolboy book bag or a particular satchel worn by one of my favorite characters from an old Western movie or an image of Teddy Roosevelt about to explore the West with a leather bag. It’s a style that combines classic looks with a spirit of adventure. I’d say one of my favorite bags is our English Briefcase, and it seems to be a hit with everyone else too. It’s traditional without being stodgy and versatile enough to be worn with a bespoke suit or with a Steven Alan button down shirt.

    {The handle is placed by hand on the cover, then glued and hammered into place}

    How did the new Zip Tote come about?
    To be honest, it came about because of consumer demand, especially among our city-dwelling friends. While our Working Totes are quite popular, they are completely open faced. This posed a problem of practicality for those looking to secure their contents. So we designed this bag to meet their need. In addition to the zipper, the bag also has a zippered interior pocket for keys, a mobile phone, and any other small goods. It really is the perfect city, country, and shoreline bag.   We consider this a travel piece because the zipper secures its contents in an overhead bin and the bag can handle any mid-flight jostling.

    {The dies are placed by hand on the hide and then hydraulically pressed in order to ensure precise and accurate cuts}

    Your bags – particularly the duffles and totes – are great for weekend travels. What’s your favorite place in the Northeast to get away?
    It really depends on the season: Osterville is a small village on Cape Cod where I spend my weekends during the summer months. It’s a perfect getaway -  a small, quaint hamlet right on Nantucket Sound with unspoiled beaches and fun sailing. Open the back of my station wagon on any Friday afternoon and you’ll see my tote and duffle sitting there ready for a few days down there with my family. During Regatta Week, the Edgartown Yacht Club on Martha’s Vineyard is about as close to paradise as I’m likely to get. The clubhouse is a beauty. It’s an outstanding experience to sit on the harbor’s edge with a cold drink in hand, watching the boats negotiate the turbulent currents. I also enjoy spending time in Pine Plains, New York and Manchester, Vermont during the fall. During the winter, we ski close to home at Wachusett Mountain. I race there on Thursday nights. My kids have taken up skiing at young ages, so we follow them to their weekend races across the Northeast.

    Thanks to Joe for sharing his insights and photos. You can shop Lotuff bags in our Tribeca, East Hampton or Fillmore stores, and check out the new Medium Zip Top Tote in our web store.

    This entry was posted on Wednesday, June 13th, 2012 at 12:08 pm and is filed under Spring 2012. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.

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