Frank Clegg is a Fall River, Massachusetts–based artisan who makes classic leather bags and accessories. He has been making bags and leather goods for almost 45 years and has a unique perspective on the US manufacturing and artisan culture.
Frank Clegg is a Fall River, Massachusetts–based artisan who makes classic leather bags and accessories. During the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, he designed and made handbags, briefcases, luggage, and accessories that were sold at around 200 different leather shops (including Cole Haan). But the rise of offshore manufacturing, luxury brands, and mass retail saw things change, and products made in the USA lost their appeal as people hunted either for status or low prices. Clegg, however, has stuck to his guns and has focused on quality and bags that are built to last nearly a lifetime.
I have always felt that technology and the internet have helped increase the size and scope of artisans like him. Meanwhile the ever-changing array of tech devices also has created a stronger demand for leather goods, since we need pouches and pockets to hold those gadgets.
As someone who spends most of my time in the digital world, it is not surprising that I am drawn to analog things — from vinyl records to mechanical watches to leather goods. I have admired Frank Clegg’s work from afar, and when a chance recently arose to chat with him, I embraced the opportunity.
Om Malik: I was reading your bio, and I didn’t know that you had done an MBA and you’re not from a leather‑goods family. So what’s the obsession with leather and making leather goods? How did that come about?
Frank Clegg: One year for Christmas, my girlfriend, who happens to be my wife now, bought me a handful of leather tools. I always liked working with my hands. I always made things out of wood, metal, glass, whatever. Plastic. Anything.
When I was in Boy Scouts, I made leather belts and things like that. I always enjoyed that. All through college, all through graduate school, I did that. When I was in graduate school, I had a briefcase that I made. A lot of people said, “Where’d you get that?” Not too many kids carried briefcases, although I was in business school, so it wasn’t totally unusual. But it was rarer than at most colleges. They’d have a backpack or something.
When I graduated, I was going to job interviews. I remember going to two job interviews in one day. I think it was IBM that offered me a little as a consultant for them. When I walked out I said, “I said stuff in there just to try to get the job, but I didn’t mean it.” I said to myself, “Am I going to have to do that my whole life?” It felt weird. I knew I was saying it because I was trying to sell myself, but I said, “I don’t want to go through my whole life doing that. I don’t want to be trying to make somebody believe something that’s not true.”
I threw my resume in the trash that day, on the way out. I said, “I’m going to do this for one year and see what happens.” I did it. I thought, “I don’t know. Maybe someday I’ll get a job. I don’t know.”
I’ve been very lucky, but I’ve worked very hard. I’m a good designer, and I worked at a lot of companies and with a lot of people. That’s one of my strong points.
I also like to make a nice product. I like people to be happy with our product. That drives me more than anything, when someone says, “I just got your bag. I’m in heaven, I’m in bag heaven.”
They make these comments, and you can’t buy that. You can have all the money in the world, but comments mean more because that’s something you can’t buy. That little response from somebody like that, that’s so special for us. Sometimes I try to share it with everybody that works with them. I say, “Hey, this guy called up and he just loves that bag that you did the other day.” I think they feel good, too, about that.
It’s more than just the job. We’re making stuff that people love. I know, like, when the president bought a bag from us, everybody was entertained about that. I couldn’t say anything at the time that he did, because he didn’t endorse us or anything like that. Then they put the picture up and he sent me a note saying, “It’s public now so if you want to do something you can.” That’s when I showed it.
I thought that was very nice of him to buy a piece from us, and I like knowing that he was buying American, supporting what we’re trying to build up in this country again.
OM: The current president? That’s cool.
FC: Yeah, Mr. Obama. He wanted a bag, I guess, and they called me about it, and we made one. They bought it. I didn’t give it to them. I pay taxes [laughs]. I’ve done things for him before through other companies. I’ve made products that represented him and a bag for Mrs. Obama, too. That was in the beginning of their first term. We made a few pieces.
But this one he uses, because we have a couple of pictures on our Instagram—there’s a black-and-white and a color photo. The color one came out first, and the black-and-white one came out about a month ago. I really like the black-and-white one because he’s alone in that photo and the briefcase is on the floor right in front of him. It’s so nice. It’s almost like an ad.
OM: I have one of your old bags, which I bought from eBay a while ago. I still use it every time I go on a short trip. What I like about your products is the ability to last forever. That said, people can easily buy stuff from Italy and France and England, and of course, there is Chinese‑manufactured stuff. Who makes decent stuff from those places? These days the hot item seems to be the iPad covers more than the bags.
In Italy, primarily, there are some very good craftsmen out there, the technicians. France, some very good technicians for products. In Spain, there are good ones. I’m sure every country has its share. We’re one of the few countries that has kind of let that go. We seem to have given up everything. Everybody’s capable, everybody in every country is smart and can do stuff. They have to have the mentality that they want to make the best, or they just want to make a product and sell it. That’s the difference. I’m sure every country has that ability to do something.
OM: I see a lot of uniformity in designs and how products look. I am always amazed by that.
FC: Some people say, “Why don’t you just not do it as nice and sell it for less?” I say, “Then I would be doing what everyone else does.” I don’t really want to do that. Somebody else already does it. Let them do it, and let me do what makes me happy and what makes my customer happy.
I’ve always tried to be cutting‑edge in everything that we do. I try to be ahead of the competition. I like to think I’m a forward-thinker. I’m never satisfied with what I do. I’m always looking to be better. Last year we invested in this antique cutting machine. For us, it’s very good, because I can rate a lot of designs. I’m continuously designing.
We might make 15 designs a year. I don’t have to like cutting guides, but we have to digitize, and that’s a little bit of a process. I can make a design in the morning, give it to my son, he digitizes it, and we’re cutting in a couple of hours. We could be making that bag that day. That, to me, is almost like what the internet does on the other end. But for a lot of people, the system wouldn’t be good, because it’s too complicated. They don’t get enough designs, so it’s cost‑prohibitive.
I don’t try to copy anyone else’s [design]. I never have. It doesn’t interest me. I figure, if I’m going to make something that looks like somebody else’s, all of a sudden I got all that competition. It doesn’t make any sense to me.
If I make something different, then I don’t really have any competition. Either people like what I do, or they don’t like what I do. If they like it, that’s great. I don’t have someone that’s directly doing what I do, and it’s something that’s nice at the same time. That works out well for us.
My goal in my business is always to make the best. We try to find the absolute finest leathers and then craft our bags, and we put as much time and effort into the bag as it takes.
Whatever the price is, that’s the price. If our bags were made by one of the giants, they’d be $3,000 for one of our $1,000 bags, easily.
I try to be as fair as possible. I look at the bags and I see the prices, and I think, “Wow. That’s a lot of money.” We have customers that bought bags from us 40 years ago—when we first started—and they still use them. When I first started making some of these cases, someone said, “You’re never going to sell them another one.” But I did. I sold them maybe two more for their kids. When they bought something that’s lasted that long, they said, “I want my kids to have the same pleasure in a bag.”
I’d rather make less product and make it better, so that my customers come back after 35, 40 years, as they are now. That’s a really nice feeling. There were some difficult times for all of us when everything went overseas, when everything went to China.
OM: It seems like technology helped automate a lot of industries and moved it overseas. Much of the artisanal work was pushed aside, but now we are seeing a resurgence, thanks to the internet. People are finding and reconnecting with folks like you and your neighbors at Alden shoes.
In a way, the internet has helped revive some of the traditional stuff that we were known for in this country. Do you think you benefit from the internet, and more and more young people are discovering the quality work you do?
FC: Absolutely. The thing about the internet is that it allows us to get some retail money. That, in turn, helps us to be able to continue to do the best we can and not ever have to try to compromise. If we had to do just wholesale, our prices would be higher, because it would cost us more to make everything. The internet definitely is so much easier than when we used to have to make the catalogs up and then the reps would be out there.
It works the same way. It’s just the vehicle is different. The fact that we can just take a product, make it in the morning, put it on Instagram, put it on our website, and we could be selling it the next day. Or we could sell it that day. It’s crazy.
It’s just so powerful. A lot of people, they’ve never experienced anything else. They say, “It’s so tough, the internet.” I think to myself, “It’s so easy compared to everything else that I’ve ever had to do.” Taking all the catalogs, printing them up, and sending them out. Waiting for responses.
The internet has really made a lot of people who wouldn’t be able to afford to get out there and market themselves to get exposure. I think that’s important, because I’ve always said, “We don’t know who the next guitarists are.” Like Clapton or whoever you can think of. We probably don’t know who they are because they haven’t been discovered.
You do have more of a chance of being discovered on the internet. Maybe you did a video and you played the guitar and someone says, “Wow, this guy’s better than anybody I’ve ever seen.” You may never be able to invite contracts to come your way, but YouTube blew it up for you. For us, now, instead of opening up stores, the door opens up all over the world. Customers don’t have to go to physical places.
OM: Has the internet helped you reach new audiences, or do you still mainly go through your traditional channels?
FC: Has the internet helped me in my sales and everything? Yeah, because the exposure’s so great. At any given time, you can be on Google Analytics, looking at sometimes five or six countries at one time, looking at your product.
It would be so hard to get that exposure on the ground. You’d have to have people representing you all over the world. That gets very costly, and only certain kinds of companies can afford to do that.
We love getting into social networking. We like meeting people. I get to talk to people. I get a lot of phone calls from Singapore. People from Singapore tend to call me, more so than most countries. It’s so interesting that they find such interest in what we do.
It makes me real proud that someone would take the time out to make a long‑distance call like that and want to chat about a product that they like. That makes me directly connected to that customer, pretty much forever, because when they email, they just call me Frank. That’s what it is. It’s that connection.
They feel good about it, and I feel good about it. It’s really nice. It’s like the relationships I used to have with my retailers, years ago. We had 100, 200—whatever accounts that we’ve had. We were friendly with everybody. We got along with everybody. It was fun.
OM: How much time do you spend on your social media? Do you do Instagram, or do your sons help you?
FC: I read emails and look at people’s sites. But my kids do a lot of that [social media] stuff. I think my son Andrew took a photo of a notebook or something today. He’ll probably put it up later or something. A work in progress.
My older son is here full-time now. He’s been learning to do the cutting right now. I’ll have him do that for about a year, and then I’ll bring him into the next phase of construction.
Next year my youngest son, Ian, is going to be coming into the company. He already does stuff for us. Ian took all the photographs on our new website. He used to watch me, and then one day, he picked the camera up and he started doing it. He Photoshops them. He does everything he has to do to clean them up.
People are very interested in how things are made. I know I am, when I go into the manufacturing facilities. Not leather companies but different things. I’m always interested in how something is made, because when I see that, it makes me think about what I do and how many of those things I can take advantage of in what I do. I look at people and what they do. I follow you on Instagram. I know you’re a fountain pen collector. I love that. I’m a big fountain pen collector.
OM: I didn’t know that.
FC: I buy them on eBay. I restore them. I buy new pens, too. I’ve had a fascination with that since I was a kid.
I never liked to write. My mother, somebody—we had a fountain pen in the house. I started to write with it. I said, “This is the best thing in the world.” I’ve always used fountain pens. I have tons of them. I buy a lot of the old ones: 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1800s. They’re all restored. They’re like brand-new. I buy some new ones, too, occasionally. I love that. I saw you had the Montblanc the other day.
OM: That’s the only pen I have, and it’s a very expensive pen. I just bought it for my 40th birthday. I turned 40, and I said, “I’m going to buy that.” I recently got one made from some folks in Japan, from Nakaya. It took a while to get that. That was something I really wanted handmade for me. I went for that as a little luxury, but why not?
FC: To me, my pens are more than just little trinkets. They’re like my friends. It’s kind of weird, but if someone likes pens, they realize that you can have a lot of fun with a tool. That’s what it is. It’s just a tool.
If you hold it a lot and you appreciate it, it’s no different than a nice watch or something like that. I love pens. I don’t have either one of those brands. I love the Japanese pens, too.
OM: When you look back over the 40 years or so that you’ve been in this industry, how have people’s relationships with bags and leather goods changed, especially men, from briefcases? What do you think is more in fashion or more trendy these days with guys?
FC: I find that young people want what their grandfathers had, not what their fathers had. They want classic, beautiful, traditional products that they’re going to keep forever. That’s the beauty of right now. They want to make a smart purchase, and they’re willing to spend the money on something that they like.
That [ethos] hasn’t been around since the seventies. When I started in the seventies, people went to a leather shop and there were no big-name brands. They bought what they wanted, and a lot of people still use some of those products today. Men definitely like heritage, high‑quality products. That’s why companies like Alden have done well, because they’ve stuck to their guns and they’ve already made a good product.
OM: Are people buying more messenger bags, briefcases? Do you have some concepts of what people want to carry today? Has that changed, or is it still the same?
FC: Things have changed. Years ago a lot of young guys didn’t really want to carry a traditional briefcase. They would carry a cloth briefcase, like a sports, hunting‑based product. Maybe an L.L. Bean–type briefcase or something. Now they want nice products: They want it for show, to look nice. It doesn’t have to be a briefcase that looks like it’s perfect all the time. Actually they like the way briefcases age. That’s why they like the leather that we use.
OM: It’s funny how all this technology today like the iPad and Kindle and iPhone are actually creating a demand for more organic stuff, or more analog stuff. The kind of stuff you make. We have so many more gadgets to carry, so many more gadgets to cover up with leather [laughs].
FC: What I’ve never done with my bags, or tried not to do, anyway, is never tried to make compartments for certain products. Now if you look inside one of those handbags, a younger person will say, “Hey, Ma, how come there’s a baby bottle pocket inside the bag?” It was a cell phone pocket. It’s from when cell phones were big. It’s so funny to see those pockets now.
Still, because our products last so long, I try not to date them by putting certain compartments in them. I try to just put useful compartments, and then I’ll make accessories that accommodate those high‑tech items, like an iPad case or little zipper pouches to carry the cords and the cables or whatever.Then they can change after a while and it’ll be a useful product, always.
OM: In your mind, outside of the U.S., which companies make good products?
FC: Shoes or leather goods?
OM: Either. What are the companies you respect that are small or independent but worth taking a look at?
FC: I’ve seen some products made by some smaller companies out of Japan that I liked. I relate to some of those products because I think they think like I do.
I’ve seen some products out of—I don’t know if it was out of Belgium or Austria, I saw a bag that was made by somebody that I liked. When I think back, the thought that comes to my mind is, “I wish I made that.”
When I say that to myself, that’s a really nice product, I think. Sometimes I might see a style I like but the quality is not there. There were some really good companies in England, although I think they’re not up to what they used to be. Italy always has good designers. Spain, France. There are some good people that might’ve worked for Hermes.
Hermes does some interesting things. I think they’re one of the better ones that are doing commercial products. They’re outrageously expensive, of course, so they should be very nice. But they have some interesting things, not so much their regular line but the oddball things that they come out with. It’s nice they do that.
It’s daring. They came out with a $15,000 baseball glove.
I don’t really care, but I think it’s interesting that they do it. They step out of the box more than most companies. I appreciate that they want to throw that stuff out there to get somebody’s attention. That’s a good way to be. We always try to do that, try to come up with things that nobody expects from us. We have a lot of new products coming out this next year, so it will be interesting.