Joe Lotuff has been talking for an hour about Porsches, Indiana Jones’s luggage and treating people well. It’s a warm but overcast morning, and we are seated at a table near large windows in the Lotuff Leather factory in Providence, Rhode Island. Also present is the company’s creative director, Lindy McDonough, and brand liaison Greg Moniz. Joe holds up a brand new $750 leather tote sold by his eponymous company and says, “This is the worst this bag is ever going to look. It’s just going to get better with age. At some point, it’s going to be…’wow.'”
I’ve been at the factory for a couple hours and since setting foot in the compact, viscerally energetic, open floor-plan building, I can’t stop thinking about another bag: the Triumph Briefcase. It’s shaped differently than any briefcase I’ve seen, but I can’t figure out why. Moniz explains, “Most briefcases are widest and bulkiest at the bottom, [but the Triumph is] slimmest at the bottom and widens as it reaches the top. This creates a … slim profile but a shockingly spacious and organized interior.” There’s something about the feet too — that darker, thick rib of layered leather, smoothed and sturdy, like a sculpted callous. When I pick one up, the handles are satisfying to grip and it feels very heavy. The color is as rich as Willy Wonka’s chocolate river. I can understand the $1,200-plus price tag. But how can Joe Lotuff think it’ll ever get any better?
Most products are meant to be perfect immediately at the time of purchase: they’re meant to function flawlessly, look as good as promised and be worth the investment. Lotuff Leather has been an independent maker for five years (since the leather goods brand Lotuff & Clegg split into the companies Lotuff Leather and Frank Clegg) and its products are definitely all those things. Hold a new No. 12 Weekender, the bag that Lotuff Leather is best known for, and you’ll find yourself smugly gushing over the quality, the fragrant leather and all the compliments you receive (disclaimer: I own one myself).
“The design process in what we’re doing is … based around ‘how are they going to look 10 years from now,'” McDonough says. It’s “a lack of preciousness,” Joe adds. “That’s the difference between an old Ferrari and an old Porsche — why the old Porsche is much more popular. You can use it. You don’t have to worry about it depreciating; in fact, you don’t give a shit if it’s got 300,000 [miles on it]. It’s a point of pride. I think that’s a really cool thing.”
One by one, everyone around the table calls up cell phone pictures to demonstrate what a used — read: loved — Lotuff bag looks like. Moniz’s backpack has two years of daily use; McDonough shows off a ten-year-patina tote; Joe tells of his wife’s red bag that was forgotten outside overnight and filled with rain, then dried upside-down over a sink and entered back into regular tennis gear-lugging duty without a hitch. And to that end, these leather goods are designed not so much with the future in mind, but with strong consideration for longevity. “I think we make leather bags that aren’t necessarily defined by a time or an era. They could be here 10 years from now,” McDonough says.
There is a secret to what makes a beautiful Lotuff bag like the Triumph, however: it’s not the leather and it’s not the concept of a product’s longevity.
Part of that longevity is due to the process: in the case of the Triumph Briefcase, each small batch of the product will take two weeks for the 15 artisan workers to finish. The other longevity factor is materials used; namely, uncorrected, vegetable-tanned leather. Lotuff selects only the thickest, hardiest hides that have been left as-is, meaning scratches, scars, bite marks and more are all present and must be cut around. From what I gather, this is not easy. “It’s a pain in the ass to cut non-corrected leather,” Joe says. “Other people are correcting their freaking leather; they’re putting a stamp on top of the whole hide so it all looks like perfect grain. But what happens is, over time, the stamp, when it gets handled, sort of fades away and all the imperfections start rising to the surface.” Uncorrected leather, Joe tells me, is “the secret.”
From where I’m sitting, the real a secret to what makes a beautiful Lotuff bag like the Triumph, however, is not the leather and it’s not the concept of a product’s longevity. Nor is it the “22 individual cutting dies, 61 individual pieces, and over 100 processes” that go into fashioning that unique briefcase. My takeaway is that Lotuff’s secret is the people who work for the company — those 15 artisans toiling away a few feet past our conference table. Indeed, most of our conversation revolves around not leather bags at all, but these folks humming along with Aretha Franklin on the radio. These laser-focused artists delicately, precisely painting and buffing the edges of a single briefcase; or patiently stitching each piece together; or cutting the pieces in the first place; or marking the leather to be cut. These folks are literally locals artists who work near-full-time at Lotuff and produce their own art the rest of the time. Most are women; most are college-educated; most, like McDonough, have graduated from art schools such as the Rhode Island School of Design. They are all guaranteed at least 32 hours of work per week, qualifying them for fully-covered health care and other benefits.
This, to me, speaks of longevity just as much as a picture of a luxury-grade, decade-old leather tote, and Joe Lotuff echoes my thoughts: “You expect … sewing machines just lined up and people wailing on them like a sweatshop. [But] you come in here and it’s … an artisan model. What we really are is an incubator for future entrepreneurs. They see this as a path.” They see this as more than a job, is what he’s getting at.
It’s clear from his shift in tone — softer, lower, now without a hint of bombast or irony — that Joe, along with McDonough and Moniz, is almost in awe of the Lotuff crew. He continuously and, I think, subconsciously, expresses gratitude, almost waving it off, like it’s assumed and thoroughly normal that the owner of a company has deep respect for his employees. “The people that [Lindy] graduated with from RISD kind of put this company together,” he says. “What we have is just an incredibly industrious group of young people who have been trained to take a product from concept to the store floor. [They have] a characteristic that makes them want to do something great.”
These folks are literally locals artists who work near-full-time at Lotuff and produce their own art the rest of the time. They are all guaranteed at least 32 hours of work per week, qualifying them for fully-covered health care and other benefits.
And in the end, that does relate to the product — not just because the people who create Triumph Briefcase masterpieces care about their work or value their positions more than a corporate factory drone might. Joe swears that customers want to know that the people behind the products they love are treated well and valued. Shoppers, he says, are “being a little bit political: does this company share the same values that I do? Do they care about people? Do they care about their community? Do they give back? Do they treat people with respect? Do they make a great product? All these things are now super important to the way people are spending their money. A $1,300 bag to most people is shocking. I mean, it’s a week’s pay. Not everybody can do it.” But those who do? “I like to think it’s about is being likable: do people like what you do?”
The answer. on many levels, is yes. Moniz tells me, admittedly with deserved marketing gusto, that the Triumph Briefcase is so named because it is, in a way, a triumph. It’s innovative and different and really special because of how it’s made and, most of all, because of who makes it. Lotuff Leather is not the only company making high-end goods out of cows. But the fact that you can walk into their factory and look directly at artists practicing their talents in a place where personhood is considered just as much as a smooth leather edge is objectively special. That’s the secret. And, in Joe’s words, that’s a pretty cool thing.