Chalk streams, walking boots, country hotels, cricket pavilions and Land Rovers… all iconic imagery providing the timeless British backdrop to the timeless British bag – the Chapman. Durability, reliability and an easy-going elegance, neatly sum up a Chapman bag as well as classic British design and craftsmanship, which Chapman possesses, in, well, bagfuls.
Synonymous with outdoor pursuits, Chapman bags are actually designed for all manners of business, leisure and travel pursuits, and their customers range from the young to the not-so-young, field sports enthusiasts, travellers, fashionistas and celebrities alike. There is an ‘old school’ feel to their bags, in terms of heritage, authenticity and quality, together with a constant evolution in design which results in a modern-day reinvention of a much-loved classic.
This reinvention is achieved by merging the traditional with the contemporary. Chapman use traditional high quality locally-sourced materials (Yorkshire wool, Lancashire canvas, Borders tweed & Kentish leather) and highly-skilled Cumbrian craftsman, together with a contemporary international outlook, selling all over the world as a premium brand, being one of only a few remaining handcrafted bag manufacturers in the UK.
Having fallen in love with Chapman bags to the extent that he bought the company when original owner, John Chapman, retired, Daniel Chamier explains, in his own words, how Chapman remains an iconic British brand. We hope you enjoy the interview…
Firstly, for those readers who aren’t familiar with Chapman, please can you explain what you do?
Chapman started life as a manufacturer of fishing and shooting bags. We still make these kind of bags the traditional way as part of our heritage collection, although most of our customers now buy our products for travel, business and leisure. We still make all our products in our factory in Carlisle, Cumbria.
You have recently rebranded Chapman, with a new logo, new website and new non-sport ranges. Is the business moving away from its fishing and shooting roots, or are you able to build the business around both traditional/country and contemporary styles?
Our new logo introduced two years ago is actually crossed fishing hooks, so really we are going back to our roots in field sports. This will always be an important part of our brand DNA. From the start, though, we actually sold more bags for business and travel markets than field sports, as that is the nature of the size of the different markets. From our perspective, heritage is more important now than ever, and that comes through in all our bags.
Can you define the uniqueness of your products and why they are so well-received?
We are one of the very few authentically British made products with a real back-story in our space. They are robust, honest bags. You can’t buy that with the vast majority of brands and it resonates powerfully with customers.
Fishing and shooting bags have to be robust and made to the highest quality otherwise they will fail. Our bags are bought by men and women who want classically-styled, authentically British-made products that they know won’t let them down.
We’ve also developed our range of contemporary styles, using more modern shapes and materials for people who don’t have a field sports background, but nevertheless want a classically-made, authentically British bag.
Our customers range from older people, who are our heritage customers, as well as younger people who like the qualities and values that our products represent. We feel we’re not just selling products, we’re actually selling values – British values – such as reliability, common sense, sense of humour, quality and authenticity; all these values are reflected in our bags. People who buy Chapman products are buying the real thing; the best.
From where are you getting your stylistic inspiration for the new contemporary ranges?
Mainly our field sports heritage as interpreted by some really excellent designers we work with, both in-house and externally. When we brief designers, part of the brief is to have some linkage with our history and heritage, but there has to be an evolution – you can see it’s a Chapman bag through its materials, fitting and styling, even if it’s designed in a different way to earlier designs.
Your new online bespoke bag offering is quite unusual; can you explain how it works?
Basically you can build a bespoke bag online in loads of different specs, see it live online and buy it! Cool.
Bespoke isn’t completely new to us – in fact we’ve always done a lot of bespoke work for clients, asking us try out different things, giving them an opportunity to see how it works. The key thing is we have a factory in the UK and we can do it all here whereas others that are buying-in their products from China, for instance, don’t have this adaptability.
The Borders is an area which has a particular significance for Chapman. Can you explain the connection between Chapman and The Borders?
We have always made bags here and our staff come from this area. Anyone who has ever come here will know what a special place it is. In my opinion, the Borders and Lake District are the most beautiful parts of England, and the inhabitants are a pretty unique bunch of people. It’s a fantastically authentic and unspoilt atmosphere, and it’s not surprising why so many people choose to retire up here!
There is so much rich history associated with the place. Not so long ago, before the Act of Union between England and Scotland, The Borders was like the Wild West – it was essentially a lawless place, with its own unique culture, with people having to be very self-reliant, regularly subjected to repeated raids from either side. The area is also famous for Hadrian’s Wall, the largest handcrafted monument in the UK, built two thousand years ago – its longevity being a very appropriate symbol for what we do…
How important is maintaining production in Britain, and specifically the ‘Made in England’ label, to the Chapman brand?
Very important. I can’t envisage ever not making bags here. It certainly helps international sales in some countries where they really appreciate authenticity, such as Japan, where customers research brands in quite a lot of detail and know what they’re talking about when it comes to craftsmanship. However, it cuts both ways, as it’s much more expensive to make products in the UK, and the higher price can put people off. Many big British brands trade off their “Britishness” but don’t actually sell British-made products. That doesn’t apply to us.
Likewise, how important is the quality of the raw materials you use, and do you exclusively use British materials?
We always use British made materials whenever we can. It’s part of our look and authenticity, and we find the quality is consistently better and the supply lines are shorter.
Some of the British materials we use are local to us here in Cumbria. We used Border tweeds in some of our products, as well as making products for other companies using wool from local Herdwick sheep, which is becoming very popular.
Our bonded canvas comes from either Lancashire or Dundee, most of our brass hardware is cast in London, and we use a lot of bridle leather from Kent, although we so use some vegetable-tanned leather from Italy and Belgium.
Some things you can’t buy British-made, like zips, and that we just have to accept and source the best available options. A cheap zip will ruin a bag, so we just don’t do it – we won’t scrimp on quality.
As you place great emphasis on the handcrafting of Chapman products, could you give us insight into the craftsmanship behind the making of one of your bags?
It’s not just about the physical skill involved in cutting, leatherwork and stitching. It’s also about the know-how of what actually works in bags, and that only comes from years of experience. Take sewing as an example, all materials handle differently and our craftsmen need to know instinctively how to handle a particular type of material, using a particular machine, with a particular needle. Our work is very transparent, and it’s a not just case of just pulling a seam together and creating a stitch that won’t be seen by anyone. To make really well-made bags will require a huge amount of skill and knowledge.
No one has ever discovered a way to make a bag with a computer. You can automate cutting – although we don’t – and some of the stitching, but you fundamentally need artisanal hand-crafting skills to make a high quality bag, which is why labour costs are so high.
You previously worked in the City, which is a world away from rural Cumbria. What was the catalyst that prompted you to acquire Carlisle-based Chapman back in 2006?
I came across the company somewhat by accident at a time in my life when I happened to be looking for a new career in manufacturing. I had wanted to buy a canvas rucksack for personal use, and couldn’t find one I liked until I came across Chapman. I liked the product, started talking to John Chapman, one thing led to another, and I ended up buying the company.
After working in financial services it’s nice to be involved in making something. I feel we’re quite poor in this country at supporting non-London centric businesses that could actually make the pie bigger, rather than simply taking slices off it. The country has so much more to offer.
There’s no doubt Chapman is a genuine British success story; from its humble beginnings whereby the products were made on the kitchen table of John Chapman in the early ‘80s, to now exporting throughout the world and manufacturing for the likes of Hardy, Holland & Holland and Purdey. What do you put this success down to?
In short: blood, sweat and tears! What we’re doing is extremely difficult, making a small British manufacturing business work in the context of global competition from high volume manufacturers outsourcing production using cheap low-skilled labour overseas. You’ve really got to be pretty massive, or using high technology, or have lots of backing. None of these apply to us. Instead, we are a small, determined, highly-skilled team putting in lots of hard work.
I got into this business on a long-term basis, as that is what it requires. Whilst we’ve had success with the brand, we can’t just sit still, and we’re mindful that we got to train up a new generation of people to continue to take the business forward.
What plans do you have for Chapman in the future; for instance, are we going to see the opening of a flagship store, greater bag and accessories ranges, collaborations with designers and fashion brands?
All the above probably. Essentially we’re a high cost manufacturer in a relatively low volume marketplace, so we have to cut our cloth accordingly, and our growth is dependent on having the right type of distribution strategy. It’s a question of doing all those things at the right time, but they’re certainly on the horizon for us. The main focus is actually a lot simpler: to design and manufacture the best possible bags and to offer the best possible service to our clients. If we focus on those things, then we won’t go too far wrong.
Thanks to Daniel Chamier for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions. All images © Chapman.