Style & Shopping

In The Bag

It's all in the family at Hobo International—a popular handbag company based in Annapolis.

Koren Ray Brewer’s brain is deep in spring this February afternoon—spring 2009.

The senior vice president of merchandising and marketing for Hobo International handbags is in her office taking a call about the Annapolis-based company. She’s just left a meeting with her design team where they shared the bits of fabric, magazine pictures, and sketches they hope will forecast what kinds of handbags women will want to carry a year from now.

“It’s an exciting process, but kind of scary trying to crystal ball what colors and trends will be important and how we will fit ourselves into what will be up and coming,” says Koren, 41.

But it’s not as scary as it used to be.

Since Koren helped her mother, Toni Ray, start the company in 1991 with the idea that women want handbags full of little pockets and compartments, they’ve built a loyal following. “Whether we’ve followed the runway trends 100 percent or not, we have a trust factor from customers that this is a look that’s right,” says Koren.

Toni cashed in her IRA to start the company after losing her job of 20 years at Georgetown Leather Design in Washington, D.C. She says she decided to sell the company to Koren and her husband David Brewer two years ago because she knew it was time for it to grow. “People wanted to buy the business, but the kids said they really wanted it,” says Ray, 67, talking by phone from her home with a view of the ocean in Miami’s South Beach.

Since taking the helm, Koren and her husband David Brewer have aimed the company, long known for its fashionable function, toward becoming a lifestyle brand. “I think we’re definitely on track for big things, for growth,” says David, 44, the company’s president. The belts and eye wear products they’ve recently added have been well received. “I think we are going to grow this into a lifestyle brand that will include other categories like footwear and apparel.”

In Hobo’s first year of business, sales reached $400,000. This past year, annual sales exceeded $30 million. They have 42 employees, showrooms in New York City, Los Angeles, and Atlanta and their bags are sold in Nordstrom, Bloomingdale’s, and specialty stores throughout the U.S., the U.K., Japan, and Canada.

Along the way, they ramped up the fashion, but they never lost the function. Hobo’s Director of Design Martha Radford, 55, first met Toni when she wandered into Georgetown Leather Design in the 70’s to buy a handbag and ended up taking a job there. Radford joined Hobo in the mid-90’s and brought innovations that beat some of the big names to market. “We started with wristlets before people were doing those around 2000. We were the first people to do frames,” says Radford of the hinged and structured bags that often close with a clasp. “It seemed like the natural thing two years ago. I got the idea of frames from old vintage handbags.”

Today, Hobo’s double frame clutches in hot orange and metallic python print share display space with familiar names like Coach, Kate Spade, and Botkier at the Towson Nordstrom. Hobo bags have been photographed adorning stars like Eva Longoria Parker and Sarah Jessica Parker.

But the brand doesn’t bank on flash. “They’re very functional. They’re understated,” says Toni. “We don’t hang Hobo tags off of them. We like to have the style, look, and quality that say Hobo.”

And while the price of some of Hobo’s competitors flirt with luxury levels, the average price of a Hobo bag is between $200 and $250. “They fill in well between my really high-end more expensive pieces where someone might not want to spend $500 on a handbag, but is willing to spend $200 or less,” says Form owner Aimee Bracken, who carries Hobo bags in her Hampden boutique. “I like that when mom comes in with her daughter, she can get her daughter a Hobo bag while mom gets a $600 Vera Wang dress.”

But she also likes their colors and function. She owns one of Hobo’s Sadie wallets, a long wallet with a tiny retro coin purse that tucks into an inside pocket. “Oh my gosh, I love that thing,” says Bracken. “My change stays in that coin purse perfectly.”

Fern Elliott of Lilac Bijoux carries the Hobo line in her Baltimore and Annapolis accessory stores and a Hobo clutch in her daily life. “Once you have one, you just want to keep it,” she says.

“Hobo has for many, many years been a well-kept secret,” says Koren of the company that has done almost no advertising. “When you find a customer who is passionate about Hobo, they really are passionate about it.”

Koren is wrapping things up this Friday afternoon, getting ready to take her husband and two boys Luca, 7, and Theo, 5, to join her mother on a vacation in Miami. “I miss having her here on a daily basis,” Koren says of Toni who recently married long-time friend Wallace Shaw and now divides her time between Florida and Annapolis. But she is still always available with advice. “I check in with her all the time,” says Koren. “She’s still involved in strategic decisions.”

Toni says she thinks her children are doing fine on their own. “Things are organized now, and that was never true with me,” she says.

Koren remembers when her mother was learning the business at Georgetown Leather Design. She would spend Saturday afternoons playing under the workbench where they made the belts and sandals. “I’d keep busy playing with the leather tools,” she says.

David has been with Hobo from the beginning. He met Koren when they were both working at the Middleton Tavern in downtown Annapolis. David had just returned to his family’s home in Annapolis after a 10-year sojourn in Greece where he earned a degree in marketing from The American University of Athens and ran a hotel and restaurant. Koren had just graduated from Northwestern University where she had studied theater design and acting and hoped to direct movies someday.

Initially, David’s job was keeping “an eye on the bottom line,” he says. “Toni was the creative and selling force.” He kept a close watch on their pricing structure and the deals they made. But his mechanical skills are the ones that might have been most useful early on.

Toni and Koren needed a way to get their early products to trade shows in New York. David found a 1970’s Chevy van listed for $150 in the local paper. He pulled Hobo International’s first corporate asset out of the woods behind someone’s house with four flat tires and a cracked engine compartment.

“It was 150 degrees in the summertime and freezing in the winter,” he says, “So much heat and exhaust would come through this thing, we had to drive with the windows down.” They called it “The Heater” and during those early years it hauled them and the display booths they’d painted with a Mexican hacienda-theme in Toni’s garage to the trade shows.

The couple loved the 15 years they spent working out of Toni’s renovated cottage home on the Chesapeake Bay. “There were as many as 10 of us working in the dining room with computers and bags stacked up to the ceiling,” says Koren. Her mother’s home was also the scene of their 1999 formal garden wedding—an event they were finally able to squeeze in between trade shows. Now they live in a house just two doors down from Toni in a Chesapeake Bay resort community. “Being in Annapolis gives us a real world perspective from a design standpoint,” says David. Hobo’s corporate offices now reside in an unsightly two-story building on Bay Ridge Avenue, a few miles from downtown.

Ideas for bag designs come from things they see going on in the market in the U.S. and from places like France, Italy, and Japan where trends germinate early. The spring line hitting stores now includes an edgy design with straps that criss-cross and antique silver hardware. But the line also has soft feminine bags with touches right out of ready-to-wear like ruching, ruffles, and pleats.

For the upcoming fall collection, Radford says she was inspired by a trip to Philadelphia last summer to see the King Tut exhibit. The turquoise, cobalt blue, and metallic hues resonated with her. “The Egyptians had a very forward color palette. You just get a sense of what’s happening in color just by looking all around you.”

The forecast for spring 2009 will bring her back a little closer to where she began, creating bags out of natural leathers for the hip denizens of 1970’s Georgetown. “Natural leathers are coming back in a big way,” says Radford. “There’s sort of a naked and whole sort of artisan look that will be important along with color.”

They might beat the big names to market with these trends. But that isn’t their aim.

“I really think that what we go for is the essence of fashion that is attainable, an everyday kind of fashion that works well with your existing wardrobe,” says Koren. “The lifestyle is about helping you to complete your look, but by your own rules.”