Barney’s called. So did more than a dozen other major retailers, all wanting to make thousands of orders and shoot Artifact Bag Co. and its founder Chris Hughes into the fashion stratosphere.
Most designers, particularly those who not long ago were unemployed and sewing bags in their Omaha living rooms, would tackle their grandmothers for this chance. Most designers would scale up, skimp on materials, give up control — alter their very identity — in order to chase the retail white whale.
Chris Hughes is not most designers. He is not most people. Which is why he said no to Barney’s, and no to all the rest of them.
The 43-year-old Westside High School grad said no, and continued to chase something else: one of the most intriguing Omaha success stories of the Internet era.
At a time when so many businesses succeed only if backed by millions in investment, Hughes has built Artifact from an idea into a nationally known online brand without so much as taking out a single business loan.
And now, at a time when many American bricks-and-mortar stores are struggling — in part from sales lost to online shopping, where Artifact first gained fame — the company is opening its first bricks-and-mortar location.
Chris Hughes is not selling bags at Barney’s on Madison Avenue in midtown Manhattan. Starting this week, he’s selling his bags out of a remodeled storefront on Leavenworth Street.
So, Chris, why did you say no to Barney’s?
The Omaha bag maker smiles. “I do everything the hard way,” he says. “I work way too hard to make average products.”
Artifact Bag Co. is decidedly not average. You can check it out for yourself on Saturday, when Hughes is holding an open house to introduce Artifact Bag’s first retail store to the Omaha public. Or, alternately, find Artifact where customers have been discovering it for eight years ago — the Internet, at artifactbags.com.
In Omaha, Hughes has remodeled the Gallery 72 building at 2709 Leavenworth St., where for decades Bob and Roberta Rogers hosted art openings. The gallery, now on Vinton Street and run by the couple’s son John, became a key meeting place for Omaha’s artists and art lovers at the tail-end of the 20th century.
Now, the first floor holds a little showroom where you can check out Artifact tote bags, backpacks, aprons and belts, as well as several pieces in Hughes’ collection of vintage clothing. Behind that, seven employees sew Artifact products each weekday, making bags from start to finish — there’s no assembly line here — while fulfilling the company’s ever-growing number of online orders. The basement is for storing, packaging and shipping. The second floor, where the Rogerses lived and held their famed potlucks, is now a co-working space where small, creative businesses can rent a spot.
Why buy a building at 27th and Leavenworth, Chris?
“I have wanted to own a commercial building midtown or downtown Omaha since I was 10 years old,” he says. “I had to do it!”
This building is the latest plot twist in Artifact’s history, a history that oddly wouldn’t have happened without the help of the Great American Recession.
Chris Hughes started making canvas lunch bags on a secondhand commercial sewing machine he bought off Craigslist in early 2010. He had recently been laid off from a good job at a tech company as the economy tanked. After months of looking for work, he eventually got a new, less-than-fulfilling job in customer support, doing things like recovering the passwords of Americans who had forgotten their passwords.
At night, after his kids went to bed, Hughes pushed back the dining room table and used his new commercial sewing machine to make lunch bags and tote bags — teaching himself how to do so as he went. He made them with high-end leather, brass and canvas, and tried to build them to last forever. He sold them on the website Etsy, hoping to make enough to offset the cost of his sewing machine.
Then, a huge break: Michael Williams, an influential men’s fashion blogger who runs the site A Continuous Lean, noticed Hughes’ Etsy store and tweeted about his lunch tote. He tweeted a link to Hughes’ Etsy store to all his 24,000 Twitter followers.
Hughes sold five lunch totes. Then 50. Then 500. He quit that less-than-fulfilling customer support job and went to work making bags full time. For the next year or two, Artifact Bag was one of those newest, hottest things in indie fashion, the sort of irresistibly hip American-made product that fashion writers tend to slobber all over.
And salivate they did: Hughes and his totes were featured in the New York Times, GQ, Esquire and more than a dozen other national media outlets and culture websites. Each story prompted a flurry of sales. Hughes rented workshop space — some unused square footage in a Farnam Street building owned by Omaha indie band The Faint — and hired his first employees.
He made better and better bags, and got better and better at business as the months and years passed. Sales have steadily grown, even as the media glare has dimmed. Slowly he approached a dilemma: What should Artifact Bag become now that it’s no longer the new kid on the block?
“That moment is done,” Hughes says. “Those people are looking for the next bright, shiny object.”
The offers from national retailers came in. Some, like Barney’s, simply needed more bags than Chris thought he could produce while maintaining quality. Others have tried to make large orders and ask for large discounts, an impossibility unless Hughes uses cheaper leather or finds cheaper help. Still others have asked him to produce “white label” brands, making cheaper bags for Retail Store X that wouldn’t carry the Artifact Bag name.
He thought hard about several of these offers, but his ultimate answer was always the same: No. And the ultimate reasoning was always the same, too: He isn’t going to sacrifice quality for sales, even if it costs him a whole lot of sales. “Ultimately I’m not as interested in moving units as I am in delighting people,” he says.
So he bought the Gallery 72 building, renovated it and got to work. In recent years, he says, he has started to listen more, hearing what his customers want and then producing bags that fit into their lives.
Now the husband and father of three is making a bag, the boat tote, that can fit a soccer ball and several water bottles, perfect for taking the kids to practice. He has made a bag, the 770 kit bag, that fits easily into the overheard bin of an airplane. He is selling an increasing number of aprons to bartenders, baristas, chefs and waiters. Currently his website features 16 different bags and eight kinds of aprons, a far cry from the days when he sold two or three products.
And he’s opening up a little retail shop on Leavenworth Street. He’s hoping Artifact Bag’s national followers make pilgrimages there. He’s hoping Omaha will support him, including the many Omahans who haven’t yet heard of Artifact Bag.
Maybe someday soon he will sign a big contract with a national retailer. Right now, Chris Hughes seems more interested in selling one bag to you.
“My strategy is risky,” he says. “It has always been risky. I want to sell an extraordinary item that won’t be cheap. It only works if you buy it and then feel great about it.”