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Today, if you stroll through the streets of major cities like New York, London, Toronto, Sydney, Austin, or Mexico City, odds are you'll happen upon dozens of passersby happily strapped into backpacks from the accessories brand Herschel Supply Co.
If you want to know how and when Herschel, whose canvas backpacks differ slightly in style and color but all fit into a retro aesthetic, became ubiquitous as the trendy backpack, you might head to the “About” tab on its website.
But if you’d visited the page any time up until last week, the marketing copy would likely have confused you. While the page did say the company was founded by brothers Jamie and Lyndon Cormack in 2009, it also created a sneaky heritage story of sorts. There were photos of the Cormacks’ grandparents and old buildings in Herschel, Canada. It told website visitors about how “In the early 1900s, Peter Alexander Cormack, a barrel maker by trade, and his wife Annie made the journey from Wick, Scotland, to Canada. The couple settled in the small town of Herschel, whose population today is counted at 30 residents.” The copy went onto explain that the brothers named their brand after the town where “three generations of their family grew up.”
This worked for Herschel for many years. By creating an imaginary link between grandparents and the company, while selling retro-inspired accessories, it banked on a manufactured nostalgia of sorts and thrived on its vintage authenticity — or at least conjured one in the eyes of the customer. As one writer for Bloomberg wrote a few years ago about Herschel’s bag, “It has the look of a marque that’s been around for a century. The first time I saw it, I was sure I’d known about the company for years and had maybe had one as a child.”
That was all the old Herschel. Log onto the site now, and the vintage photos are mostly gone. Now, the brand is pivoting slightly, moving away from its family-vintage story and vibes for something way more aspirational: travel. The “About” page is way more upfront about the company being started by the Cormack brothers in 2009. There’s also a travel blog the company has been running for a few years that’s now more prominently featured.
The timing of this pivot is calculated. Herschel is about to launch its first apparel collection, which will hit stores like Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom next month, and it’s not what you’d expect — there are no hipster-style flannel shirts. Rather, its collection focuses on weather-technical items, like ponchos, windbreakers, and anoraks. Lyndon Cormack tells Racked Herschel will eventually be fleshed into a full travelesque brand, from clothing to accessories.
“We’re definitely more focused into travel,” Cormack says. “It’s going to be huge. Of course we're a brand that sort of already is in the travel space, but it’s going to be our large, big focus.”
Travel has technically always been a part of Herschel, just not necessarily a central marketing point; it’s something that can be blamed on the brand’s manufactured heritage and that plays a part in its blockbuster popularity. Even though the company makes outdoors-friendly, backpacking bags, it’s become known as a brand that’s “achingly hip” instead of a travel one.
The company’s decision to move full speed ahead into the wanderlust aesthetic certainly makes sense, though. Cormack says Herschel developed a following on Instagram largely thanks to its extravagant voyaging photos, finding that followers liked its product when it was juxtaposed with travel porn from Greece, Slovenia, or Switzerland. Travel is also, of course, rooted in the brand’s success; backpacks make up 70 percent of its revenue and have, in turn, helped Herschel become a bestselling accessories brand. The company sold its 15 millionth bag last December, and revenue in 2016 grew 20 percent. According to private market analysis group PrivCo, Herschel’s sales last year hit $156 million (Herschel declined to provide company figures to Racked). PrivCo analyst Reyda Van says that though it’s a fraction of the size of other prominent travel outfitters, “the North Faces of the world definitely have Herschel on [their] radar, in terms of taking away [their] market share.”
Assessing the outdoors space, Jamie says the company sees an opportunity to provide utilitarian, functional outerwear “that fits into the travel space but still has a fashion and lifestyle feel” — which is the same attitude it had when it first launched into accessories. In 2008, the Cormack brothers were working as salesmen for Vans and K2 Sports. Lyndon says the duo noticed a void in the accessories market; there were only high-end backpacks or rugged ones for the Patagonia folk. Backpacks were also mainly sold during Back to School promotions, and then basically folded into the rest of the store during the remainder of the year.
“Nobody really cared about backpacks,” says Lyndon. “In the past, people went to a stationary store; grabbed their paper, pens, calculator, and their ruler and eraser; and then looked for something to carry it all to school. It wasn’t like those kids were buying their T-shirts and their jeans and sneakers at that same store as the backpack. There wasn’t much consideration. Nordstrom had even tested backpacks in stores and were hesitant to put us in because they'd actually failed so badly.”
The exception, Jamie adds, were competitors like the North Face, which was “a brand that told a very different story.” The brothers began researching retro bags from all over the world, from Japan to Korea, finding interest in designs like those of old-school alpine bags. They then “figured out how to modernize those with a timeless, classic feel,” says Jamie. The results equalled bags both modern and classic: rustic buckles, a stitched throwback logo, pullover panels.
“Herschel’s big success was that it was really good with design,” notes Doug Stephens, a Toronto-based retail analyst. “It came down to differentiated styles, and that propelled their growth.”
Its first score was at a trade show in New York in 2010, when Urban Outfitters and Need Supply picked up the account. Between 2011 and 2013, sales grew 500 percent. Seven years, 70 countries, and over 10,000 stores later, the rest is pretty much history.
“I think first and foremost, Herschel was selective with who they distributed to,” says Van, the PrivCo analyst. “They’ve promoted the product as an exclusive brand that still feels inclusive. It’s sort of a paradox, but they’ve made people feel like they can align with the brand.”
The recent shift toward bolstering Herschel’s travel strengths over nonexistent heritage isn’t just strategic, it’s also necessary. In case you haven’t noticed, the retro hipster vibe is dead. Companies that peddled it have either met a grim fate (see: American Apparel) or are struggling with relevancy amid slumping sales (also see: Urban Outfitters). While Jamie Cormack scoffs at the notion that Herschel’s aesthetic is hipster — “we don’t ever use that word. Our retail distribution is very democratic, and we have a whole variety of great retail partners with different markets, from Zumiez, which caters to kids who love action sports, to Barneys, which lives and breathes fashion,” he says — there’s no denying the brand is associated with the alternative vibe.
Many who rolled with the retro trend have grown out of it, and instead, the brand is capitalizing on the growing travel and outdoors space that everyone is trying to cash in on. These days, over 142 million Americans — almost half of the population in the US — participate in outdoor activities, and the outdoor apparel sector is headed for double-digit growth. Then there’s the fact that millennials fully subscribe to an “experience economy,” and much prefer to spend on travel and events than shop. Being a brand in the experience market is certainly a way to have a leg up, especially when fellow retailers that dabbled in the outdoors space, like Sports Authority, went out of business before figuring out how to juggle e-commerce. PrivCo’s Van even points out that diehard Herschel fans likely subscribed to normcore, which is supposedly being replaced with its stepbrother, Gorpcore, an aesthetic that, according to the Cut, “worships the Woods, strictly defining itself by the idioms of hiking-camping-outdoor apparel.”
“There’s an overall recognition that as a trend, the whole hipster vintage thing is coming to an end, and Herschel has been a runway for that,” says Stephens. “While Herschel talks a lot about authenticity, there’s not much there when you scratch beneath the surface. They talk about craftsmanship when the product is mass-produced in China, and the heritage isn’t there either. They definitely have to expand in a different direction if they want to grow, and I think that’s where apparel comes in, focusing on travel.”
And at the end of the day, Herschel isn’t venturing too far outside of its fishing pond: The same customer who was into retro products is the same, young affluent customer who wants to travel and spend money on experiences.
While the travel space is surely a safe bet (Instagram isn’t going anywhere anytime soon!), it’s not the only thing Herschel is banking on. For their growth strategy, while the Cormack brothers have reportedly turned away some 500 investors, they’ve acquired luxury retailer Totokaelo and the NTWRK Agency, an LA showroom and sales group that previously handled is American sales. Perhaps more surprisingly, it is also relying on brick and mortar. The brand already has some 45 stores internationally, across countries like Mexico, Hong Kong, and the Philippines. A giant flagship store in Vancouver is expected to open early 2018, and even though analysts have described the current retail landscape as a “shit show,” there are plans to open plenty of Herschel stores in the US, in cities like New York. The goal is to be five times the size by 2020.
Whether Herschel can expand fully into a travel lifestyle brand is still to be determined. As the Financial Post has pointed out, “the bags are inspired by a passion for the outdoors, but they’re not really made for hiking in the woods.” The clothing line, though, has names like “Voyage” and “Forecast,” and fleece outerwear is scheduled for October. If, for some reason, the outdoors crowd doesn’t bite, the company will probably still be in luck. If there’s one thing Herschel can do, it’s spin a product.