Judy Bown loves geeky detail; I love geeky detail. Talking to the bag designer and manufacturer was always going to be a pleasant experience.


Indeed, Judy’s first-ever post on her Designer’s Diary says it all: “Some brands believe that their customers don’t give a fig where or how things are made anymore. I think there are people who want to know the provenence of what they buy. It’s not about being elitist, it’s about a quest for quality.”


Now, it’s very easy to say that you care about quality construction and quality materials. Slightly harder to prove it. Fortunately, Judy spells out every aspect of how her bags are made and the qualities that go into it.


Take the brass hardware that is featured on Bown travel bags. Real brass has a deep colour and warmth that is lacking in the most common alternative, Zamac. This cheap imitation can snap under stress, feels thin and tinny and doesn’t age well. Indeed, you can often spot it by the artificial ‘aged’ look it is given. Judy says Zamac has crept up the fashion ladder – it used to just be seen on cheap high-street bags, now “so-called luxury brands think their customers can’t tell the difference and happily promote it as solid brass”. And she should know. Judy designed the bags at Mulberry for nine years, before working at Coach in New York and then consulting for Tocca, Asprey and Tanner Krolle.


The Bown brass is made by a family firm in Florence that can make small handmade orders to Judy’s designs. It is also individually lacquered to protect it from tarnishing and preserve that warmth – so while it retains the qualities of brass (such as strength with that little bit of give) it doesn’t need much maintenance.


My favourite detail is probably the zips though. These are made by RiRi in Switzerland, the best manufacturer of them in the world, and are all made to length. That means that each tooth matches up exactly down the length of the zip. You’d think that would be easy to do, but the alternative – peeling off single sides of a zip from a big reel – sometimes means the teeth miss ever so slightly. Leading to that annoying jarring.


Each tooth of the zip is individually stamped, polished for 18 hours to remove all rough edges and then washed for a further six hours. If you run your finger down the inside of the zip, you’ll feel no rough edges at all – unlike cheaper, mass-produced zips. Most of the best manufacturers use RiRi zips – I noticed recently that my Albam gilet, which I always thought zipped up in a very satisfying fashion – also has a RiRi zip.


On the Bown linings, I love the anecdote Judy tells about a customer who discovered accidentally that they have a waterproof backing. “He’d driven from Bonn to London and on getting out at the other end, tired and in a hurry, threw the debris from the passenger seat into his bag. This included a styrofoam coffee cup that he thought was empty. When he came to unpack the next day, he was horrified to see the cup on its side, dribbling coffee. Carefully removing his other possessions first, he saw that coffee was sitting in bubbles on the lining. With a bit of kitchen roll he dabbed it up. Absolutely no stains.” The inside is not absolutely waterproof as the seams are not sealed, just sewn. But unless you want to transport water in your bag, that’s unlikely to be a problem.


All this, and we haven’t even talked about the leather yet. Bown bags are made of many different types of leather – including a rather nifty one that is a whole goat on either side – but one thing that unites them is the vegetable tanning. This is pretty commonplace with men’s shoes, but more and more bags are being chrome tanned or use synthetic or corrected leathers. The advantage of vegetable tanning is the natural appearance and the way it ages.


You don’t want a big fault in one side of the bag, but it is nice to see the neck lines down one part of it where the skin has grown. And the unique patina that a natural leather has can never be replicated aesthetically by an artificial process. Chrome-tanned leathers have less subtlety, individuality and do not get better as they age.


Then there’s the inking – how the black stuff is painted down the side of leathers when they are sewn together. You can tell it’s done by hand because there is no line up the middle of the join (makes it stronger too). But I think we’ve had enough geeky detail for now, even for me.


I’ve been using my Overnight Cabin Bag in dark tan for about a month now. And I get a palpable pleasure from using it – whether it is the buttery feel of the leather or the knowledge of its craft that comes from the details above. Few accessories (non-clothes) I have ever bought give me that same sense of satisfaction.

If you want more, I highly recommend the Designer’s Diary on the Bown website. I read it all, backwards, (much in the way I hope people trawl through the archives of this site). Thanks to Judy’s descriptions of leather working I now really want to take one of the courses run by Val Michael and Neil McGregor at their workshop in Tetbury. So much better to do it than just talk about it.

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Aaron

You missed out that all this feel-good features about their leathergoods comes at a price.

That overnight bag pictured in your articles is 925 pounds.

9. 2. 5.

Want a wallet? No problem sir. Starting at 135 pounds.

Jerome

I think I will stick to my Brics bags.

Mike

Simon,

I love the bag post. As someone who has been searching for a perfect weekender bag for years this was quite interesting. Do you have any other suggestions for the quintessential English Overnight/Weekender bag?

Arctic Penguin

Well, that is a touch out of my price point but it a lovely bag. At the risk of sounding like a shill, I want to re-recommend at least a brief glace at an American leather luggage manufacturer, Saddleback Leather, who have an eponymous website. I do wonder about the vegetable tanning, though; after looking into it a bit before my purchase of some bags tanned with chrome 3, which produces a leather which is sturdier than vegetable-tanned leather while also recovering its shape better after significant water exposure, I concluded that for someone with layman’s knowledge of the product, a chrome-3 bag was better for my purposes.

Those Bown bags are, though, just about the most polished luxury bags I’ve seen that I would still purchase. I don’t think a single design I’ve seen from Ghurka suits my taste, so I tend to think of Saddleback as a domestic, slightly more cost-effective leather goods producer than Bown or Globetrotter.

Just my two cents.

anjali

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Joe Frances

Is this lovely bag sold in stores, or only through the Bown website?

Eric

Hi Simon,

Loved the post and introduction to a new company.

I have been searching for a leather weekend/holdall bag for a while now and wanted to get your opinion on a few different brands and what you would recommend buying.

At this point, I believe I’ve narrowed my choices down to Ghurka Cavallier II, Mulberry Clipper and now, perhaps, a similar sized bag from Bown. I believe that these are all within the same price range, so would love your opinion on quality of manufacturing, materials, etc. and what you would lean towards buying. I live in Canada, so I think that Bown might be a harder bag for me to come across.

I’ve never heard of Tanner Krolle or Bill Amberg before, but if you feel they are superior to those listed above, I would value your thoughts on that as well. I know you briefly mentioned your experience with Tanner Krolle, Bill Amberg and Mulberry in another comment, but a little more explanation would be highly appreciated.

I notice that your original post is from 2009- have your opinions/recommendations on the above brands changed since then?

One last thing: regarding Mulberry, you said “I use the latter’s scotchgrain bags as a non-leather”. I always thought that scotchgrain was a type of leather. Am I mistaken?

Thank you for any time and consideration taken!
Eric

Mio Tesoro

Thanks for sharing these tips. It is very useful 🙂

James

I have an original Bown tan leather weekend bag for sale if anyone is interested . Used about 6/7 times . Cost £925 new . Will sell for £475 . + postage . Photos on request .

Christian

I would be interested to buy it. Would you still sell it?

Christian

I was replying to James…

D Tuke

I love these products and purchased many in 2008 and 2009. Wondering what happened to them? They are/were every penny. Still have and use each item.

Donna TUKE

Any news? I want a new wallet from her!!!!