It’s been a big year for Chuck Bowen and the team at Blue Artisan Group. Just a year after opening their new factory in Leon, Mexico in late 2014, Chuck and the team launched their very own brand of leather goods known as Mission Mercantile. We spoke about how this new venture came to be, the inspiration behind it, and what’s next.
What initially drew you to the leather industry?
In 2007, I was hired by Saddleback, and in 2008 I joined as CEO and helped open their leather factory called TrueBlue Productions. From 2007-2013 we enjoyed fantastic success, and I really developed a love for the materials, products, and people in the industry.
I’ve always been very drawn to organic materials. It started as I was growing up around dad’s hardware store in rural southern Georgia. Working, smelling, using tools he had had around for forty years.
How did Blue Artisan Group and Mission Mercantile get their start?
In 2013 I left Saddleback and sold my interest in the factory. After I left, I took a sabbatical to refresh and take inventory. I talked to a lot of trusted friends, did a lot of thinking. Why wouldn’t I launch my own brand? It was just a yearning I couldn’t ignore. The icing on the cake was God sending four incredibly gifted partners.
We started the Blue Artisan Group factory first, at the end of 2014. Our ultimate heartbeat is that we’re artisans who love to create – so we decided to cofound Mission Mercantile together, and share this eternal passion for what we do.
Tell me a little bit about Blue Artisan Group.
The factory is a bootstrap startup in the same town as Saddleback’s factory – in Leon, in the state of Guanajuato. It’s in the heart of Mexico, in the leather region. People in the region have been making shoes for decades. It was a great place to start in 2008.
A little bit about our name: Blue– It’s the color of optimism, possibility, nobility. Artisan– we handcraft products with leather and canvas. We are true artisans, handcrafting. Group– we have bigger ideas around growing the business. It’s very tight-knit down at our factory. Side note, the acronym for Blue Artisan Group was a funny coincidence. We didn’t realize til after we named it that it spelled BAG!
What are your long term goals for BAG?
We want it to be the most sought-after North American creator of leather goods. We have five key goals. We take great care of our people, we handcraft remarkable products, we maintain high ethics, we delight our clients, and we innovate. Our goal is to be good stewards who make the most of what we have to work with.
What makes Blue Artisan Group unique as a leather products manufacturer?
Passion, experience, product development. Those things allow us to offer a “handshake lifetime product” through BAG and Mission Mercantile. Everyone on our team is aligned toward a singular goal. That goal is to make and sell some of the most remarkable items in the world. Our team operates as one.
What is the most beneficial aspect of having your own manufacturing capabilities for Mission Mercantile?
We have the ability to bring designs to life no matter the challenge, and we can work closely with the artisans. We can’t compromise for any reason if you’re making our kind of products, so we can offer uncompromising quality. We have the ability to make and keep our lifetime promise. It’s rare that you can control the entire lifecycle of the product. This translates into the greatest value for your customer.
What is the goal of Mission Mercantile?
We’re a mercantile on a mission. We want to serve men looking for meaning as a man while reestablishing family and heritage. Doing life together with his mission woman. We really want to bring back legacy values in a product, and take wisdom from past. Our goal is for us, and all of our customers to do life together.
Can you tell us a bit about your product line and the inspiration behind it?
We take inspiration from old items, make improvements, and modernize things. Long list of products coming! The Tradesman Bag looks back to an original product from the early 1900s– a bag that was used for carpenters and tradesmen to carry materials.
Our weekender bag, the Stateroom, takes inspiration from bags that were carried by travelers. This bag showed that you were able to travel, and had money.
The steamer backpack had a couple inspirations. In steamship days people would travel with steamer trunks, which were these big open boxes with individual bags inside that people would back separately. We also took some inspiration from old Pony Express Bags. They have the same clasp around the back, but we didn’t include the lock.
The Ice Block Bag has a leather handle on the bottom so you can turn it upside down and dump out contents.
I don’t want to give too much away, but we place certain things in our products that we call Cracker Jack prizes. Authentic, vintage goodies that we slip in as prizes. You’ve seen the pillows in the bags..we want things to be usable, utilitarian.
What does your design process look like?
Our first step is sourcing and merchandising. We do a lot of research into yesteryear pieces. Early 1900s era. Some of the products we find give us a lot of design cues. We have sourced many original pieces, on Etsy, abroad, and many places. Each product embodies the values of the people that carry them. We’ll be sharing a lot of the stories on our website.
Once we’ve found pieces for inspiration, we work out the ideas through sketches unti we’re moved by what’s coming to life in front of us. Meanwhile we’re looking for materials that fit with this idea. The materials must be as remarkable as the design itself. This takes some time. I love naturally occuring materials – cotton canvas, leather, wood. Materials that were alive, had life.
Next, we model. We take that sketch and start to work it out on the table and craft by hand the physical form of the sketches. We work alongside sample makers to construct our “first born.”
No matter how ugly our “first born” is, we start working out the bugs. Construction, form, aesthetics, material functionality. We work through a series of samples until it’s ready – then it’s called a “blue tag.” We have lots of products in this stage now. Once we blue tag the bag, we send it to the artisans to reproduce. Then it’s on to the customer.
What advice would you give someone starting out in the industry?
To narrow it down – become an avid student first. Never stop learning. There’s so much to learn about these materials, not to mention sourcing, manufacturing, design, branding, et cetera. The barrier to entry is fairly high. Find a great mentor, someone who will tell you the truth, talk you through, encourage you. Follow closely or work with a successful smaller brand to learn the ropes. Persistence will end up being the difference maker. It’s hard to be an overnight success and follow that up with more success.
One of the advantages we have is being vertically aligned with the factory. Our clients come first, but there are a lot of advantages of owning your own factory. Making decisions, sidestepping sourcing issues. It’s really critical if you can do it. Work with a manufacturer who takes a close approach and takes care of their clients.
What advice would you give consumers when looking for the right product?
How do you find the right one? There’s so much that consumers have to decide. Ask yourself: Will it give me joy? Will it give joy to the person I give it to as part of my legacy? Remember, it must improve with age. Make sure it won’t fail before you do. It should look its worst the day it comes out of the box.
What are the “next steps” for Mission Mercantile?
Staying authentic. Continuing to attract people who are as fanatical as we are about our products and the way we make them. Continuing on our journey to become mission men and women.
Can you share some insight on any new additions to your product line?
In the near future, we’ll be honoring dads for Father’s Day. We’ll be launching lots of giftable items to last more than a lifetime. Wallets, bags, hunting gear, adventure products, and some tech products.
Long-term, we’ll be continually launching new products. We will soon be more than doubling our current offering. If they don’t turn heads, then we’ve missed the mark.