Omaha bag maker’s timely tweet a springboard for growth

Artifact Bag Co. and its founder Chris Hughes are a unique up-and-coming prairie company – a refreshingly old-school startup in a technical community. Hughes makes bags. Great bags. One in particular, the No. 215 Lunch Tote (below), has earned attention from popular tech blogs to established media outlets. "It's a simple, elegant design," the New

Chris Hughes, 37, gets inspiration for his sought-after bags from military texts and other mid to early 20th century literature.

Artifact Bag Co. and its founder Chris Hughes are a unique up-and-coming prairie company – a refreshingly old-school startup in a technical community.

Hughes makes bags. Great bags. One in particular, the No. 215 Lunch Tote (below), has earned attention from popular tech blogs to established media outlets. “It’s a simple, elegant design,” the New York Times wrote.

Using American-sourced waxed canvas coupled with Horween and Hermann Oak leather, his authentic craft has struck a cord with a community of online sartorialists obsessed with utilitarian work gear. It’s an emerging fashion trend and Hughes fits that mold in the best way.

“I’ve been into vintage clothing a long time, the American heritage brands like Filson and L.L.Bean you see now doing collaborations and featured in magazines have appealed to me forever,” Hughes said.

Tweet takes Hughes to the masses

It all started with a tweet and a little serendipity. A Continuous Lean is a site run by the undisputed king of menswear blogging: Michael Williams. A man many attribute with starting the heritage-chic style that has been so dominant in mens fashion the past two/three years (he’s the reason you see guys running around in selvedge denim and Red Wing Boots). In short: he’s a boss. The Dalai Lama of a notoriously fickle subculture.

Hughes got his start after leaving his day job as a product manager and quickly began honing his craft. He started with a basic tote that was received well on Etsy and Denim Saloon in Omaha’s Dundee district, but the 215 Lunch Tote was what put Artifact Bag Co. on the map.

In February 2010, Williams tweeted about a set of aluminum GoodForm Navy Deck Chairs that had just been auctioned off on eBay. As it happens, Hughes, an avid follower of A Countinous Lean on Twitter, was the winning bidder for the chair set and was quick to respond:

 

 

“I was hoping, praying that the interaction, with my handle, @artifactbags, and short bio would be engaging enough to have Williams check out my site,” Hughes said. Thirty minutes later, Williams sent out this tweet:

 

 

That was what put Artifact Bags on Williams radar, and later that year Williams included the No. 215 Lunch Tote on A Continuous Leans holiday buying guide (a list that existed exclusively on Twitter grouped with the hashtag #ACLSANTA).

 

 

After Williams’ initial endorsement, the press has been non-stop and widespread. “It’s interesting to see, really, definitely shows who follows who in the blogosphere,” Hughes said.

Since Williams’ holiday post in mid-December 2010, six other blogs ran pieces on the lunch tote including Selectism, Uncrate and Gizmodo. “It’s pretty cool that I can identify a tipping point for my company like that.” And it has only gotten better. In 2011, Artifact Bag Co. and namely the No. 215 Lunch Tote were featured in nine publications including Complex, Design Bureau, Epicure, The New York Times and most recently as a featured seller on Etsy. Hughes recalled, “At the peak of all this I had a back order of over 400 bags, there were a number of 16-hour days.”

“At the peak of all this I had a back order of over 400 bags, there were a number of 16-hour days.” – Chris Hughes

Being able to market via social media has been crucial to Hughes and his success. “When I used to be in a band (he played in the former Saddle Creek Records group Beep Beep), we would pay a publicist thousands of dollars to get some mention in XYZ magazine,” Hughes said. “Now I can get similar levels of exposure through the social channels myself for next to nothing.”

Inspiration from the past

When it comes to inspiration Hughes draws heavily on the past. “I get a lot of my inspiration from things I’ve read, military texts and other mid to early 20th century literature,” Hughes said. “A lot of fashion today leans on that time in American culture. You can look at a Ralph Lauren shirt or piece of outerwear and see where he’s getting that from, there’s a worn patina his work evokes. I like that.”

Top left, a member of the Artifact Bag team: a Singer 69-9 Bartacker. Top right, heavy-duty Fairfield Canvas in varying color-ways laying in wait under a work station. Bottom left, a shelf of tools in Artifact Bag’s Omaha workshop. Bottom right, Horween and Hermann Oak leather waiting to be put to good use.

With 2,200 square feet of workspace just east of Midtown, Hughes office is an expanding collection of over 16 sewing and finishing machines. The gut reaction on first seeing his space is 1.) This is cool and 2.) Artifact Bag Co. is a large operation for one guy (Hughes does have assistants that help with the workflow but he is the only full-time member). But as he explained, that is one of the luxuries of living and working in Omaha.

“Omaha has been good to me, there is no way I could do what I do here in San Francisco or L.A.,” Hughes said. “This kind of space with this many machines? The rent alone would kill me.” The Midwest has also helped Hughes concentrate on his work. “Omaha has allowed me to focus a great deal,” Hughes said. “Seasonality is a blessing in disguise. Winter provides the solitude to really hunker down; there are minimal distractions.”

Future stitches

Where does Artifact Bag Co. go from here?  Hughes, who was named the Midlands Business Journal’s “Young Entrepreneur of the Year” in December, didn’t lay it all out on the table but there are other mediums he wouldn’t mind trying his hand at.

“I’d love to make shoes, or a coat in the future, there are a lot of things I would like to try,” Hughes said. “I just have to remind myself that I am a small operation at this point, with orders to fill, I can’t get too ahead of myself.” Regardless, Artifact Bag Co. is an outfit to keep an eye on, 2012 promises to be an exciting year for this budding startup.

 

Image credits: Photos of Chris Hughes and the Artifact Bag Co.’s workshop by Michael Quinlan. Photo of the No. 215 Lunch Tote from artifactbags.com.

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