One Tokyo leather maker is dedicated to hand-made craftsmanship.
Walking around the side streets of Aoyama, with its plethora of cafes, expensive boutiques and hair salons, you would hardly expect to find an artisanal leather workshop making and selling its wares all on site. Then again, Herz leather brand has been bucking expectations since its inception just over 40 years ago.
eightframe recently had the opportunity to tour its new and expansive headquarters, only a few minutes walk from Omotesando station. The store has a classic Western feel to it - all wooden shelves and leather bags from wall to wall. Herz, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, carries a wide range of items from cases and camera bags to boston bags, wallets and belts. The present store, which moved from a smaller location in 2013, houses an equally large factory area behind the counter.
If you've never seen a Herz bag before, the defining feature is the thickness and rich hue of the leather. Since the beginning the craftspeople at Herz have put a priority on durability, only thinning the leather where it's absolutely necessary for flexibility, and employing tough stitching and fittings to ensure longevity. The result is a practical bag that's beautiful in its simplicity, classy yet functional, and good for both formal and casual use.
When Akimasa Kondo founded Herz in 1973, he did it on his own terms. Having never worked for a larger brand or carry maker, Kondo used his creativity and love of leather to guide his process. Two years later, after acquiring a classic Singer sewing machine, Herz started using the durable cattle hide "latigo" leather, which is used for saddlery and other rough, outdoor purposes. Kondo's vision was to have a factory and shop right in the heart of fashionable Tokyo - rather than moving production to the countryside or outsourcing overseas - and in 1983 Herz opened its first Aoyama headquarters. Though the operation has grown steadily over the years and Kondo has since handed the reins to young protégé Hiroaki Noguchi (Kondo now spends his time making bags himself) the initial vision seems to have only grown stronger.
Herz's dedication to Kondo's creative roots is apparent, and it guides the philosophy of the entire organization. Each bag is made by hand, exclusively by one employee. Go to one of their factory shops and you can see for yourself - there's no assembly line - one craftsman will create an entire bag from start to finish. According to the staff at the Aoyama HQ, this is the core principle in their guarantee of quality. If one person makes one bag, they feel a sense of ownership over the artwork, and responsibility for the quality. For the customer, you get the peace of mind that someone poured all of their energy and attention into creating the piece that eventually ends up on your shoulder.
Herz presently employs about fifty craftspeople, who essentially act as the brand's designers. Employees are encouraged to come up with their own designs and enhancements, which will then be tested on their own merits in the store. Popular designs will be made again, and there's always room for creativity. Shoppers can also add input and partially customize their bags.
Herz currently uses an Italian tanner to provide its leather, which comes in both hard and soft, with five different color variations (Camel, Chocolate, Black, Green and Red). The thick and heavy leather may be something of a turnoff for people looking for a lightweight bag, which might explain the brand's particular popularity with male shoppers. Classically stylish, there aren't many bells and whistles on a Herz bag. The main attraction is the leather itself, which ages over long and hard use - there are always a few bags on display that have been used for numerous years, showing the way in which the leather deepens in color and texture over time. The stitching is clearly visible around the edges, making for a hand-stitched look despite their use of sewing machines. The metal buckles and fittings aren't flashy or overly abundant, lending a subtle balance of style and practicality.
As you might expect, this level of painstaking artistry and quality craftsmanship doesn't come cheap - a full size briefcase or shoulder bag can go for anywhere from 40,000 to 60,000 and larger and more complex items can get into the 70,000 to 80,000 range. Considering, however, that you'll likely be passing these items down to your grandchildren, the price should be seen as a very worthwhile investment. Moreover, after visiting the Herz store and seeing the joy and passion with which they treat their work, Herz comes across as a little Mom and Pop shop that made good. There's something of real value in the knowledge that one creative and dedicated person right here in Japan made your bag by hand. In our increasingly made-in-China world, that's worth quite a lot indeed.
Herz now has stores in Aoyama, Osaka and Sendai. More information is available on their website.
- Written by
- Chris Nelson
- Austin James Rea