On Leather, Legacy, and Infinite Possibility:
We're growing our community! As part of our Autotype Design Club, we asked our inaugural member ICON4x4 Founder Jonathan Ward to interview our newest: Moore & Giles' Elizabeth Stroud, VP of Bags and Accessories, on about her personal journey, what she values most in the brand, and what she looks for in design (and designers).
Jonathan Ward: What about you personally, with the brand, how did you, why did you?
ES: I grew up in Lynchburg, Virginia where we're based. Lynchburg is fairly small (with a population of roughly 80,000) and we had very little in the way of culture. There was never any question that I would leave, and my parents were 100 percent in support of that. I went away to college and then I lived in New York for a while working for Hermés. Then, in 2008, like very many people in the world during the financial crisis, I lost my job.
[After that] I pretty much started reaching out to anybody and everybody. One of them was Sackett Wood (president of Moore & Giles), thinking that he might connect me to somebody in the furniture world because I had been working in home décor. I thought that that was sort of a natural place for me to go.
JW: Did you already know Sackett from your hometown?
ES: Actually, yes I did. Little known fact: Sackett and I are related. But it’s not the type of family relationship where I knew exactly what he did or what the company did, to be honest. I just knew that he worked with furniture companies and thought that might be an in for me.
JW: At that time were they in finished goods already?
ES: Yes, barely. They started in July of 2007, and I came in at the beginning of 2009, so I essentially consider myself as having been here from the beginning. After I emailed him, he called and said, “Hey, I would really love for you to come in and look at this bag line that we're doing.” It wasn’t really what I saw myself doing. With Hermés, I didn’t enjoy being in the high fashion world. It was a little too cutthroat. I visualized it being more fashion or trend-driven than it actually was (and still is). I liked home decor because it was so easygoing compared to all of that.
So, I came and I chatted with the Moore & Giles team and my eyes opened to the work that they were doing here. It sort of knocks your socks off; it's just so much more than one might think. The rest is kind of history: I joined in March of 2009 I've been here ever since, and I'm so happy. It was a great transition for me, even though I was a little bit reluctant in the beginning.
JW: So, what is it about Moore & Giles? How would you differentiate Moore & Giles and its approach to leather as a design medium?
ES: Leather isn’t just a medium for us; it is the product. We begin with the leather — sometimes we’ll find a leather we love and hold onto it for years before the right product makes sense. We design the material, and then the product. I don’t know of another company that does this.
JW: What do you look for in leather? How do you find the best?
ES: On my side of the business, we look for leather as natural as possible. This means natural characteristics: wrinkles, bug bites, and scratches. We rarely look for consistency in a piece of leather. We’re looking for something that is going to patina and to evolve over time. Of course, the hand is important. Weight can also be a factor, especially in travel pieces.
JW: Moore & Giles has been around since 1933 doing what it does. How do you stay fresh and relevant?
Many of our evolutions have happened out of necessity rather than intention. In some cases, it’s been pure survival. In some ways, we are this startup and still operate like that. But because we have the larger company behind us we don't always feel that way. We evolve because we refuse to fail. [And] we’ve been able to evolve successfully because of a commitment to our employees and community. That said, we’re fortunate to have a really strong leader who is willing to take risks and invest in new areas of business.
JW: So, there are pros and cons because you have the infrastructure and the resources above and beyond what a newbie would have, but, having only been in this specific space since 2008, you kind of lose the PR benefit of that spin. I imagine if you had to pick, though, the former is more important than the latter.
ES: Yes. We are very focused on quality and longevity and really giving people access to the very best leather that we can. Due to the way that the industry has gone in the U.S., even just in terms of access to machinery, we have not found the quality we’re after in a small workshop. We wish that that weren't true, and in fact, we're always looking for people who are able to work locally, but at our level, it seems like there's been a little friction between those two things. But we're not giving up. We're constantly keeping our eyes and ears open and trying to discover new people.
JW: What do you look for in new people when you collaborate with local craftsmen?
ES: We have a high standard of quality, and so skill is important (and quite difficult to find). While we do have some people who operate only in manufacturing, we generally look for people who can bring an additional creative perspective, who have an eye for quality and can push us to be better than we are today.
JW: What does your design team look like?
ES: We have a single designer, Thomas. Tray, our vice president, is very creative and often very involved in product feedback. And Sackett, our president, as well. They'll come to us with new ideas or they'll say, “I was traveling and I saw this,” or, “I was traveling and this didn't work for me.” I think the greatest part about what we do is just that we have all these people to road test for us, literally.
JW: And what happens after someone says, "I was traveling and I saw this," or, "I was traveling and this didn't work for me." What is the Moore & Giles course of action with your road-test results?
ES: The feedback comes back to our design team and tweaks are made to the original design. Sometimes designs are scrapped altogether. We typically go through four rounds of sampling before a product comes to market and there are plenty of adjustments made in each round.
JW: A lot of times I have ideas that will keep me up at night that I want to pursue where the idea has merit, the market is viable, and the consumer is waiting. But it takes you just ever so slightly—or immensely—away from your core brand DNA and direction or product line. Do you guys ever find yourselves in that position?
ES: Yes! All the time. We’re a fairly classic brand so it doesn’t take much to feel like we’re pushing the envelope. Many times that’s just in color; sometimes it’s silhouette; sometimes it’s in a category niche – like entertaining.
Gosh, we have so many ideas and it's really about finding the right time, the right product, and marrying the perfect marketing and merchandising to it. There are so many things that apply. So, how do we challenge our customers and still be successful? I don't know the answer. I think we have a culture at Moore & Giles where you can try and fail, and it’s okay to make mistakes; even though we never want to make mistakes, it's part of it.
JW: I imagine that could've been an impetus for you to get into collaborations, like the Richard Haines stuff, where it allows you to kind of defer some of that responsibility and see how well it goes over and meshes or doesn't. Is that part of it?
ES: I think so.
We talk a lot about collaboration internally. It allows us to sort of flex our creative muscles. One of the things we always look to do is to see leather differently. Our collaboration with Richard Haines pushed leather one step further for us by laser etching it. The collaboration was focused on men’s so the concept was “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and featured a cowboy, baseball player, rockstar, etc. We truly had so much fun with this collaboration and imagining what we all wanted to be when we grew up.
Leather just opens up a lot of new doors and is something that we've continued to explore in new ways; it takes some of these projects to be able to open up other possibilities. Richard Haines is very well known in a certain segment, but for our core customer, I don't think that most knew who he was. It’s our responsibility to educate and make the statement and have them really want it.
JW: What do you look to see out of young designers?
ES: If we were looking for a new designer, or to bring a second person on, I would look for a strong creative perspective but also sound business sense. We strive to create products that are usable, so it’s important to understand our customer profile and why/when/where they shop, but also margins, merchandising, how a product sits in our catalog and on a retail floor. Design isn’t an isolated role on our team; it’s a part of our daily operations and really touches every aspect of our business.
And being able to hang on in situations you’re thrown into, and to have a point of view, is important and will serve these young designers well, wherever they go. You have to have a little mix of everything. And for us, especially, we’re always looking for, “a fire in your belly.”