Written by Daniel James Parry
Established in Cumbria, the natural beauty of the surrounding Lake District and Borders has provided much of the inspiration for Chapman’s range of canvas, leather and tweed bags, with various products named after local places and pastimes.
Founded in the early 1980s by local businessman John Chapman, who to this day lives close to the brand’s Carlisle workshops, the company began as a manufacturer of fishing and shooting bags, and from nothing, Chapman created an endlessly ambitious business selling British bags across the world. Now retired, John and his wife Jo are still in regular contact with Chapman bags, and are the epitome of remarkable entrepreneurial skills and marketing success.
The majority of employees working at Chapman bags are Cumbrians, ensuring the business maintains its local feel, with some working under the brand for a number of years, with young craftsman brought in and trained to join the Chapman family. The company believe this is an essential investment to maintain the technical skills and craftsmanship required to manufacture in England. Keen to share their craftsmanship with the public, Chapman Bags warmly invites the public to their factory, where groups of between 15 and 20 people are brought inside and shown what’s behind closed doors and the detail that goes into each bag.
John Chapman’s career in the country sports industry began when he was appointed Sales Director at Northumberland business, House of Hardy, the world’s pre-eminent supplier of fly fishing rods and tackle. Demonstrating his natural sales ability, John was soon drafted to a different aspect of the Hardy’s business to Churchill, the gunsmiths, where he was able to restore their fortune and returned to Hardy’s. Chapman’s venture into the bag industry began when he was contacted by The Honourable Tony Tennant, a prominent figure in the North East and a shareholder in a small sporting bag creator named the Liddesdale Fishing Bag Company. Tennant offered Chapman the role of Sales Director, which Chapman graciously accepted, however, after not seeing eye to eye with his new bosses at Barbour, who had bought out the Liddesdale Fishing Bag Company, Chapman soon left. A short while after, Barbour closed down Liddesdale, sourcing all of its bags from factories abroad at a lower cost.
But as the old adage goes, when God closes a door, he opens a window. It was this departure that spurred Chapman to start his own bag company. Ironically, as a testament to his sales abilities, his first client was his former employers, House of Hardy, however at this stage, he had no committed manufacturing premises. In 1984, the manufacture of bags began at home, more specifically, on his kitchen table in his house in Burgh-by-Sands, before expanding to include his garage in his makeshift workshop. To assist with demand, he employed a local machinist to assist in stitching the bags and cutting the material. John had been warned that he “would not make a profit for 12 years”, however in his first year, he traded profitably on a turnover of £21,000, a remarkable achievement by all means. His approach to sales and marketing were a breath of fresh air in an industry which had grown stale with its old fashioned practices. In the next few years, John and his wife found themselves at the helm of a profitable and successful business, fulfilling the bag needs of customers from all over the world, employing sales agents in the UK, Japan, Germany, France and Italy, as well as prestigious retail clients including Harrods and Liberty’s. Global brands including Barbour requested John’s services, however pricing requirements, which were driven by the wholesale market, were inconvenient.
This reputation of merit continued to grow, with Chapman Bags becoming a regular exhibitor at the Birmingham Spring Fair, the equestrian show SPOGA and the Game Fair, with an evergrowing mail order business, assisted by regular advertising in The Times, The Telegraph and Country Living to name a few national press sources. No stranger to success, Chapman Bags has several awards under its belt, all for export and entrepreneurial achievements.
Chapman Bags can regularly be seen casually dressing the shoulders of celebrities and royalty alike, with Margaret and Denis Thatcher and Princess Anne having been spotted carrying these Cumbrian creations. Demand rose when Prince Andrew’s wife, Sarah Ferguson, was snapped carrying a Chapman bag.
Speaking modestly and subverting from the modern fashion designer ideology, John described how the majority of his most successful bags were designed in the pub after work, a tribute to the man’s capabilities that a number of his original designs are to this day Chapman’s best sellers.
To keep up with demand, John rented workshops to the side of the Metal Box factory in Carlisle, moving the business to its current location in Tannery Road in Harraby Green Business Park in the early 1990s. This striking and beautiful building has become a trademark part of the company image and certainly prides itself on being an inspired choice of location.
In the mid 1990s, House of Hardy made an impact by entering the bag market, making John an offer he simply could not refuse. As his retirement approached, John’s involvement gradually became less and less before respectfully bowing out some years later. Having remained in the Borders with his wife Jo, John is still in contact with the business today. The inspirational story of the amount of hard work put in from scratch with limited resources in a notoriously difficult industry to build an incredibly successful brand still stands in today’s industry.
Chapman Bags remains a quintessentially British brand, having been acquired by new owners in 2006 who have remained endlessly committed to their Made in England policy. Constantly growing, Chapman Bags can now be bought in every corner of the world. The brand is known across the country, and recognised as one of the last remaining authentic UK bag manufacturers.
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