The imprint on the label discloses a major reason for its success – Made in England. That, says Daniel Chamier, is what makes Chapman bags so popular abroad. It may surprise theorists who suggest England, indeed Britain, is entering a post-manufacturing economy.
But John Chapman Ltd exemplifies remarkably how quality of manufacture can command its price at home and abroad. Daniel himself, owner and chief executive, is a convert from high-powered finance executive in the City to manufacturing boss in the regions – painstaking and enthusiastic, but convinced also that the true value of manufacturing to this country needs better recognition and encouragement. To him it has become a cause.
Step inside his firm’s small and tasteful redbrick premises in Carlisle. A remarkable display of product immediately impresses. Hand crafted Chapman bags, originally made for anglers and shooters, today are diversified, serving not only other sports and recreations but also the needs of holiday travellers and business commuters.
All the briefcases and bags, be the latter shoulder or luggage, canvas, leather or tweed, are made at the firm’s factory on genteel Harraby Green Business Park – a site that has hosted tanning and other skills over some 300 years.
Just as Chapman products for men and women have moved with the times – they now even include fishing bags with laptop space, if pleasure has to mix with business - so too has the workplace itself. The traditional exterior of the firm’s building houses a modern interior, where contemporary needs are met with no sacrifice to time-honoured craftsmanship.
In the past year or so Chapman bags have been made for Pierce Brosnan, Stephen Fry, Bear Grylls, Sir Chris Hoy, Andy Murray and Sir Roger Moore, following earlier notable customers who include royals, Margaret Thatcher and Robert Plant.
Beyond Britain many Germans, Japanese and Australians in particular value Chapman bags for their quality components and materials: gaff rings of solid brass, dyed and waterproofed cotton canvas multi-layered, webbing totally cotton and of military grade, quick release fastenings. And the design: holdalls with wide openings for easy packing and unpacking, sizes suiting both weekends away and longer trips, variety of colour and a versatility that enables the rucksacks, for example, to serve hikers, cyclists and commuters alike.
“Our unique selling point is our authenticity,” Daniel declares. “We’re British made and high quality.”
Striking online promotion has drawn customers also from the USA, France, Scandinavia, South Korea, Singapore, China and Russia. Like a bespoke suit, as the company catalogue suggests, material for each bag is hand cut on the premises and assembled using traditional methods. Years of experience go into the handstitching, and you’ll search hard to find another British brand whose bags are assembled wholly in its own British factory. No wonder Daniel, in chorus with three directors and private investors, describes Chapman as a “great little British brand”.
The company, settled in Carlisle since the early 1980s, has been on its present site for around 25 years. Over the past decade the pace has risen from that of an underinvested virtual cottage industry through to the opening of a factory extension and general makeover in 2013, which has doubled capacity and accommodated new machinery.
Investment in extending and renovating, not only the works but also the offices and factory shop, enables the company to welcome more comfortably face to face trade and retail clients, visiting parties too who enjoy seeing manufacturing first hand. It’s a confidence booster for bagmaking in the UK generally, Daniel thinks.
“It’s certainly enabling us to manufacture a wider range of bags and increase our offer to the public,” he explains, stressing that the machinery is only for certain jobs, not for reducing the application of manual skills. “The bags are still hand crafted by dexterous artisans,” he affirms.
Most of the firm’s 25 employees there are Cumbrian born and bred. Some are long serving, but young people too will increasingly benefit through three new apprentice schemes being launched, a commitment felt vital to sustain the skills levels. “We’re investing in the future of British bag making this way, and through student placements from Carlisle College,” Daniel explains.
Even the city’s recent devastating floods failed to numb ladies’ fingers, though business was disrupted by the city’s watery divide impeding get-to-work routines, and vehicle shipments. An embankment, emplaced as if by foresight, coddled Chapman and neighbouring small businesses.
The company remit takes in designers of numerous clothing and accessories, as well as brands and corporate needs. It offers a full design, sampling, sourcing and production service. Hence the stream of British and international designers, brand representatives and retailers now seeking a personal service and local sourcing which Daniel believes is beyond the ability of mass market suppliers to provide.
Daniel, aged 52, is to Chapman as Viktor Kiam famously was to Remington razors. He too liked the brand so much he bought it. He was looking for a suitable bag to carry on a safari trip in 2005. A Cambridge MA in law, Daniel in his career up to then had been an associate with Lazard Brothers for eight years, then managing director at JP Morgan, where he’d been from 1994 until 2003. From then until 2007, he would be a partner with Lipworth Capital. Mergers and acquisitions, financial sponsorship in Europe and UK corporate coverage were his thing.
“I particularly wanted to buy a British made canvas rucksack,” he recalls. “I could only find something from a brand called Chapman. But I liked the product. I liked its character. I don’t like branding that says one thing but proves to be another. I was so pleased with what Chapman showed and gave that in the following year I invested in the business. That began a 10 year journey which still grips me every day.
“I passionately believe that manufacturing is still vital to our society and our economy here in Britain,” he declares. “Chapman enables me to put that perspective into practice.”
More than that, he has lobbied successive governments on the matter. “Too much of our human and physical material is London centric today - fine for London, but not enough human and physical capital enters the nation’s economy from businesses like ours.
“Over 400 years we’ve always in this country been good at making things. This skill requires reinvesting. Germany, Italy and France still make things profitably. We seem, by contrast, too ready to accept we can’t make things profitably any more. It’s hard work and it takes time, but we should accept that.”
He suggests supporters of a post-manufacturing economy are influenced by London’s present position in the economy. “We’re indeed lucky to have a capital city so magnificent for international business services,” he agrees. “There’s probably no other city in the world like that. But London’s different from the rest of this country, having so many of those businesses.
“The further you are away from London the more important our other industries in manufacturing and construction become. It’s a huge mistake to think we can survive without manufacturing skills, and we have to consider the other places.
“If we condemn these places by relying wholly on London services we’re heading for a very, very disappointing future with large parts of the country turned into theme parks and supermarkets. That’s not what we need. We have to apply our skills – get serious about making things. Look at the madness surrounding steel.”
Daniel sees five reforms necessary. Ultimate customers, he finds, want quality and value for money, not necessarily cheapness. “We discuss their wants with them directly, whether they’re paying £250 or £1,500. The way many manufactures are sold, brands can be marked up five times to give intermediaries margins they want. Seven times out of 10, I’d say, that’s the business model. So things are being Chinese made. It’s happening globally - not just in this country.”
Online helps counter this. But there’s the labelling hurdle too. Daniel explains: “There’s no labelling law in this country to state where something is made, unlike in the USA, Japan and China. For me, this is a fundamental. I’ve made representations to successive governments but the common attitude is ‘laissez faire’. They won’t do anything. “Apparently it’s considered important to encourage global supply chains. But without a labelling law, manufacturing is discouraged. They think it’s better to source in China.”
Then comes the education lament. “The system isn’t fit for purpose on skills,” he argues. “It doesn’t deal with it, merely badges it. Yet where there are skills there are jobs for young people.”
Finally there are the restricted and restrictive practices in this country’s retail industry, where, unlike in other countries’ shops, too little on-the-spot variety of choice in brands is available to customers.
Daniel believes local decision making, through regional devolution, could tackle some of the issues through closer proximity to the workplaces - provided adequate funding accompanies the step. It all brings to mind a prediction made in BQ magazine three years ago when another City convert, Jonathan Ruffer, now transforming County Durham’s tourism with a multi-million pound resuscitation of Auckland Castle, suggested: “ I think South East England will be dead in the water in 25 years’ time. Its skills are in the wrong places. Its pricing of wages and property is wrong.”
Daniel himself speaks with a foot still in both camps physically. He and his family live in London, where he also works, Chapman having a showroom there. But regularly also he leaves home in Clapham at 7.30am, catches a train and is at his desk in Carlisle by noon.
“Our turnover is now about four times what it was, creating at compound rates of 15% a year for 10 years. Our best sellers presently are our own-label traditional canvas bags and luggage for men, also the original fishing bags the company first made many years ago.”
Chapman sells wholesale to shops worldwide. Further sales support complements its London showroom presence now, and it regularly appears in overseas trade shows. “We also work with other brands,” Daniel points out. “We provide, for instance, the bags for the front of the frame of folding bicycles that Brompton Bicycle makes.”
Quite a steady ride, that, given that Brompton is the UK’s largest volume manufacturer of bicycles.