I have been in a bit of a baggage frenzy recently. Most of the things that have been arresting my attention have been bag related; suitcases, holdalls, camera bags – all the carrying accessories of travelling gentlemen. I have been discovering a wide variety of interesting and appealing bags – though some of these are downright silly (belt pouch anyone?) – and have been fantasising about amassing a collection of sturdy and stylish luggage. My search yielded some remarkable finds, most notable of which was the tasteful but tiny firm of John Chapman, manufacturer of some of the finest and most attractive bags I have ever seen.
I first inspected a Chapman bag, a tweed travel washbag to be exact, in D.R Harris on St James Street. I noted not only the fine aesthetic and real leather trimming but also the heavy brass zips and sturdy double-stitching. This was not a bag made with some offcut of suiting for an ironic gesture of economy. This was a serious and sober piece of kit, solid as a rock and as English as the hills of Cumbria. It was no surprise therefore that this rock of a washbag was crafted on Tannery Road, Carlisle in the shadow of the Cumbrian peaks.
Chapman, though little known in the retail world, has manufactured for a myriad of brands, a sure sign of the quality of the product and skill of manufacture. Their clients have included Holland & Holland, House of Hardy, Gieves & Hawkes, Cordings, Paul Smith, Land Rover, DAKS and Acquascutum – a fair litany for a miniscule old tannery north of the Lake District.
Justly proud of their contributions, Chapman lay bare their techniques for manufacture; hand cut material, no computer controlled machinery, hand-crafted saddlery and solid brass hardware. Every single choice, each process of manufacture is so creamily English, so traditional and time-consuming.
All trim is leather and the webbing is of a military grade; these bags are made to last years and, according to Chapman they actually do; “Customers sometimes send us their bags after many years’ hard use for us to renew or repair because they have formed a personal bond with that bag.” When they’re this well-made, and this attractive, such bonds are scarcely surprising. While they are undoubtedly robust, they are not inelegant. Chapman make everything from holdalls and rucksacks to shoulder bags, shooting bags and wallets all in a ‘house style’ which is something resembling old exploration bags; khaki and moss green cotton canvas with brown leather trim. They also offer, like any good luggage manufacturer, a bespoke service which enables the commissioner to stipulate not only the size, shape and specific purpose of the bag (e.g. lens carrier) but also the trim, interior and canvas colour.