Byline: Rose Apodaca Jones

For the Borsack family, there’s no business like show business.
Unless, of course, it’s their luggage business. Throughout the evolution of El Portal, their 65-year-old leather goods business in that other entertainment capital in the west, Las Vegas, three generations of Borsacks have come to believe that consumers want all the Technicolor thrills they can get out of an experience — even if all it involves is buying a suitcase.
It’s like this, noted Jim Borsack, creative director for the upscale retailer, “a guy doesn’t want to go to Vegas and spend his hard-earned $100 with a retailer. He wants to double and triple his money. Casinos treat their customers like gold; we do the same thing. We figure they can go anywhere else, any time.”
It’s a strategy that’s been impressed on Jim and his four siblings working in the business with their father, Donald E. Borsack, who is manning the helm after assuming the post from his father, E.W. Borsack, and repositioning the company as a leading retailer of luxury travel products.
Today, 25 El Portal stores offer luggage lines including Tumi, Lancel and Hartmann; handbags and briefcases from Coach, Bally, Fendi and Celine, and accessories from Kenneth Cole, Swiss Army and Mont Blanc. Recent additions: the handmade Mulholland Bros. line from San Francisco and the Italian Mandarina Duck line.
Now it’s the family’s mission — along with their parent company, Minneapolis-based Wilsons The Leather Experts — to expand its innovative concept with 125 more stores in the next three years.
On April 9, Wilsons acquired Bentley’s Luggage Corp., a privately held Miami based retailer with 106 mall and outlet stores and sales of roughly $100 million. “Clearly, it’s our goal to create a national chain for luggage and leather goods,” said Joel Waller, chairman of Wilsons, who added that within the next year, the Bentley stores will all be converted to El Portal units.
Some 15 El Portal stores are expected to open this year, including three in Dallas and two in Chicago. A New York flagship is in the future once a location is found, with sites abroad being considered for the next four to five years. El Portal units average 4,000 square feet and can carry upward of two dozen brands.
“The really huge growth is for next year, when we will open about 40 stores,” said Jim Borsack, who also serves as senior vice president of marketing.
The Wilsons acquisition has been instrumental in supporting the family’s aspirations for El Portal, which is expected to generate about $75 million in sales this year. Although headquarters remain in Las Vegas, the company’s marketing offices are in Fountain Valley, Calif.
“This industry is a sleeping giant, and nobody’s ever taken it to the next level,” said Donald Borsack. “The travel industry is probably one of the largest in the world, but if you go to the airport, you’ll see a woman with a diamond as big as a fist, wearing a fur coat, yet waiting for some luggage she borrowed from her neighbor. This doesn’t make sense. “It’s always been my idea to try to make luggage a fashion-conscious item. You wouldn’t check into a Ritz Carlton with scuffed shoes or a suit with buttons missing.”
Through their marketing and retail environments, the Borsacks aim to infuse their product with a mystique similar to that of steamer trunks pictured in old films. “Years ago, we decided to base our approach on making it an experience,” noted Donald Borsack.
“We’re of the opinion that people are going to want to travel nicer now,” added Jim Borsack. “And as travel gets more fun and people get used to taking shorter trips, they’re bored with what’s out there in luggage.”
El Portal opened in 1936 on Fremont Street — when Las Vegas’s population was well under 10,000 — in a tiny 300-square-foot space devoted to electrical appliances. The newly erected Hoover Dam was fast attracting tourists and other newcomers to town. With this in mind — as well as the surrounding Latino influence — company founder E.W. Borsack came up with the Spanish name meaning “porch,” or more loosely, “entrance.”
“Then when the war started, we weren’t able to get any more appliances,” Donald Borsack recalled. “Westinghouse and GE were in the war effort, and Las Vegas was starting to grow with the air base. My mother got the idea that people needed suitcases.” His parents visited luggage makers in Los Angeles, providing them with style and color specifications. “We didn’t have a name brand — but we had good-quality luggage.”
With toasters now out of the picture, the Borsacks relocated to a 1,000-square-foot space in downtown Las Vegas, where they catered to the luggage needs of such Hollywood luminaries as Errol Flynn, Judy Garland, Louis Armstrong and even gangster Bugsy Siegel. Steeped in such history, El Portal has taken their entertainment credo literally, providing product placement or designing original suitcases for films and outfitting modern-day celebs with their pieces.
The company turned a corner some 18 years ago when it opened in the Fashion Show Mall on the Las Vegas strip. While his competitors continued to line up luggage according to size, Donald Borsack decided to “boutique” the different lines, grouping them by brand.
“When you walk into most leather goods or luggage stores, it’s not very exciting,” said Donald Borsack. “You see a lot of black leather, mostly. We tried to bring it to the next level with color and variety.”
The company created a manufacturing and wholesale division in 1995 to establish brand identity and respond to fashion trends and customer requests. The division actively monitors consumer demographics, needs and interests so products can be designed to fit specific markets. “You watch for trends,” said Ed Borsack, the regional manager for San Diego. “A shoulder strap on a briefcase is an American thing. A European wouldn’t think about [letting] a shoulder strap [touch] his good suit.”
El Portal has also launched two Web sites in the past three years: showcases the signature collections and provides promotional news and store locations, while, an e-commerce site, offers everything from accessories and luggage to travel advice and tips.
Last fall, the family presented “El Portal Passage,” a magalog filled with adventure articles, fashion editorial (with pricing and an 800-number discreetly listed) and plenty of advertising, which made its debut with a 150,000-copy run.
El Portal has upped the ante on its retail environments as well — like the 3,700-square-foot South Coast Plaza store, with its ceiling of painted clouds. That door is connected to a 2,200-square-foot Tumi boutique, one of eight El Portal has owned and operated for two years. It also means gift-with-purchases of Swatch watches or Legoland tickets. Last summer, the company cosponsored the afterparty of the celebrity-studded Los Angeles charity benefit for “The Vagina Monologues.” An installation at the party showcased El Portal’s own line, complete with intergalatically inspired go-go dancers.
The signature collection was created at the request of Japanese tourists who on visits to the Hawaiian, Guam and South Coast Plaza stores wanted to know where the El Portal luggage was. “My brothers and I would say, ‘Yeah, where is the El Portal luggage?”‘ recalled Ed Brosack. “And we realized that to be somebody, you have to have a signature line.”
Los Angeles-based designer Jian Paolo Lombardo designs and produces the namesake collection, including a denim line and seasonal, limited-edition pieces, which now account for 18 percent of store sales.
“We doubt it will grow much bigger, because we want to remain multibranded,” said Jim Borsack. “But our customers want to see the newest and the best. If we limit ourselves to a single brand, we stray from what we’re about.”