John Bartlett turns nostalgic when asked about his first luxury bag.
While an undergraduate at Harvard, the budding designer coveted the twill and leather Ghurka satchel carried by many of the male and female law students at the university.
“As soon as I could afford [it], I bought one,” says Bartlett.
The style was one of the Norwalk, Conn., brand’s most ubiquitous looks, the Cavalier carryall. Twenty years later, Bartlett, the creative force behind his own men’s wear line, still carries his Cavalier.
Now his longtime personal relationship with the handbag brand is turning professional. In September, Bartlett took on an additional job as Ghurka’s creative director, first launching a men’s wear grouping for spring. In the fall, he will introduce his first women’s collection for the brand. Bartlett also is launching evening bags under the brand’s name. Shoes, outerwear and ready-to-wear are on the agenda for next year.
“The beauty of this brand is that it’s got a great heritage, but that it’s also so underexposed,” says Bartlett. “Ghurka has a cult-like following.”
Ghurka was acquired by Vergier Holdings, an affiliate of Accessory Network Group, in 2003. The mission of its new owners is to get the 31-year-old brand on the must-have list of discerning luxury consumers, and to grow its women’s business. Until now, the brand’s product assortment hasn’t been very female-friendly; 70 percent of the collection was targeted to a male customer. Ghurka first brought in former Mulberry designer Simeon Turnbull to rework the women’s line. He created trendier looks, like a deerskin hobo with natural horn details at the handles and an oversize suede tote in a seafoam green with metallic leather whipstitching. Bartlett’s collection takes another direction. He is focusing on more classic leather silhouettes for women.
“A lot of real fashionistas have never heard of Ghurka before, and that, to me, is exciting,” says Bartlett, who focused on equestrian-inspired designs for the fall women’s collection. “I’m open to a fashionable customer, but with the understanding that what we are offering is an investment and that it transcends the trends.”
Bartlett’s dedication to craftsmanship is crucial to this vision. The leather has been upgraded to a smooth and supple French calfskin. The hardware has been revisited to perfect the curves of a D-ring and the finish of, say, a pilgrim buckle.
Bartlett’s premier women’s collection comprises 15 styles. It will bow in Ghurka’s stores in New York, Chicago and San Francisco in July. Department store distribution is in the works, though the company has not confirmed specifics.
Key looks include a small tweed frame bag with leather trim and top handles, and an east-west satchel inspired by a horse saddle and constructed with molded leather.
Totes and other styles come in neutral colors of caramel, chocolate and gray. Fashion colors include persimmon and olive green. The handbags will retail from $550 to $1,850.
Each bag is lined in leather, and stamped and numbered for an added touch of luxury, as they have been since Ghurka was founded in 1975.
Bartlett’s one evening style is a framed minaudière designed in slate stingray skin. It features a clear resin fob closure.
“Once we get a little more history behind the handbag, the idea is to go into other categories,” Bartlett says of exploring shoes, outerwear and rtw. “One thing I see as a definite is the quintessential Ghurka safari jacket for men and women.”
Ghurka’s sales have increased 30 percent over last year, due in part to the opening of the Chicago store in August 2004 and the relocation and expansion of the firm’s New York flagship last spring, as well as better inventory management, increased supply and increased brand awareness as a result of an aggressive public relations and marketing campaign, according to owner Abe Chehebar, chief executive officer of Accessory Network Group.
“John has brought a clear point of view to the table for the brand,” says Chehebar. “The brand has a great heritage, and he modernized the details and the silhouette for the needs of the customer. We’re reinvigorating the Ghurka customer and attracting a younger, hipper customer, too.”
A women’s advertising campaign will bow in spring 2007.
This article appeared in WWD Accessories Supplement a special publication to WWD.