Twelve months ago, Emil Congdon was a happily married suburban father of a 2-year-old daughter with a job selling Dell computers and a hobby he absolutely loved: crafting finely hewn leather bags that he sold under the name Emil Erwin.
What a difference a year makes.
Last November, Congdon's life changed almost overnight. A few days after the birth of his second daughter, Garden & Gun magazine, a new publication with a focus on artisan goods seemingly devoted to classing up perceptions of the South, called to say that he had won the style division of their "Made in the South" competition, which celebrates creative companies located below the Mason-Dixon line.
After the issue of G&G announcing his win hit newsstands, demand for Congdon's luxurious but decidedly practical bags grew so quickly that by early December, he found it necessary to quit his day job and focus solely on filling the orders that were flooding in from Alabama to South Dakota and beyond.
"Winning that contest was the catalyst that caused so many things to happen," he says. "I'm sure that 10 or 20 years from now I'll look back and be able to say that this is when everything changed."
Congdon never set out to have a career in design, and being crafty didn't figure much into his childhood: "I was the one who taught my mom how to sew," he recalls.
He started sewing in high school, inspired by a mix of curiosity and necessity. "I found a hole in my pants and decided I was going to fix it myself. So I bought a sewing machine and taught myself how to use it. No one showed me how; I figured out how to sew through trial and error."
Several years ago, when he was casually selling his wares under the name East Nashville Upholstery, Congdon's main sales outlets were local craft fairs. Last summer, when he teamed up with local indie design whizzes Carrie and Matt Eddmenson of Imogene + Willie to produce a small selection of bags (two styles were eventually marketed and sold by J. Crew), the couple questioned this approach. "They told me that I needed to choose my path," he says. "That I could keep doing craft shows and be known for that, or I could really focus on making this into something." He chose the latter.
As of this spring, Emil Erwin offers seven styles of bags, including totes, messengers, briefcases and satchels that come in leather, waxed canvas or a combination of the two materials, as well as a wallet, belt and shop apron. All are for sale on the company's website, www.emilerwin.com. Prices range from $75 for the belt to $1,100 for a new messenger/briefcase combo, with most tags in the $500 to $700 range.
Like other small heritage brands — the name given to fashion companies that specialize in making classic clothes from high-quality materials — Congdon makes a strong point of buying American. His source for hides is Chicago's Horween Leather Co., one of the oldest tanneries in the U.S.; the waxed canvas is made at Fairfield Textile in New Jersey.
Congdon wants his customers to know he's personally invested in the quality of his brand. All Emil Erwin products are guaranteed for life, something that the designer makes clear in the handwritten note he includes with each order. (He sends his cell number, too.)
"So many people start a business to make lots of money," he says. "I never think about the money. If anything, instead of trying to cut corners I look for ways to improve the quality – which usually means spending even more time and money on the front end. I make it even more difficult, it seems."
He doesn't plan to expand Emil Erwin's scope beyond a workload that he and a small team can handle. The first step is moving the business out of the 267-square-foot garage-cum-workspace in the backyard of Congdon's East Nashville home and into a small storefront where he and two or three other artisans can work side by side.
"I'd love to have a small retail space and workshop in the front and a little room in the back where the kids can play," he says. "But I don't want to get so big that I have to hand the work off to someone else. That's not why I do this.
"I don't want to take over the world: I just want to make nice bags."
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