Fischer Voyage: A quest to discover luxury in the American Midwest

Steven Fischer’s life took a sharp turn in 2012. A former business school professor, he changed his career more radically than most of his students. He told me about his journey from academia to luxury goods, and what his $10,000 leather bag says about the rediscovery of American craftsmanship.

fischer voyageI was travelling in autumn 2012 when I came across a beautiful century-old leather bag at an auction. I’d never spent so much money on a bag; I’m careful about what I consume. But this bag spoke to me. As I made my way back home, people stopped me—in the street, at the airport, on the train—to ask about it.

I’d been following the luxury industry from an academic perspective for nearly a decade. I knew people were dissatisfied with the huge conglomerates running luxury brands these days, particularly the fact that so many take so little heed of their heritage. That goods are rarely made in the places you’d identify with their brands—Italy, France, England. That they’re now manufactured in low-cost countries, in many cases at the same factories as competitors’ products, with little regard for bespoke craftsmanship.

By the time I got home to Chicago, I’d made up my mind to bring back true handmade luxury—to reincarnate the bag I’d bought, and to make it entirely in America.

From idea to prototype

Lots of people told me it would be impossible to make the bag completely in the United States. I took their challenge a step further. I didn’t want to have to get on a plane to visit my suppliers. I wanted them within a six-hour drive from Chicago. So I embarked on a months-long driving tour of the Midwest to find my craftspeople.

First, I went looking for the leather. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there were dozens of tanneries in Chicago. Now there’s only one, Horween Tannery, the last remaining tannery in the city. They take care of all the leather for the bag.

I sought out saddle and harness makers, known in the luxury world as the best leather-goods craftsmen. Gucci, Hermes–their heritage was in the saddle- and harness-making business. They weren’t easy to find, but after persistently questioning horse owners, I found a fourth-generation harness maker to craft the handle and saddle makers to hand stitch the bag, giving it a strong construction.

A master blacksmith (who communicates only by posted letter) forges the buckles by hand, and all the other brass hardware is handmade in the back yard of a machinist here in Evanston, where I live. Every part, down to the brass screws and bottom feet, is custom-made, and everything including the thread and lining fabric is made in the United States. That level of detail and workmanship costs ten times more to produce, but I wanted to make something unique that I could be proud of.

From Chicago to London

The bag speaks to an early 20th-century aesthetic, when people would take voyages across the ocean by boat. It’s inspired by the idea of going away somewhere, and by my own voyage rediscovering fine American craftsmanship.

I took the bag to a luxury conference in Vienna, and within less than a year I was in London launching the bag at Harrods. The retailer’s buyer for luggage said, “My family has been in the luggage industry for four decades. Your quality is better than what we see from France and Italy today. I can’t believe it comes from the Midwest. We’ll take your bag, but you need a better name.”

So the Fischer Bag Company was renamed Fischer Voyage and the next stage of my journey began. Since then, the bag, named the ‘Prairie’ after the region it comes from, has been featured in the Financial Times and BBC. We’re now stocked in the refined Savile Row tailor, Byrne & Burge.

One day, one of the shop’s clients asked if we made belts. So we got started on an adventure to make other leather goods. From bags to belts is small leap compared to the one I’ve already made. Teaching about something and actually doing it are worlds apart.


Photo credit: Doug Human