Although you probably have never heard of Belber, the good news is that it’s back – and with a covetable collection of accessories for so-called “Modern Nomads.”
During its heyday in the 1900s to 1950s, Belber produced and epitomized some of the finest luggage, travel and doctor bags on the market. Founded in Philadelphia way back in 1891 by the immigrant brothers Aaron and Henry Belber, the brand temporarily held the title of largest manufacturer of luggage in world just over a decade later and went on to register 80 design and technical patents in the USA during its high-flying commercial reign.
However, things began to nosedive for Belber in the 1960s and ’70s and it went dormant until it was revived late last year by a savvy, history-loving group of investors and creative talent. They’ve now created bags and other accessories that are thoroughly modern but also pay homage to Belber’s goldmine of a design archive.
Olga Dolapsakis, COO of this newly resurrected heritage brand, recently guided me through the label’s reanimation and welcome relanding.
What’s the short history of Belber?
Aaron and Henry Belber (joined by brothers Herman and Maurice a few years later) had an objective in mind: to make travel goods attractive as well as functional and to make them more accessible to an emerging affluent middle class. The first factory opened in 1903 in Philadelphia and Belber soon opened offices and more factories in all major cities in the country (New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Minneapolis) and acquired other competitor brands. The product range also evolved over time. Belber kept adapting their offer to include a wide variety of travel bags and suitcases, zipped bags (zippers came into the market in the mid 1910s) and matched luggage sets, with great focus on resistance while maintaining aesthetic balance and beauty. Belber’s motto “As Modern As Tomorrow” – featured in most of its ads – clearly reflects that the brothers’ quest for product and business excellence was an ongoing process.
What is the brand best known for today?
Belber is a heritage brand, proud of its trunk making origins and product and commercial success for so many decades and has now returned as a high-end leather goods brand for the modern urban traveler.
What are some of the key highlights of the current collection?
Belber bags are working, day pieces with great capacity, meant for carrying all sorts of things during your daily journey, including laptops, tablets, gadgets, your jacket, fitness gear or your daily essentials. Our products do not follow fleeting trends but they do respond to the market reality and customer needs.
In true Belber mode, function and form must meet and the reality is that most people do not change their day bags every day or even every month. Many people just want a few good pieces they know they can make the most of getting through their busy days in style. So far the bestselling shapes would be the messengers and portfolios, followed by the travel wallet.
What special details set Belber apart from other brands?
There seems to be a wave of uniformity in the leather goods market lately and we realized that very often it was challenging for customers to find just a briefcase, a portfolio or a wallet that offered top quality and attention to detail both outside and inside and that had its own identity. It is surprising to see how often interiors are considered secondary even by top brands so we also wanted to pay special attention to the lining and the way our interiors are finished and organized.
We also wanted to use full grain leather, resistant but supple, with great hand and character. Significant investment was made on the quality of our hardware and components. Our metal parts are stainless steel, especially developed for Belber, are extremely durable and do not become scratched or oxidated over time.
Who is the Belber customer?
The current line is aimed at Urban Nomads, dynamic individuals who live and move mainly in an urban context and travel regularly, not only across borders but possibly within the country or even the city, commuting, driving, running from meeting to meeting, escaping at the weekend, multi-tasking.
The fact that our products are unisex also explores a different way of choosing and carrying a bag and a different way of marketing the product and the brand. We have seen the same bag on two opposite people looking amazing every time. So we can say that our customer base is very wide both in terms of age and style but they do have something in common: they are mostly dynamic urbanites who are always on the go.
How large is the collection?
Currently, there are eight models of leather bags and document holders, with a touch of canvas in part of the line, and six models of small leather goods, all available through our online store. The leather line is available in four essential colors on a permanent basis and the bestsellers are currently offered in up to eight color combinations, which will continue to grow.
What are the prices?
Leather bags start at $790 and go up to $1,790. Canvas bags are $380 to $490 and small leather goods are $105 to $395.
What are some your favorite pieces?
The Grand Central bowling is probably the most striking so far. It is such a strong, beautiful bag and so easy to recognize. It is actually inspired in one of Belber’s original zipped bowling bags but with new details that refresh the look.
Another favorite is the Perry Street messenger because of its slim construction and silhouette but great capacity. It is body friendly, soft and surprisingly light, easy to pack and can be used as a briefcase, messenger or even a portfolio. The metal clasps are incredibly easy to open and close while moving, something that has always been a struggle with briefcases and messengers. So we definitely solved this problem.
Number three would probably be the Tribeca tote, which is a mix between a briefcase and a soft open tote and has a very distinct personality with a very clean surface.
How are the products manufactured?
Belber products are 100% handmade using traditional saddle-making techniques. The manufacturing process is manual although the workshop counts on the latest technology in certain parts, like leather cutting. The manufacturing model is closer to that of brands like Hermes or Loewe than to large factory mass production.
Our raw materials and components are sourced all over the world, wherever the best suppliers are. The most important one, the leather, comes from Texas.
One bag will be finished by a small group of people who will take care of it from A to Z. Time varies according to the style but one bag takes between half a day to one full day to be completed.