To walk along Alexander Street is to have one foot in Vancouver's present and one foot in its past. Old, soon-to-be-rezoned buildings dot either side of the street, some boasting faded Chinese characters on their walls, the weakened marks of tenants past.
Looming above the distressed structures is a hotspot of Vancouver's creative industry: 611 Alexander. Tucked just a few steps west of the Clark Street overpass into Port Metro Vancouver, the large, blue-and-white building houses the offices of such well-known fashion firms as online menswear tailor Indochino and women's boutique Aritzia. It's also the headquarters of the Herschel Supply Company. The brainchild of brothers and fashion veterans Lyndon and Jamie Cormack, Herschel Supply is a maker of accessories such as backpacks, wallets and laptop sleeves and has become a go-to brand for the hip and fashion conscious.
Success has come fast – Herschel Supply was incorporated in November 2009 and its first products were in stores in July 2010. In the ensuing years, Herschel Supply has grown to employ 46 people, attract retailers worldwide and achieve tens of millions of dollars in sales (Herschel Supply is a private company and does not disclose precise sales figures). An admirable ascent, by any measure.
Lyndon, who manages sales and marketing for the company, is quick to put Herschel Supply's growth in context, however. When you start at zero, it's easy to expand.
"Since 2010, we have grown 17,000%. I know that at one point in time we'll look back and really appreciate it, but now is not the time for that," said Lyndon, 37, with a smile.
"Don't be fooled by those numbers. We are at a high-growth, aggressive-growth stage right now, but it has certainly gone down percentage-wise."
Despite Lyndon's somewhat sober perspective on the growth of the company, the publicity of Herschel Supply has been anything but temperate. The company's products have landed on the pages of the world's most famous magazines – GQ, Vogue, Sports Illustrated. Apple Inc. (Nasdaq:AAPL), the world's most valuable company, has exclusively sold Herschel Supply laptop and iPad sleeves in each of its stores globally since late 2011. And, ever the bellwether for tastemaking, Hollywood has taken notice, too.
Comedic actor and British Columbia native Seth Rogen is a fan, as is Danny McBride, star of HBO's Eastbound and Down. Even Suri Cruise, daughter of Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise, has been photographed carrying a green polka-dotted Herschel Supply bag.
But before there were Herschel-slung star-progeny sightings, glossy features and sales targets, there was a simple, seemingly practical idea: creating a line of affordable bags and accessories for those with a discerning fashion sense.
There were plenty of celebrated companies – Hermès and Louis Vuitton, for instance – navigating the high-end market, but nothing in the middle.
Both Jamie and Lyndon had years to analyze that perceived hole in the market. Prior to founding Herschel Supply, Lyndon worked for Vans shoes and Jamie worked for K2 Sports, both in various senior positions.
"It was something that we talked about all of the time. There wasn't really a bag company out there – there was people doing great bags – but no one continually doing it so that kids could really buy into it," said Jamie, 40, who oversees the company's design and production.
"You could buy a backpack and carry it around and look okay, but there wasn't one that had a heartbeat and a pulse behind it. That's what we wanted to do – add a lifestyle behind great quality bags and really a nice range and I think that's something we've been able to do over the last few years."
The company's heartbeat, in part, comes from travelling, added Jamie.
He and Lyndon, both recently returned from nearly month-long trips, have scoured the globe for production and design ideas. From hectic airports to hole-in-the-wall coffee shops, inspiration, for those paying attention, can be found anywhere.
"It could be as simple as travelling to a facility and watching how they stitch a bag," said Jamie. "It's where you look and how you look at everything."
That breadth of influence has helped produce a wide-ranging stable of products – bags inspired by sailing culture, wallets boasting vintage cars and camouflaged laptop sleeves, to name but three examples from its vast roster.
The other part of Herschel Supply's pulse, however, comes from, arguably, less cosmopolitan sources.
In 1906, Lyndon and Jamie's great-grandfather, Peter Cormack, moved to Canada from Scotland, one of the many European immigrants to come to Canada as part of the Dominion Lands Act, a law drafted to encourage people to settle in the Prairies.
He landed in Herschel, Sask., and was given 160 acres land, the legislated parcel bestowed to those who relocated as part of the act.
Herschel is a tiny village, the antithesis of sophisticated global fashion centres. The men in the family worked at the grain elevator; the Cormacks' grandfather, also named Peter, was the manager. He wore striped engineer's overalls to work every day, a pattern now found inside each Herschel Supply bag.
Jamie and Lyndon regularly visited Herschel as kids – their father left town at 18 for university – but co-opting the name is more than just a nod to their roots, or a simple plug to the microscopic hamlet.
To Lyndon and Jamie, Herschel is something decidedly more philosophical.
"He [Peter, the great grandfather] and our great grandmother Annie set up their life there. They really came with nothing except for an idea, a new challenge and a new opportunity," said Lyndon. "It was the sense of exploration, and whether it's past or future, all the possibilities that you can really have with nothing." •