The ultimate travel accessory is a handcrafted, custom-made leather bag
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"It's very much a tactile and aromatic product." You'd think the speaker is talking about a good cigar. Actually, Ian Eastwood, the managing director of manufacturing for Swaine Adeney Brigg, was talking about his company's handmade leather luggage. And he's absolutely right.
In an era of luggage made to withstand airline baggage-handling gorillas, a "tactile and aromatic" piece of luggage is an astonishing pleasure. It's the ideal of elegance, an indulgence for a weekend visit to a friend's house or a great car trip. What's more, the world's best leather luggage is made for wear.
Take the Italian luggage maker Schedoni. Almost unknown in America, the company is prized in Europe for the quality of its leather and craftsmanship. (The very phrase "Italian leather" says it all.)
Schedoni's fame is its long-standing relationship with Ferrari. "Schedoni is Ferrari's oldest vendor," says Patrick Lapone, Schedoni's North American distributor. "The leather used is five or six grades above Connolly hide."
Because of the distinctive body shapes -- and limited luggage space -- of Ferrari automobiles, Ferrari owners can get special Schedoni luggage designed for their particular model Ferrari. The same opportunity exists for owners of the Mercedes-Benz SLK and CLK Cabriolet series, neither of which boasts large trunks, especially when the top is down. The finishing touch? Schedoni uses leather from the same tannery that supplies Mercedes-Benz, so its red, navy or black luggage exactly matches your Mercedes interior. A six-piece set goes for $2,200 for the SLK and $2,300 for the CLK Cabriolet. (www.schedoni.it)
Schedoni's style emphasizes a rounded shape, with one of the world's most beautiful leather suitcases ($620), as well as an extra-large travel bag with a rigid base that unzips from the soft-sided top half ($1,100). Schedoni's "Golf Collection" is worth noting, with a leather golf bag (two sizes, $2,000 and $2,200) and a golf tote that would make an ideal carry-on bag for airline travel ($850). Its two-way top zipper unzips to the base of the bag, making it easy to see the full contents.
Good as Italian craftsmen are with leather, the kudos for great leather luggage probably belongs to the British. They have an old tradition of handcrafting luggage. You want custom-made leather luggage? A certain shape, perhaps? Or a special color to match your company's logo? Then you want either of two top-of-the-line English bespoke, or custom-made, luggage makers: the aforementioned Swaine Adeney Brigg (which dates to 1750) or Tanner Krolle (founded in 1856). This is luggage you practically fondle.
Swaine Adeney Brigg has a shop on St. James's Street in London. Most of its clients, says managing director Eastwood, first encounter Swaine Adeney Brigg's craftsmanship in person. "It's one thing to see the photos, but until you touch it and smell it, well, that's when it all comes home." Typically, he says, when Americans arrive home, they call and order more.
"It takes three or four months to fulfill the order," says Eastwood. Everything is done by hand. Anything you want, we can, and will, do if it's at all possible. After all, it's entirely handmade. Everything is hand-stitched -- and that's really rare."
Along with its custom-made line, there's a sort of "secret" Swaine Adeney Brigg luggage: its Papworth brand. Once a proud luggage maker in its own right, Papworth was purchased by Swaine Adeney Brigg in 1997.
The difference? Not much -- except the price, which is about 35 percent less than a comparable Swaine Adeney Brigg piece. "The biggest difference," says Eastwood, "is that Papworth is machine-sewn rather than entirely hand-stitched. The leather is identical to Swaine Adeney Brigg, as are the fittings. Really, Swaine Adeney Brigg is bespoke, where with Papworth you get to choose from only five colors and you can't modify the bag." Papworth's colors are various classic shades of tan, along with a killer black that is as sleek and expensive-looking as a stealth bomber.
The other great British luggage maker is Tanner Krolle, which makes some of the most refined-looking luggage today, as befits a company now owned by fashion powerhouse Chanel. (Tanner Krolle's Web site, www.tannerkrolle.com, is witty and elegant.)
Like Swaine Adeney Brigg, the craftsmen at Tanner Krolle specialize in absolute bespoke. "The sky's the limit," says John O'Sullivan of Tanner Krolle's "Private Client Suite" in London. "We come to visit you -- we come to the States several times a year -- or you can come to our Private Client Suite here in London.
"Our designer," he continues, "is based in Paris. She comes along with us when we travel. Designs are submitted to the client, along with leather swatches and hardware types. You can get any sort of leather you like: traditional English bridle leather, of course, but also alligator, ostrich -- you name it. Fittings can be silver, palladium, gun metal. You can come to the factory and see your luggage being made."
What's the price for all this bespoke service? Much depends on your desires. A different color from anything in its normal range sometimes adds 20 to 30 percent to the cost, according to O'Sullivan. A typical, "off-the-rack" piece costs between $770 and $1,050.
A word about savvy buying: because the exchange rate between the American dollar and the British pound is favorable to Americans, it can pay to buy direct from England. Shipping by United Parcel Service is not expensive and the U.S. customs duty is only about 8 percent. Apparently, people often see the luggage on a trip to London, then return home and order it through one of the company's reps. Although there is no substitute for seeing, handling and smelling their superb
luggage in their London shop, you can buy Swaine Adeney Brigg and Papworth bags through various Web-based representatives, who are all selling the same items. They forward your order to the company. It pays to shop around, as prices for identical items can vary.
Since their e-commerce representatives don't carry much stock, if at all, there is room to negotiate if you're insistent. Look at Kensington Trading Co. (www.kensingtontrading.com), Sterling & Burke Ltd. (www.classicluggage.com), UK Stuff (www.ukstuff.com) and We-Sell-It (www.we-sell-it.co.uk), among others.
Once past price, though, the appeal of top-of-the-line leather luggage is its sheer luxuriousness. Packing and unpacking will never be the same. These bags are so exquisitely made, and smell so good, you'll want to crawl in yourself.
Matt Kramer is a columnist for Wine Spectator magazine, Cigar Aficionado's sister publication.