Q + A with founder Koren Ray of HOBO Bags

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The one and only (for now!) HOBO flagship store- 194 Green Street, right off of Main Street. 

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HOBO was founded in 1991 in Annapolis. They're now a global brand.

I think I got my first Lauren wallet back when I was in college- early 2000s. HOBO is one of the biggest success stories to launch out of Annapolis, and owning a piece is a rite of passage. 

They design leather classics that you'll hold onto forever. In fact, the Rachel wallet was featured recently on Cupcakes and Cashmere (in one of those voyeuristic "what's in your wallet/bag" type posts- I'm such a sucker for them) and it drove so much traffic to the HOBO website. She has carried her wallet for almost a decade!

I LOVE that I'm able to connect with so many inspiring business owners, artists, and creatives in my daily life. HOBO reached out to me and wanted to send me a bag (of my choice) for review. I don't do a ton of outfit posts (no on-call photographer- maybe in the future, ha) so I wanted to go a little bit more in-depth with their brand story.

I picked the Rozanne tote in black because I needed something VERY lightweight and simple, and liked the size and slight sheen. I've been using it every day for work and love it. Couldn't be happier.

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Raw on the inside, with pinking shear edges- perfect. Rug from a nice Iranian man in Germany.

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My Rozanne tote in the Hobo Instagram Story.

After spending an hour in the store (with Melissa and Beth, from the HOBO marketing team), I fell in love with a few other pieces- the Kingston tote in black velvet hide (a favorite of both Melissa and founder Koren), the Lauren clutch in olive hair-on hide, and the Eagle wallet in black velvet hide (such a great design.)

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It was so nice to FINALLY meet Melissa, their PR & social media specialist. We'd been in contact here and there over the years but had never met in person. I loved her timeless Kingston tote in the velvet hide- the leather is amazing. It's thick, pebbled, and SO SOFT.

Lately, I've noticed that HOBO really seems to have stepped up their game. I'm seeing new leathers and details (like the beaded guitar strap on the best-selling Sheila bag, hair-on hide options, quilted wallets, the popular studded Avalon tote), more collaborations on social media, and tighter branding.

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A new leather option- the hair-on hide in olive.

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There are lots of special finds and deals in the lofted section of the flagship store.

Melissa confirmed that HOBO is really honing in on their strength as a brand, and taking creative risks while still being true to their identity. They have a couple of new projects in the works (which I'm not allowed to reveal yet!) and some wonderful philanthropic collaborations coming up, like one with the Light House Shelter around the holidays.

You can learn more about their #LiveTheCode projects here.

I asked Koren a few questions about her story and loved every answer! 

Can you tell us a little bit about HOBO in the early days?

We started HOBO in 1991, right here in Annapolis, with nothing more than my mom, Toni Ray’s, life savings and her passion for authentic, quality leather goods. Her knowledge of leather craft came from her years owning an iconic leather shop in Washington DC. Grounded in the belief that our possessions should reflect our journey and deserve to be created with beauty, soul, and purpose, she designed a small line of handbags on her dining room table and took her first collection of leather handbags on the road in a beat-up van. HOBO was born.

At what moment did you realize that this could be something big?

When HOBO was about 5 years young, the Nordstrom buyer stopped by our booth at a trade show. She left a card and said she’d think about the line. My mom sent her one of our wrist clutches as a gift to say thank you for stopping by. A few weeks later, the buyer called and said she had used the clutch on her vacation and it was the best she had ever owned. She gave us a nice order and over the years we have remained one of Nordstrom’s strongest small leather goods vendors. Things started to fall into place after that!

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Wallets basking in the sun.

What were some of the most important lessons you learned as you grew your business?

Ever since I was very young, I’ve watched my mother, Toni Ray, as she faced the challenges of running a business, as a woman and as a single mother. When I was little I spent a lot of weekends at her leather retail store, watching as she ran her business with passion and conviction and treated those who worked for her with respect, honesty, humility, and humor.

Once we started HOBO, and I had the opportunity to work along side her every day, I understood much better what it takes to begin a business from nothing and how to sustain the growth. In particular, building a strong company has everything to do with the people you bring on board; how you encourage them to work to their greatest potential and how you get them to stay. I believe strongly in the culture that my mother created in the early years of HOBO. She led by example- demonstrating that she wasn’t afraid to roll up her sleeves and take risks, even when we were a small company with everything to lose. Today, my husband, David Brewer, and I run the business with the same principles. We encourage our staff to take risks and challenge the expected. Our confidence in their efforts breeds a collective passion that is great for the brand. After years of admiring my mother’s leadership, I can only hope to follow with the same integrity, grace, and grit.

How has the company evolved over the years?

We started HOBO with a belief that the best possessions deserve to be thoughtfully designed with beauty, soul, and purpose. It all began with the craft of leather and a focus on authentic beauty with an emphasis on utility.

We love leather. No other material ages quite as beautifully. From a small collection of handcrafted leather bags, our growth and evolution over the years has allowed us to expand into other gorgeous leathers in an array of beautiful hues.

In spring of 2017, we recognized that it was time to invest in the brand, to more clearly define the brand point of view in order to position HOBO for the next generation of growth. Building on our longstanding culture of quality product and our authentic origin story, we revised our logo with a new Journey Symbol, to represent the wanderlust spirit of the brand and went to work updating our imagery and overall brand look. The result has been a natural, organic evolution; one that aligns HOBO with the momentum of culture, a propensity for heritage brands, authentic products, quality over quantity, and individualism.

As HOBO thrives as a second-generation, privately owned, and family operated brand, David and I still focus on creating beautiful, authentic leather goods that are made to last. We stay true to our passion and enduring design philosophy with handpicked leathers, timeless designs and a nostalgic tribute to the methods and soul of the 70s, creating bags that only get better with age.

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The Blaze Bucket Bag converts into a backpack. In my favorite velvet hide, yet again.

What are you most excited about, looking forward?

I am most excited about our upcoming partnerships through our #LiveTheCode platform. Our vision for HOBO has always been rooted in design with beauty, soul, and purpose and this transcends our products to the values David and I aim to live by. We are inspired by the heritage of the American HOBO who lived by a very specific code around respect, kindness, citizenship, and community. We are equally inspired by the many organizations in our community that go above and beyond to make a difference. We created #LiveTheCode as our way of giving back. Our upcoming holiday Peace.Love.HOBO program will keep our efforts close to home where our roots are, centered around a partnership with the Light House Shelter. For this special program, I designed a limited edition collection of leather holiday ornaments. During an exclusive shopping night in November, we will host an event at the HOBO Flagship store. All proceeds of the event will go to support the Light House Shelter.

What do you look for when bringing someone onto the HOBO team?

Creativity, integrity, self-motivation, and sense of humor.

What made you choose Annapolis as your company's flagship shop/HQ?

After twenty-five years of building the HOBO brand, we decided we wanted to open a store that embodied our unique products; stylish, functional handbags that help women express their own personal style. We thought about opening in New York or Atlanta, but decided that Annapolis was the place to be. We wanted to honor our heritage. It all began right here in Annapolis. We wanted to put down our retail roots in the heart of our hometown. When we found the three-story building at 194 Green Street, we knew it captured the brand’s spirit. This space blends the authentic beauty of our leather products with the local feel of Annapolis.

What has been your favorite collaboration so far?

As HOBO evolves as a brand, we stay connected to our past and our indie spirit by creating small-batch collections that are each touched by the hand of an artist, making one-of-kind possessions. We recently did a collaboration with a wonderful tattoo artist, Virginia Elwood, as part of our Artisan Series to support our #LivetheCode platform. We had Virginia tattoo her original designs directly onto our leather bags. The result was a limited series of art-in-leather, celebrating the beauty of the leather and bringing Virginia’s artistic vision to life.

What's your go-to HOBO piece?

My HOBO Lauren wallet, without a doubt. No matter how crazy my day or my life may get, I always know that everything I need is tucked inside my Lauren and I’m ready for anything at any time, from a quick stop at the store to last-minute dinner with my husband.

What's your favorite piece from this season?

Every design is like one of my children, so it is hard to pick a favorite, but this fall you will see me with either a gorgeous suede Kingston tote (perfect for everyday travels) or our iconic Sheila bag with a rockin’ guitar strap on my arm.

Do you have any leather care tips or special products you like to keep on hand?

I consider my mom the world’s leading leather care expert and she has been telling me for years that good leather does not need much care, just lots of love. The more you wear it, the better looking it gets; developing its own shine and character. However, we have recently developed a really wonderful HOBO leather care that I use on all of my bags from time to time to replenish and condition the leather.

Where do you get your inspiration?

As a child of the 70’s, I grew up in a world of artists, musicians, craftspeople, and leather while hanging out under the work bench in my mom’s iconic leather shop, Georgetown Leather Design. These influences remain the lens through which I see the world. I am inspired by the charm of all things vintage, by a nostalgia for bygone eras, and the beauty in imperfection. I follow my instincts, not the trends. My designs are equal parts beauty and flawless functionality with a nostalgic tribute to the methods, soul, and spirit of the ’70’s, informed by the past, yet unmistakably modern.

What are some of your favorite brands?

As I get older I find that I am actually less driven by loyalty to a brand and more driven by quality products, innovative ideas, and ethical practices. That being said, I do have a pretty steady crush on a few brands: Zappos, Lego, and Apple.

If you could only shop at five stores for the rest of your life, what would they be?

For practical purposes: Home Depot, CVS and Whole Foods and because I like to shop local and can’t live without plants or coffee: Bru-Mar Gardens and Ahh Coffee.

Best design city in the world?

Tokyo!

Next place you want to visit?

So many places, so little time! Australia and the Grand Canyon to start…

Most beautiful place you've ever traveled?

We found a beautifully secluded beach on the Emerald Coast of Nicaragua that has large boulders that have fallen from the cliffs and some of the most amazing tide pools and marine life I’ve ever seen. It was the most magical place I’ve ever been.

Favorite museum?

American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, MD. I love this museum. It is an ever changing celebration of works by self-taught artists. So fun and inspiring.

Favorite local artist?

Do my kids count?

Best piece of advice you've ever received?

There is no way to be a perfect mother, but a million ways to be a good one.

What are a few of your favorite books?  

Absolutely, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and The Velveteen Rabbit.

Of course, I’ve read the entire Harry Potter series three separate times to each of my kids as they’ve grown up, so there is a soft spot in my heart for those books.

What are three things in your purse that you can't live without?

My HOBO Lauren wallet, sunglasses, Burt’s Bees lip balm.

What's your morning routine?

It often feels like I live a full day before 8am. With 4 kids, mornings are busy. I truly believe that the pace of the morning sets the tone for your whole day, so I try to make sure that everyone has a great breakfast, we have time to talk about the day and always say I love you before we walk out the door for the day.

Where do you take visitors when you want to show them Annapolis?

No trip to Annapolis is complete without a crab feast. Our favorite place is Cantler’s or grabbing a bushel and spending the day on our dock on the Bay enjoying crabs and sun.

Do you live in Annapolis full time?

Yes. Annapolis has been my home for over 25 years. It is a wonderful place to come home to after business travels around the world.

Favorite candle?

Jonathan Adler’s Hashish Candle. It reminds me of my younger rock ’n roll days.

Do you have a signature scent?

Narciso Rodriguez. My husband gave it to me years ago for our 5th wedding anniversary and I’ve worn it ever since.

What are a few of your favorite places in Annapolis?

Davis’ Pub for the greatest crab cake sandwiches in the world, McGarvey’s Saloon for the coldest beer and Quiet Waters Park for a peaceful retreat, run or bike ride very close to the city.