Q+A: Herschel co-founder Lyndon Cormack on building a worldwide travel apparel brand
Freshly back from a morning mountain bike ride near his home in North Vancouver’s Deep Cove, Daily Hive connected with co-founder and Managing Director of Herschel Supply, Lyndon Cormack. Created with his brother Jamie back in 2009, Herschel has since grown to be one of the most recognizable travel apparel brands.
“We have one foot in nature and one foot in the city, and there is no better place to celebrate that lifestyle. I’m proud of being headquartered here. Vancouver is an incredible city, and I think it’s only going to get better!”
When did you first realize there was a gap in the market that Herschel could fill?
We thought bags were boring and wanted to fix that. I was working for Van’s Footwear for about a decade, and my brother was with TK Sports. We were in the industry but didn’t sell bags. When we started to develop the idea for Herschel, we did a lot of research. We looked at the outdoor space, which was quite well covered. The luxury space had many amazing established brands in it. That’s when we looked in the middle and saw a product missing.
Backpacks were our thing, as well as the duffle bag. When we first started, most of the collection was backpacks. Neither Jamie or I were in the corporate world, so for us, it was how we were traveling around, and what we needed when moving around.
Tell us about the first Herschel prototypes. What were the initial designs like?
Jamie and I love classic brands. From day one we wanted Herschel to have a nostalgic feel. Our product is modern to function in today’s world, with a nod to the past. A lot of the bags we made for our first ever catalogue are still our top sellers today. The brand still looks very similar. We think we could relaunch our original season’s catalogue and it would still resonate today. Our second season, we launched the Herschel Little America backpack, which is another best seller and signature style.
We didn’t know how to manufacture anything when we first launched Herschel. The first prototypes were horrific. They were good quality, but they didn’t look like the product we wanted to make. Blame it on not knowing any better. Jamie oversees design, and took it upon himself to head over to the factory and sit with the sample makers to craft what we were after. He spent a few weeks in China at one of our facilities, and it changed everything.
Tell us about the story behind the striped lining found in many Herschel bags.
Herschel is named after a small town in Saskatchewan where my grandparents lived. Our grandfather was a grand elevator operator, and every single day for work he would put on his railroad stripe overalls — traditional workwear. The signature striped interior lining you find in many of our bags is a nod to our grandparents. We really wanted to do something special with the lining. The red and white colours was the modern twist.
In our third season, we actually started to explore different print liners. We did paisley, bow ties, and some other designs. Our customer service team was inundated with counterfeit information. In hindsight, it was probably a bit early for different designs. Our customers loved the stripes and it kept coming up. We quickly decided to stick with our original design. We wanted to try something new, but it wasn’t the right move, and it’s now become a signature detail of Herschel. This was a great lesson in brand building: you have to tell people over and over about your brand.
What is your favourite part of the design process?
The most amazing thing we get to do is bring ideas to life. Owning a brand like Herschel has given us this incredible platform to create. It’s so much fun to see an idea go from a creative concept to a sellable product. My brother and I are chronic brainstormers. We have such a talented team of designers and marketers who help us execute all our ideas. Jamie and I really focus on having a 360-degree view of our brand. We couldn’t do what we do without our incredible staff. It takes a huge team to execute our vision.
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What is one of the more memorable places you’ve seen someone with a Herschel bag?
In the early days, just seeing Herschel in different countries was so exciting and so cool. When we first started seeing bags in Vancouver, we thought we must know those people!
I was in Bondi Beach in Australia, walking down the beautiful boardwalk when I saw a person carrying a Navy Blue Heritage backpack. It was the most beat up bag I’d ever seen. I went up to him and started chatting. I said I worked for the brand, and your bag has been through hell. Let me send you a new one. And he replied, ‘Are you joking? This is my favourite bag! I don’t need a new one.’
I often get people text messaging me where they’ve seen Herschel around the world. It’s good to be reminded of how far we’ve come and how people feel part of our story.
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Herschel has collaborated with many brands and artists over the years. Which collections stand out to you as the most memorable?
I’m a lover of contemporary art. We’ve had the opportunity to work with the team from Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and, recently, The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. We were able to access the archives of Andy Warhol’s work. The fact that we’re permitted to use archival items from the foundation is one of those very memorable moments.
How does sustainability affect the way Herschel designs its products?
Sustainability is a big part of everything Hershel does. The apparel industry has a huge impact on the environment. We are continuously innovating around ways to achieve more sustainable solutions to minimize our negative effects on the planet — in areas such as product development, end-of-life management, and carbon footprint management.
Looking back a few years from now, I think our customers will be proud of the products we are and will be creating. We have a lot of work to do, but our team is so motivated to effect positive change. For example, we launched our Eco Collection earlier this year. Each style in the collection is made from anywhere between 11 and 22 post-consumer water bottles that were collected, chipped, cleaned, melted, spun, and woven into fabric from label to liner.
There are lots of interesting things to come from Herschel. Hold us accountable! Ask us what we’re doing! We’re going to be excited to talk about it. It’s happening in a big way for us.
How did the pandemic impact your business?
As unfortunate as COVID is, it did help us pause and refocus on what we wanted to do next. The early days were spent hunkering down with the leadership team because no one knew what was going to happen in March 2020. It brought our leadership team close together to move forward.
We had very little time in the last decade to stop, look around, and make changes. E-commerce has always been an important part of our business, but when it was the only thing open to our customers, there was definitely a renewed focus on digital. We’ve sold thousands of face masks, and had our largest-ever single sales day during a back-to-school season. We weren’t a benefactor of the pandemic, but some of our product groupings became more popular, like the crossbody bags. We saw a huge uptake in sales for the category.
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It’s clear that people still want to consume our brand. Maybe they aren’t travelling yet, but they’re still on the move. After this pause, we are excited to redefine what travel means for the modern traveler.
You’ve built a global brand from Vancouver. What sets Herschel apart?
At Herschel, we have one foot in the city and one foot in nature and there is no better place than Vancouver to celebrate that lifestyle. The fact that we have the forests, mountains, and ocean right at our doorstep is very special. We’re not the only city that has that, but we are one of the greatest cities where you can be on ski hills at night, a hike in the morning, and at the office in the afternoon.
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I contribute a lot of our success to being headquartered in Vancouver. And we have so many awesome people who live here. When you mention Vancouver, very rarely do you have people that don’t want to visit or move here. I’m proud to call this city home. Vancouver is still new. I think it’s still taking shape, and we’re a part of that fabric of what Vancouver wants to become. It’s an incredible city, and I think it’s only going to get better.