Curious about the newcomers to Sharon on the Green? So was Main Street Magazine when the distinctive name, Lambertson Truex, appeared on the window at the stop sign across from JP Gifford. What was this high-end brand from the turn of the last century doing in Sharon, CT? I sat down with the two designers and business partners on a Friday morning and talked about the iconic leather accessories brand they built – and are now relaunching.
You started your business in New York in 1998 and it was an immediate success. How did that happen?
JT: We were both working as fashion executives. I began in the accessories business with Carlos Falchi and was creating the ck Calvin Klein leather product line when we started our business together in 1998.
RL: In 1990 I moved to Italy to assist in the rebranding of Gucci, and to build their design team. After several years I returned to Bergdorf Goodman to be SVP, creative director of the store. It was a very big job to leave to start up a new company. Neither Bergdorf Goodman nor ck Calvin Klein would accept our resignations and we each continued to work full-time, three days a week, while working on designs and plans for our own brand. We had our wholesale launch in April 1998.
Our first collection arrived in the stores the Fall of 1998. We spent much of that summer working with manufacturers – we already had relationships with many of them. When our samples were ready, we presented them to the buyers in the amazing office of our architect friends, Tsao & McKown, located in Soho. Bergdorf Goodman came and negotiated an exclusive New York deal for their store and gave us our own boutique on the main floor. Neiman Marcus put us in their stores. We started with 13 key accounts in the USA, Europe, and Hong Kong.
JT: We just hit the market at the right time. We realized there was a place for a luxury product that was NOT covered with logos, that was sleek and clean. It was never about the logo, but how it made you feel. We also knew lots of key buyers on the account side. In 2000 we won the CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers of America) Award for the Accessories Designer of the year, which also helped support our brand. The same year we won the ACE Award from the Accessories Council. The Financial Times called us the Hermes of America.
How did you decide on the name?
RL: We were thinking of something conceptual and foreign sounding, but when we met with our lawyer to draw up the corporate documents, he suggested Lambertson Truex. We ran the idea by friends at Bergdorf and they thought it sounded European and exotic.
Did you have a business plan when you started?
RL: No, we had eight storyboards and no numbers. We still don’t. We’re just not those kind of designers. The plans followed later!
What was the most difficult part of starting your business?
RL: We were self-funded, no investors, no banks. It was difficult to pay the $33,000 to produce a line of samples to get things going. Then when we had our first orders and we had to pay up front for them since we were new. Some of our stores were very supportive of innovation and wanted us to succeed. They paid a portion of their order up front to help us out. We had to be selective about customers because we just didn’t have enough working capital. We turned down Saks for four years before finally accepting their order.
How do you describe your relationship with your customers?
RL: Every season, every spring and every fall, we did in store trunk shows. We would spend an entire day on the floor explaining the line to employees, talking to customers, and going out to lunch and dinner with customers. We heard their voices and developed a loyal following – a face behind the brand. In many places we would have private appointments with the store’s customers and one client might place a single order for $100,000. We also have many male customers – both for themselves and for their wives. They have always felt comfortable with our brand – they couldn’t make a mistake selecting a gift for someone important to him.
You sold your business in 2006. What happened?
RL: The majority of our business was acquired by Samsonite, which had a retail vision for our brand in 2006. They financed the opening of retail stores in LA, Las Vegas, and NYC, which we never could have done alone. We wanted to build our brand and they provided the working capital and financial resources we did not have. Then the recession of 2008 began, and Samsonite sold Lambertson Truex to Tiffany & Company in 2009.
JT: We were really lucky and worked with a great team at Tiffany. Our entire design and product development teams went with us. Over almost five years we built a $40 million luxury leather goods product line for them. When we decided it was time to leave, we asked if we could have our name back. They thought about it and agreed in 2014.
RL: It was time for a change, and we set up our own independent design studio in Chelsea working with fashion clients. Then Shinola came along. This was the brainchild of Tom Kartsotis, the founder of Fossil. The vision was to create a luxury American brand in Detroit. For four and a half years we were back and forth between Detroit, New York, and Sharon. Exhausting. Together we created a full leather line from bags to wallets to belts for men and women. The look was very sporty and casual. Our goal was to apply the vocabulary of the brand, whether Tiffany or Shinola, and translate it into superb leather goods.
Now you’re relaunching your own brand here in Sharon, CT
JT: Right after completing our work at Shinola we decided to relaunch Lambertson Truex. We had a pop-up boutique at Privet Lives in New Preston, CT, in the Fall of 2018 and Spring of 2019, selling pieces from inventory as well as creating one-of-a-kind bags for clients. The reception was very positive. We’re starting with baby steps by showcasing our line at Privet House/Privet Lives and distributing selectively at specialty stores. Our internet site went live just before Christmas last year. Customers can buy online at retail prices.
Where are you making your bags?
RL: Our bags made from exotic skins like python and crocodile are manufactured in Cape Town, South Africa, and most everything else comes from various manufacturers across the United States from Florida to New York. When we have a big order for a corporate customer (or our men’s collection) we work in China. Our designs are manufactured in the best facilities around the world.
Do you both live in Sharon? Do you like being on the Green?
JT: I live in Ellsworth. We’ve both been in Sharon since 2004.
RL: And I have a house on Calkinstown Road that I purchased in 2014.
JT: It’s worth every penny to not have to work at his house or my house and move all of our files around. We’re part of this community and this location in the center of it allows us to be creative. Sometimes people walk in because they think we’re an art gallery. It’s easy doing business here. We take the orders, do the fulfillment, and ship out from right here.
How do you determine price points? How much do some of these bags cost?
JT: The cost of each product is dependent on the materials – leather, hardware, etc., and the labor involved. We have a wide range of retail prices which you can see on our website. We also make custom bags for people and the price is not unattainable. You can tell a high-quality bag by the leather, the hardware, the stitching, the interior detailing, and the design.
What’s new in the business relaunch?
RL: We are growing a business designing exclusive high-end corporate gifts for select customers. Of course, selling directly to our consumer on the internet is not something that was very possible in 1998. Today, we have Instagram and Facebook accounts and are learning more every day about this different way of doing business.
This relaunch twenty years later is to a whole new generation. Some of our clients were not even born when we started the line.
How do you divide up the responsibilities?
RL: Actually, we don’t. We are both involved in everything and neither one of us uses a computer design program. My drawings are very abstract, and John usually needs to resketch my ideas! John does all of the technical work because the factories need every single detail of each design to be defined and measured.
What is luxury?
RL: Luxury is a word that is way overused. Maurizio Gucci’s father once said, “Quality is remembered long after price is forgotten.” You probably have no idea of how much you paid for that LT handbag you brought with you, but you’ve kept it in perfect condition for all these years. (Note: the author brought her own Lambertson Truex bag to show to Richard and John).
Where do you want Lambertson Truex to be in five years?
RL: I hope we have cracked the internet and made it work for us, that our corporate gift relationships are strong and growing, and that we have a loyal, private client base. •
Lambertson Truex products are available online at www.lambertsontruex.com, by appointment in Sharon call (860) 364-5900, and at Privet House in New Preston, CT.