I met the founders of Wellington & Cromwell, husband and wife Edward and Rachel Chang, in July 2015. Back then they were just getting started with their rugged luxury handbag concept, working out of their Soho apartment and bringing a carload of bags to the Brooklyn Flea Market. Since then they have come a long way, with a website, a blog, and a strong Instagram following.
Edward Chang at the Brooklyn Flea Market in Fort Greene.
Edward Chang grew up in Massachusetts and went to Tufts University. He started out as a corporate lawyer, employed by Pou Chen Group to represent Nike’s Asian division. But Edward was eager to go beyond his functional role and learn as much as he could from the company. He became immersed in production, moving overseas to work in factories in China, Taiwan, Vietnam, and Indonesia. Living in the factory compounds where he worked, Edward got to know manufacturing in a way that most fashion designers and executives have not. Although Edward returned to law in the United States, this experience left a strong impression on him. So much so that in January of 2015, he decided to launch a business based on the principles he had learned. “I knew a lot about sourcing the raw materials and factories that would bring things together,” he says. “More importantly, I knew how to evaluate what was a good factory.”
Rachel Chang showing off the Lady Croft tote in Soho.
While Edward’s strengths were in design and product development, Rachel had a background in business. She grew up in Bangkok and studied international business at Chulalongkorn University. She moved to the United States to get her MBA at Cornell University, where she met Edward. She did consulting for several companies, including OpenIDEO and Master Card. In 2015, Edward and Rachel started Wellington & Cromwell in Ithaca, New York, Edward as chief executive and Rachel as director of marketing.
Waiting for the train with the Ivy saddlebag and Professor Jones duffel in tow. I imagine myself taking the M, L, and Long Island Railroad east to hamlets, pastures, and at last the Hamptons. Nonoo dress. Lazarus hat.
A closer look at the Ivy saddlebag.
Forever 21 wedges. Squirrel ring, found on the ground.
The idea was born in January and the first bags were produced by April. Wellington & Cromwell handbags would “disrupt the luxury goods industry with a direct to consumer business model that embraces sustainability, transparency, and fair pricing.” They saw a luxury handbag market where prices were inflated far beyond their quality. Edward picked up a bag in his apartment and demonstrated to me the three most important aspects of quality: leather, hardware, and stitching. He pressed his finger down hard into the front. “A good leather will wrinkle naturally like skin,” he said. “The skin that comes from the cow is around three quarters of an inch thick. That is split into two or three layers and only the top has a grain, and inherent strength. The mid-layer might be used in cheaper bags, but painted with something to give it a new surface.”
At my neighborhood park with the Professor Jones satchel. Forever 21 dress.
A closer look at the Professor Jones.
Vintage brooch. Chain from AJ’s Jewelry.
Vintage earrings. Forever 21 rings.
“Most companies use bonded leather or genuine leather,” explained Rachel. “Bonded leather and genuine leather are glued together like chicken nuggets are glued together. We use top grain leather. Our leather is like filet mignon – the real piece of beef.” All of their hardware is cast brass, as opposed to zamak, a cheaper but lower quality zinc alloy that is commonly used. Their stitching is extra-thick spun nylon. “We back our products with a lifetime warranty,” Edward told me. To date, they have not received one product return. They use a lean production system in Shenzhen, China, by skilled artisans who are paid a fair wage. They keep costs down and standards up by not selling through outside retailers, keeping marketing expenditures minimal, and staying true to a core product assortment: the Lady Croft tote, the Drake duffel, the Cecil Safari backpack, the Professor Jones briefcase, and the Professor Jones duffel.
A sign proclaiming the “famous firsts” of the Explorers Club.
The classic and durable bags are inspired by “the time and place of the British explorers”, says Edward. Edward Wellington was a founding member of the Explorers Club, an international professional society with the goal of promoting scientific exploration and field study. Founded in New York in 1905, its history of members includes Robert E. Peary and Matthew Henson (first to the North Pole), Ronald Amundsen (first to the South Pole), Charles Lindbergh (first solo flight across the Atlantic), Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay (first to the top of Mount Everest), and Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins (first to the Moon). Henry Cromwell (1628-1674) was a lord-deputy and de facto ruler of Ireland under the British regime. Sir Francis Drake (1540-1596) was an English explorer who became the second person in history to sail around the world – from Plymouth, England to Plymouth, England, by way of South America, Central America, North America, Indonesia, and South Africa. He was sent by Queen Elizabeth I to steal gold and silver from Spanish ships and ports in the Americas, a mission in which he was incredibly successful. He amassed a personal wealth that would be valued at $126.5 million in modern times. The Wellington & Cromwell logo models an eight escudo Spanish doubloon, a type of coin that Drake would have stolen. The logo’s inscription, Rex Hispaniarum, means “King of Spain” in Latin. Cecil Rhodes (185301902) was the prime minister of the British Cape Colony (modern-day South Africa), conqueror of the Rhodesia territory (Zimbabwe and Zambia), and founder of the diamond company De Beers. Wellington & Cromwell also takes cues from adventurers of fiction. Lady Croft is the mother of Lara Croft, the heroine of Tomb Raider. The Professor Jones briefcase and duffel represent Indiana Jones, of course, who started out as a professor of archaeology before moving on to greater things.
In denim-on-denim with the Lady Croft tote. L.K. Bennett shoes.
On the steps of my building. Ann Taylor Loft blouse. Jolt jacket. Tyte jeans. Dime pendant from my mother. Chain from AJ’s Jewelry.
It’s no surprise that Wellington & Cromwell has found fans among modern-day explorers. Josh Gates wears their duffels and backpacks around the world on the Travel Channel’s Expedition Unknown. On Instagram he can be seen in Patagonia and on Cho Oyu in the Himalayas. The brand also aligns with the founders’ own lifestyle. Edward and Rachel recently took a long trip to Vietnam and documented their adventures.
The Cecil Safari backpack. Perfect for a hike or a grassy field.
Sylvie & Madō jacket. H&M shorts. Nine West shoes.
Vintage earrings. Starfish pendant from a friend. Chain from AJ’s Jewelry.
That said, I consider New York City rugged terrain. Every day I set out from my apartment in Bushwick to Bobst Library in Greenwich Village, with my laptop, folder of notes and documents, notebook, daily calendar, cell phone, phone charger, computer charger, wallet, pens, lipstick, earbuds, water bottle, and a book for the subway. I would never have gotten anywhere without a large and sturdy handbag.
Steve Madden shoes.