01 May From Costume Design to Luxury Luggage: The Real Story behind Jon Hart Design
Luxury Texan leather goods company Jon Hart Designs is a staple in the heart of the South, and with good reason. For over 40 years, Jon Hart Design has produced high-quality American handcrafted leather bags, travel goods and accessories right here in San Antonio, Texas. The company history has been somewhat of a mystery, so we sat down with Jon Hart Design President, Sharon Durham, and got an exclusive scoop, on all things Jon Hart.
SLTV: Sharon, it is such a pleasure to meet you! I am so delightfully pleased to learn that the President of Jon Hart Design is a woman, but we’ll get to that later. During my research, I discovered that Jon Hart, as a person, doesn’t exist. Can you tell us a more in-depth history of the company?
SD: Yes, the real history of Jon Hart Design is pretty hard to find. So, I’m happy to share some insight that not a lot of people know. Especially with what’s going on right now, we were all talking about the founder here and I got the opportunity to speak with his niece and confirmed some things that were only hearsay. So, the original founder was Don Snell, an actor and costume designer. He believed his name wasn’t very marketable so when he started to build a company to sell his costumes, which ended up turning into a luggage company, he was looking for the perfect name. With coated canvas material, he designed some luggage to carry the costumes. When thinking of a name for the luggage brand, he wanted to create something that gave a sense of luxury and reputation.
Now, rumor has it that the name Hart is a derivation of a heart keychain that he had, but it turns out that he was a big fan of the show, Hart to Hart that was on TV at the time. He thought of naming it Don Hart, but thought Jon Hart sounded better. It was his way of creating an air about himself when it came to elevating his costume design business, but people ended up falling in love with his luggage instead. When his acting career took off, he sold the company so that he could pursue acting and eventually made it in movies like Traffic, Erin Brokovich, and Never Been Kissed. Don passed away in 2006, but his legacy lives on. Today as we make masks for COVID-19 efforts, it’s almost like we’ve come full circle since early in his career, he designed masks for the costumes he’d work on.
SLTV: That is fascinating! It makes perfect sense that as an artist, Mr. Snell left that imprint of his passions in acting in the name of his brand. I feel like this sort of revealed a big mystery, but at the same time this is encouraging for others in the arts, as well. This just continues to show how intertwined art and fashion are.
SD: Yes, and maybe he was that “starving artist” who balanced his love of acting and costume design with the luggage company, but he also turned it into something that grew legs in the process. Today, people have some products that are now 30 or 40 years old and would probably become heirlooms. I think he was more talented than he ever gave himself credit for.
SLTV: Most likely! So, I actually came across JHD via a blogger friend of mine, Christine Lozano of Barely Blonde, who not only blogged about the handbags & luggage, but was also featured on a huge billboard on I-10! I also saw some other friends like Kim Frick of Frick’s Picks on your website. Does the company usually use local influencers and models for the campaigns?
SD: Yes, we sure do! We have a wonderful photographer out of Austin, Paula Wolf, who is always scouting and finds these fantastic models who are a great fit!
SLTV: It’s so refreshing to see those familiar faces in your campaigns. You also are very involved within the communities. I know that in the height of the tragedies of school shootings, many cities’ school districts began to require clear bags. Jon Hart Design stepped in and got on the production of these rather quickly. Can we talk about that?
SD: Years ago, we started making clear, smaller, crossbody type bags. Some places did require clear bags, like concerts and festivals, so we had those products. They were fun and cute, but about 5 years ago in Houston a school district required clear backpacks and we started to produce them. You know, clear plastic is a little difficult to maintain, especially in hotter climates and with the weight of books. We eventually retired them as the demand started to slow down. Then 2 years ago, more school districts in San Antonio, Houston, and the Valley brought back the clear bag requirement and we started to get a lot of calls to make these. It is one of those products that we make based on customer demand, but because we are a smaller company we can respond to community requests like this, just like we did with the recent demand on non-surgical face masks.
SLTV: That is wonderful that you’re able to respond so quickly to community needs. How else is JHD active in the community.
SD: We’ve always worked with schools and nonprofits who want to buy products for their organizations. We’re a big partner with the Texas Valero Open, which raises funds for all kinds of charities in Texas. We’re currently working on something with Morgan’s Wonderland for later in the Summer. Usually, we have several companies with great ideas and if it aligns with our values and doesn’t fall on our peak seasons, we are happy to help.
SLTV: So, you mentioned your latest endeavor with manufacturing non-surgical face masks. Let’s talk about that initiative, the process, and how JHD went from leather goods to cotton face masks.
SD: Well, unfortunately during this crisis, we had to furlough 80% of our employees. We had to figure out a more long term solution. It’s kind of funny how we came up with this idea, but that scene in The Three Amigos in the village came to mind when they were figuring out how to defeat the bad guy and they asked, “What’s the one thing that this village can do better than anyone else?”; they all kind of look around at each other and someone yells out, “We can SEW!” (laughs). I had that exact moment! So, what was one thing that we could do that makes a contribution in a positive way and also gets our employees back to work? SEW!
I reached out to local agencies for distribution and got in touch with San Antonio Lighthouse for the Blind who works with military uniforms as well. I brought in my sister who’s an ICU RN and she gave us feedback on our designs, we also did crowdsourcing with Medical Professionals and engaged Southwest Research Insitute, as well. We settled on a mask design and started producing! We were able to bring back just about 80% of the employees who we had to furlough while taking the proper precautions and safe social distancing. We also employed some satellite sewing studios so a lot of our sewers can work remotely. We’ve made close to 20,000 masks that have gone to essential employees. Now we have many of our retailers requesting them to sell to the general public. Although they are not branded JHD, they are great designs and we’re really proud of the product, so we’re headed in that direction next for purchase and donate for those in need.
SLTV: The community is most grateful for these efforts and I’m sure your staff is too! So, what are the plans for the hopeful “Life After COVID” time?
SD: You know, our big focus is our retailers. We currently have 400 retailers in the U.S. that sell John Hart in their stores, and they have shut down, so our focus is to help them get back on their feet as best as we can. This time, in particular, trunk show season and graduation season is the peak of sales for them and it’s all been canceled, of course. Although customers can easily shop via our website, we will definitely tip the scale in favor of the retailers so that they can try to recover quickly.
SLTV: Well, you certainly have made an impact on me and I’m very inspired by all your efforts. Also, as I mentioned earlier, I’m so happy to see a woman running company! How long have you been serving as President and how does it feel to do so in a predominantly male-dominated industry such as luggage and leather goods.
SD: I started with the company in June of 2018 as a Sales & Marketing Director. The President at the time had to go on a medical leave and I stood in as Interim. It became official in January of 2019 and it feels great! Just like you, I come from the tech world, working 13 years at AT&T and then 7 years at Rackspace, it was more of a boy’s club. It can be at times frustrating with the unintentional bias or what have you, but for me it’s been great. I feel well prepared and for all the times I felt I could do a better job, it’s been nice for me to put my money where my mouth is and actually make things happen. Also, because we’re smaller, we’re more agile, so that’s been really nice.
SLTV: Well, you certainly are an inspiration and it makes us very proud to see women like you breaking glass ceilings in multiple industries. We look forward to visiting the factory when this is all over!
Jon Hart Design will be launching a limited-edition Grande Bag in white, engraved with #100MillionMasks. The purchase of each bag will donate a mask to non-medical essential workers and organizations that need them. For updates on their campaign, be sure to follow visit their site here.
All photos provided by Jon Hart Design