+ By Zoë Nardo + Photos by David Burroughs
For years, the Lauren has been a trusty sidekick for women in Annapolis, the city where she was born, but now she is known all over this country and is rapidly infiltrating others. Over the past 24 years, this quirky world traveler has bounced around, but in 2012, she moved into a permanent home base on Green Street. It’s a three-story white row home with ruby-red trim. Matching flower boxes with overflowing purple pansies frame the brick steps that protrude onto the sidewalk.
Koren Ray opens the windowed front door, letting out a waft of leather that spews onto the street. Ray appears tiny in the doorway, especially when carrying a tote bag that’s oversized, compared to her torso. Over the front door is a light turquoise sign that reads “Hobo The Original,” with a red logo of a man carrying a stick and bindle—the original fashion accessory for the traveling soul.
Ray owns Hobo the Original, and Lauren is the company’s best-known accessory. Ray named her—and all the other lines of Hobo bags—and speaks about them as if they are her children. Lauren is a wallet that also functions as a clutch, or a clutch that serves as a wallet; either way, her double-kiss lock closure and eclectic color palate embody the brand’s fundamental design philosophy: “Cool is when vintage meets modern.” Ray describes the iconic Lauren wallet as “a stylish workhorse who is always there for you.”
In 1991, Ray’s mother, Toni, started Hobo after losing her job at Georgetown Leather Design. Ray, who was essentially raised under a leather craft bench, was not surprised to be asked to assist in the endeavor. At the time, she was a 23-year-old Northwestern graduate with dreams of directing movies in California, but her mother’s go-big-or-stay-home attitude was infectious, and Ray agreed to help get Hobo on its feet. She worked for the company without pay while waiting tables at Middleton Tavern. One of her coworkers at Middleton was David Brewer, who had just received a business degree from the American University of Athens, in Greece. Ray began confiding in him about Hobo, and Brewer quickly joined the mother-daughter team, creating their first computerized invoice system and towing their first large investment out of an overgrown field.
The investment was a maroon 1970s Chevrolet van. It came to them through a trade, made sight unseen, with one of Toni’s tenants who was having trouble making rent payments. She didn’t want to employ traditional advertising, and knew that trade shows were a means for getting the word out on the brand. Brewer towed the vehicle, they replaced the tires, and Hobo was mobile. The van was named “The Heater,” as it had a hole in the floor and the cabin was always hot. But it served its purpose; over fifty times a year, The Heater would carry Hobo’s handmade turquoise booth, along with the inventory of bags, to trade shows up and down the East Coast. They periodically ventured west as well. “It seemed very much like our heritage, to be on the road. And being in a truck is part gypsy, part rock and roll,” says Ray. “It’s very hobo, taking our story on the road.” When Ray and Brewer, who are now married with four children, bought the business from Toni in 2004, they continued on as a humble company. And the excitement hasn’t faded, especially when Ray sights a Hobo bag perched on someone’s shoulder far from Annapolis.
Hobo has become an anomaly in the handbag business. Its products are carried in over three thousand mom-and-pop specialty stores all over the country, in huge department stores such as Nordstrom, Dillard’s, and Lord & Taylor, and across the world, scattered throughout Canada, Europe, Japan, and China. It’s a unique scenario for a business. In 2013, Hobo went back to its roots, re-embracing the mobile lifestyle with a refurbished turquoise-painted FedEx truck. Without a hole in the floor, Ray and Brewer travel up and down the East Coast, just as The Heater did 24 years prior. They also frequent local music festivals and charity events, and have plans to drive Hobo to Los Angeles.
New ideas are always coming out of Hobo. When the fall 2015 line, laden with jewel tones and enchanted forest vibes, hit the hooks, Ray and her team of designers had already submitted in the summer 2016 designs to be manufactured. Hobo doesn’t concern itself with fashion trends, but rather, keeps its colors vibrant, pockets and details plentiful, and women’s needs in mind. Lauren is a perfect example of this. And the approach has worked, thus far, “I’m inspired every day by women that I meet,” says Ray. “Hobo is about creating designs for those women who are making their own choices, not being dictated by fashion rules. They’re making their own rules and creating their own styles and looks. To me, that’s what defines a real woman.” █