Eight years ago, brothers Dan and Tim Joo were living together in Brooklyn, dreaming of striking out on their own. Doing what, exactly, was yet to be determined: Tim had studied fashion design at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) and Parsons School of Design, while Dan worked in computer engineering at IBM. Despite—or perhaps, in light of—the lucrative nature of their respective careers, they always wanted more, a partnership to call their own.
In 2011, they made their dream happen, launching a venture that conveniently and naturally combined their individual skill sets. Enter Haerfest (pronounced “harvest”), a leather-accessories brand based in New York that caters to “visionaries in motion”—innovators, creators, and founders, not unlike Dan and Tim themselves. The pair started the brand at the first WeWork location in SoHo (not to mention the first WeWork location, period), 154 Grand St., signing up for a membership for an entirely open workspace that was then called the “Lounge.”
“Tim and I didn’t identify with the whole nine-to-five cubicle setting,” says Dan. Even within the more corporate atmosphere at IBM, Dan found himself wearing more casual attire to work. “We felt like this was a movement of people reimagining the workplace,” adds Dan. “People were doing it with clothing. We thought that it was appropriate to create room for that with bags as well.”
Haerfest’s very first product was an elegant tailored backpack designed by Tim. The piece featured unique ring-and-stud hardware—now a Haerfest signature—that attracted both customers and retailers. New York-based cool-kid brand Opening Ceremony, where Tim had worked in product development and manufacturing, bought into Haerfest’s first collection, and top-brass retailers like Barneys and Ssense followed.
Since that first wave of retail success, Tim and Dan have expanded Haerfest’s product line beyond backpacks. Today the brand carries briefcases, totes, and duffels for men and women, as well as a full unisex accessories collection and an assortment of smaller leather goods, like eyeglass cases and passport wallets. Everything is meant to be mixed and matched—such as a card sleeve tossed in one of the brand’s trademark two-handled tote bags—or used on its own.
“Some people consider their bag their home away from home,” says Dan. “We were thinking, ‘How does your bag then become your office between offices?’ We felt that with a phone in your hand or a laptop in your bag, you can choose to work anywhere.”
Haerfest’s breakthrough came in 2016. That May, they were announced as part of the 2016 Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) Fashion Incubator, a prestigious business-development program for emerging designers that accepts just 10 labels every two years. Then, in October, they won a $100,000 award at the fifth-annual Design Entrepreneurs NYC, a “mini-MBA” intensive course run by FIT.
“Having that network is really important, especially in a business where, a lot of times, you’re in your own bubble,” says Dan. For fashion brands, even entrepreneurially-minded ones like Haerfest, insularity has long prevented—or at least hindered—the existence of a transparent community. As Tim and Dan looked to build a camaraderie with their consumers, they sought out more ways to connect beyond their industry.
“A lot of times within the fashion community, people like to stay very secretive,” says Tim. “We noticed that we were lacking in community outside of just fashion.”
So the brothers, who had left WeWork in 2012 to set up shop in a stark studio space in NoHo, returned to their workplace roots. In April 2018, they rejoined the company—this time at WeWork 222 Broadway—as a means to better understand their customer base, those “visionaries in motion” who are well-represented among WeWork members. They were also drawn to the events and structure WeWork provides, which reminded them of their incubator programming days.
Since joining WeWork, Tim and Dan have placed a newfound emphasis on partnerships like the Mercedes-Benz project. As they had hoped, the ideas come organically. In their first few months back at WeWork in 2018, Tim stumbled upon an Airbnb presentation happening on another floor. Event attendees were all carrying the same bag, which he later learned was created in collaboration with another brand and given to new employees. A light bulb went off.
“Nowadays, consumers are buying more of these digitally native brands; they’re buying them for their mission or their social value or their sustainability, whatever the angle may be,” says Tim. “I think it’s the same for members of communities and VIP clients and employees of companies. We wouldn’t have thought about this had we been in our own bubble, but working with people in different industries gave us chances to have that conversation.”
Inspired, Tim and Dan are going into 2019 armed with new goals. They’re planning fewer seasonal collections and focusing more on pitching limited-edition collaborations to like-minded companies. Dan describes a recent meeting with a luxury fitness chain where, instead of showing them Haerfest’s product range as they would have done a year ago, they presented a gym bag designed exclusively for the fitness company that incorporates antimicrobial fabrics to prevent bacteria and odor build-up.
“In the future, we’ll continue to engage with other companies about what their customers embrace, really tailoring designs toward specific businesses rather than having a one-size-fits-all solution,” says Dan. “We’re going to be pushing how to be more relevant not to an industry, but to particular people and companies.”
Photos courtesy of Haerfest