Fine Leather Goods: Where to buy?

My best pal is in the market for a briefcase, and she’s having a heck of a time finding what she wants.

She’s looking for a fine leather soft-sided briefcase in a classic style. It must be large enough to hold her laptop, but doesn’t need to have a built-in laptop compartment–she can use a padded sleeve. Most importantly, it must be very high quality and durable, and must look great. Of course price is an object, but she will to pay what she needs to to get what she wants–something that will last for decades.

She’s shopped in a variety of luggage and department stores, and what she’s found has been either chintzy or trendy or emblazoned with the brand name. It’s hard to tell which department store brands are truly good quality, or highly priced because of the brand name. She’s also looked in places like Marshall’s, hoping to make a find, but hasn’t had much luck so far.

The only ones that she’s seen so far that she likes are the ones from Coach. Coach has a good reputation for quality and classic style. I’ve heard that their quality has gone down, however. Their briefcases are in the $450-500 range–high, but acceptable. Unfortunately, she hasn’t found a Coach store around here who actually has the briefcases in stock so she can look at them. Also, she does want to see what her other options are.

So where would one go to find a top-quality leather briefcase?

(We are in northern NJ, but can easily get into NYC)

I don’t know which department stores in NY carry Coach, but here in Chicago there is a Coach counter in most of the nicer major department stores. If you can go into NY, then I definitely would. In NYC, you might also want to try some of the smaller specialty leather stores. (Any NYC Dopers have recommendations?) I’ve seen some nice ones on 8th Street in the West Village (sorry, I don’t have any names), and I vaguely remember years ago going briefcase-shopping with my stepmom on Orchard Street: her criteria are similar.

If you find a specialty store, some of them make their own goods on the premises, and you will pay significantly less for similar merchandise than you would pay for the Coach name brand. My grandmother once gave me a purse like that for high school graduation; I still have it, and though it’s had a minor repair or two, it’s still in good condition.

Most of the leather goods offered by mainstream retailers are as your friend says: cheesy, over-embelished, or just poorly designed. We have had exponentially greater success patronizing arts and crafts markets where leather artisans hang their shingle. If they don’t have something right there that works, all will custom design one for about the same cost of a knock-off joint.

Green Bean, I take it she’s tried all three Coach stores in northern NJ? Has she tried the Coach outlet store up at Woodbury Common (a bit of a hike up the Hudson, and insanely crowded most days, but maybe fun to make a day of shopping there), or the outlet store in Tannersville, PA? IMHO, with Coach you are paying through the nose for the name, and not necessarily a high-quality product. Likewise, it’s not really necessary to go for the ooo-look-Italian-leather case unless her work requires, how shall I say, visible signs of a certain level of financial success.

If she wants to check other options, she might try a Wilson’s Leather store (Garden State Plaza, Paramus Park, Willowbrook, Newport Centre; outlet store at Woodbury Common). These cases are not as pricey; most everything is under $300 even before sale prices, and some of the cases are stylish yet sturdy. I bought a briefcase from Wilson’s nearly 10 years ago for a dear friend, and despite all the abuse he has heaped on it (and I do mean abuse - no briefcase was EVER meant to carry rock samples), the case is in remarkably good condition - no popped stiches, the lining hasn’t torn, and the leather has acquired a nice patina slightly darker than the original color.

Just an aside about leather cases in general… I don’t know what kind of wear and tear your friend might be putting on her case, but it’s not likely that any case will last for decades unless she puts in maintenance time (e.g., regular cleaning with saddle soap). Light-colored leather is also going to acquire a patina, especially if she carries it by the handle.

Outta curiosity, has your friend decided against Tumi? Most of their stuff goes for the hi-tech look, but some of their cases have pretty classic styling, and I’ve been generally satisfied with the quality of the Tumi pieces that I own.

Example 1
Example 2
Example 3
Example 4

There are more, but you get the idea.