In the Bag: Hobo International's Koren Ray
by jill hudson neal
From inside her bustling Annapolis headquarters, Koren Ray presides over Hobo International, a handbag company that has gained a devoted following of women seeking high-end yet accessible leather goods that blend durability, function, and style. It’s an unlikely place to base a brand with such ambition, but it’s also a reflection of the woman running the show.
Ray is just like her clients: style-savvy yet decidedly unfussy. And perhaps that’s what makes this CEO and chief visionary officer especially capable of creating products that resonate so well with consumers around the world, all without the New York-style flash or the big-name draw of a designer atelier.
“Our company has done very well in our versatile niche,” Ray says. “We’re comfortable in our casual, cool segment of the market. You don’t need to be Michael Kors to make an impact.”
Ray’s designs are indeed making a statement in the crowded fashion and accessories market. Hobo International products are sold in more than 3,000 retailers around the globe, including Nordstrom, Lord & Taylor, and Bloomingdale’s. And her collections—brightly colored wallets, clutch handbags, and, of course, hobos—are favored by Hollywood celebrities, magazine editors, and trend-forward women everywhere.
“Our customers love Hobo bags; we can’t keep them in the stores,” notes Kelli Wilson, assistant buyer for the Lou Lou boutique chain, which has 10 outposts in the Washington area. “The styles are really versatile, and there’s always something for every taste and wardrobe. You can be conservative or funky, and the other [positive] thing is that Hobo’s quality is amazing,” Wilson adds. “I’ve had customers tell me that they’ve used their wallets or handbags every day for years.”
Ray, a mother of four, spends much of her time ensuring that Hobo’s products are as durable as they are attractive. The focus on craftsmanship began with her mother, Toni, the company’s cofounder and first visionary leader. The elder Ray had been one of the founders of Georgetown Leather Design, the now-closed popular chain of high-end leather, accessory, and footwear boutiques based in and around Washington, before cashing in her 401(k) in 1991 to start a new wholesale operation out of her home on the Chesapeake Bay.
Five years ago, Toni Ray sold her portion of the business to her daughter and son-in-law David Brewer. Today Ray and her team of design assistants work to perfect the aesthetics and functionality of every design. All are of supremely sturdy construction, and many Hobo handbags feature pockets for cell phones, plus zippers inside and out for easy access to essentials like keys.
A big selling point for many Hobo clients is the accessible pricing. Understanding the sweet spot for a well-made handbag in the midprice range is key, Ray concedes. “People are willing to pay a certain amount of money for something that will last for years. A beautiful large bag that costs $298 or $248 is a fabulous find,” she says. “Other customers will keep looking for something that costs $148, or they’ll spring for a wallet for less than $100. Fortunately, all of our wallets cost less than $100.”
When Ray and Brewer decided to open a flagship boutique, they considered many major US cities. “Atlanta, New York, LA,” Ray recalls. “But we felt like we wanted to be in our hometown, and to put down our retail roots here as a brand.” The dollhouse-like façade of the brand’s first storefront, which opened earlier this year on Green Street in Annapolis, echoes the charm of the maritime state capital—a white-painted exterior adorned with quaint Victorian-style trim in bright red welcomes guests. Inside a more modern and eclectic aesthetic channels the hipper design elements of the brand’s best-selling products.
“Annapolis is a real town, and we’re all about giving real women stylish solutions to their lives,” says Ray. “Trends are great, but there has to be something worthwhile that people can buy. Quality and cool never go out of style.” 194 Green St., 410-349-5081
PHOTOGRAPHY BY GREG POWERS; getty images (swift)
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