In the late 90’s Manhattan Portage had a customer who wanted to get a bag for his son. He already owned his own Manhattan Portage bag and had only nice things to say about his bag. He mentioned it would be nice if we created a line that was more refined and classy but with the same great quality that Manhattan Portage has. This was just one of many customers who shared this feeling and eventually we decided to make our customer’s wants into a reality.
TOKEN is a newer vision presented by the same innovative minds that brought you Manhattan Portage. Its name and logo originated from the iconic New York City subway tokens used throughout the twentieth-century.
Here Su Hwei Lin the owner, CEO, and President talks to House of Coco…
When did you launch the Brand and what was the reason behind it?
The Manhattan Portage company was born out of the challenging and gritty streets of New York when the city itself seemed on the very edge of collapse. It was 1983, and the economic recession had deepened, businesses were failing, the stock market had fallen and yet, out of these chaotic times, our company began to create what has become a lifestyle brand for urban people around the world. It started with our first bags which were made for bike couriers because we were the pioneers of the authentic messenger bags that they used to travel across the city. But everyone else including students, musicians, moms and artists loved them too and began to adopt them thus creating a new, urban lifestyle. As we grew, our philosophy was simple, egalitarian and practical: “a bag for everyone” which could handle the rigours of urban life with style and grace. Today, we are an international brand which is sold in more than 40 countries in North America, Europe and Asia with plans for continued expansion into the global marketplace. Manhattan Portage is like the city itself because we have survived, we have prospered, we remain true to our mission and we have stayed “New York Tough.” But more on that later.
What is your background?
When I came to New York City from Taiwan, I had a dream in my mind and very few dollars in my pocket. Why? Because I wanted to show my family just what I could do, what I could achieve on my own. My family had a strong professional background and they were very successful in their pharmaceutical business. Those same principles of perseverance, hard work, discipline and concern for others which inspired them continued to motivate and encourage me even though I was quite a rebellious child. After schooling in Taiwan and in Japan, I went into the import-export business in Asia, but still felt the need to establish my own independence. So I decided to come to the United States to help a friend sell his product in this country. By 1998, I had joined the company and opened the first flagship store in a very small storefront in the East Village of New York City. That first product became the legendary messenger bag made by Manhattan Portage which is now sold around the world. As business increased over the years, I took over the trademark ownership and as chief executive officer, expanded it to many international markets as a global brand. We have just celebrated the 30th anniversary of what has become an urban icon – the Manhattan Portage logo on our bags, backpacks and briefcases that says we are the company that makes all our products not just strong and versatile but practical and stylish. And the world just seems to love them.
How many people are involved in the company and what are their roles?
We’re big in vision, but not in numbers so it’s amazing what you can do with a small group of very talented people. Although our outreach is international, there are just 25 staff members who work in our Manhattan headquarters. Our employees reflect the multicultural and diverse demographic of the city which really helps a global business. They work in every aspect of the company including design, production, photography, retail sales, marketing, graphic design, web development and design, wholesale and corporate sales, quality control, shipping and logistics, IT and technical, and customer service. As professionals, they bring multiple skills to the job and are tremendously efficient and effective for our company. They have the power of a workforce twice our size.
If you could start over with the business, would you do anything differently?
Thinking back now, I would have developed the international side of our business much sooner. However, there were so many difficulties that I faced with trademark problems and other issues that took too many years before they were resolved. But positive things were happening on the domestic side with many new markets across the country, so the time was not completely lost.
What is the hardest challenge you have faced since you started the company?
Actually, there were at least three big challenges that I had to deal with in leading this company and taking it to a global level. By far, the toughest was the trademark ownership problem which became an eight year battle before we ultimately won. This was a crucial aspect of our international business model and expansion since we could not move forward without it. But I was very determined about this and never gave up that fight despite a lot of advice to the contrary. Another issue was the cultural differences which I needed to understand and deal with coming from a traditional Taiwan community to a diverse metropolis like New York. Doing business here was very different from what I had experienced in Asia. And finally, being a woman chief executive of a new company in the international business arena has never been easy and still isn’t. There are just too many things that can drive you crazy. Staying true to your vision, learning from your mistakes, demanding and giving equal respect, and working harder and smarter than your competitors is sometimes the only way to stay in the game and stay sane.
Tell us one fact about you that people wouldn’t know?
When I was a child, I always loved music and art and was quite a free spirit. And I never wanted to go into the family import/export business. I really just wanted to be a dancer. But later on, that early exposure to my family’s business culture would help me develop my own company.
2015 is here. Where do you plan on taking the brand?
This year, we are introducing our brand new Harbor Collection which is focused on great gear for the bike-riding public. During the past few years, New York City has become one of the biggest advocates for bicycle transportation with bike-sharing stations and green bike lanes everywhere. This is potentially a huge market and this special collection is designed to meet their needs. Of course, it fits our history since we began with bike messengers more than three decades ago. But, we’re not stopping there. We want to develop many new collections, other categories, a new group of Manhattan Portage lifestyle brands for luggage, accessories, a clothing and shoe line, perhaps even furniture. And we may seek more collaborative ventures with high quality companies as we’ve done in the past with great names such as Woolrich, G-Shock and others.
To date, what has been the highlight since launching ?
After establishing the MP brand in New York first with the production of our signature Red Label line of messenger bags, backpacks and accessories, we expanded our outreach nationwide. We now call this our Red Label /Heritage line because we built up the company based on the success of this original model. Since then, we have added another lifestyle brand — our Black Label / Professional line and a luxury line under the Token label. However, the most significant and difficult work was moving into the international marketplace which is now the center of our business model and includes more than 40 countries in Europe and Asia. We intend to develop our brand in South America, the Middle East and other regions in the coming years.
Which city do you feel most at home in London, Paris, New York?
It has to be New York because this has been my home city for many years now. As a global capital of culture, art, money, music and media, it’s one of the most challenging places on the planet where you either make it or break it. It demands everything you’ve got and then even more, and if you survive, you’ve really achieved something. The MP brand was born here and that’s why our logo features the Manhattan skyline on every label and the words “New York Tough” which means that fierce but caring and resilient quality that captures the spirit of the city. And thirty years later, we have survived and we’re stronger than ever.
Three beauty products you can’t leave the house without?
Well, my beauty routine is rather simple and because I’m so busy, it has to be fast.
There’s my perfume and it’s by Vivienne Westwood and called “ Boudoir.”
I use SKII – it’ a skin care foundation in a natural shade and the SKII # 521natural color lipstick.
To me, style means that you don’t follow trends. Style is about your individuality, your own personality and how you choose to present yourself to the world. It’s a mark of distinction that separates you as unique. It’s that unmistakable presence of taste that you instantly recognise but can’t always define. You know that trends come and go and fade away, but real style always remains. That’s why at MP, we create classic designs that withstand the test of time.
Best thing about London to you?
London, like New York, is a great international city with many world cultures reflected in its diverse population. I believe this makes it more competitive in the global marketplace. As one of the most prominent financial and cultural centres of Europe, it is a very dynamic environment blending history, tradition and innovation –the old and the new – and that makes it a very exciting place.
Statement shoe or statement bag?
Well, of course it has to be a Manhattan Portage bag because that’s my life’s work, my passion and my own fashion statement. Right now, I’m carrying an MP Midnight Hunters backpack
Style # 1905-MDN-Z because it suits both my business and personal lifestyle. It’s black with a textured exterior interlaced with glitter accents. It takes me from daytime to nightlife with a subtle sparkle so that’s my bit of daily luxury.
If you had to, what piece of clothing from your wardrobe would you wear every day?
I would wear my own clothing which I design myself and always have. So my dresses reflect my own style and they’re presentable, comfortable and suit my lifestyle. I can go to the office and then to an evening event and still be fashionable.
Favourite love song?
I’ve always loved The Beatles and so many of their songs are great, but my favourite…
“All You Need Is Love.”
Best place for a coffee?
I don’t drink coffee or tea anymore. They have too much caffeine for my system.
Most memorable piece of advice given to you?
The best advice I ever got was from my mother. She told me that life was like a marathon…
If you don’t keep running until the end, you don’t win. You have to keep going and never give up because persistence always pays off in the end. That’s also a great business ethic.
I’m very disciplined in many things but I have to admit… I can’t resist a lot- I mean a whole lot- of shredded pork over my rice when it comes to life’s little pleasures.
If you could spend 24 hours anywhere in the world, where would it be?
It’s got to be Manhattan because it’s an all day, all night city. You can go to the movies at midnight, find restaurants that are open 24/7, buses and subways run all night, taxis are ever present and people are constantly out in the streets. There’s always something to do and someplace to go and something’s always going on because this city is forever reinventing itself.
In the future, how do you plan on expanding the company?
I think I’ve already discussed this, but for the record, we want to create more MP lifestyle brands for a luggage, clothing & shoe line, possibly home accessories, produce more special collections, develop new international markets especially in South America, the Middle East, engage more companies in collaborative partnerships and utilize new technologies to make our MP bags even better.
Where can people find out more?
You can reach Manhattan Portage on the web and on social media at the listings below: