As the saying goes like mother, like daughter. Mother-and-daughter business duo, Koren and Toni Ray are no exception. In 1991, the two founded Hobo, a quality leather company that specializes in women’s purses, wallets and jackets and offers a men’s leather goods collection.
As a young girl, Koren watched her mom work in the leather shop. The smell of natural hides and patchouli would fill the air as she watched artisans cut, stitch and tool leather bags by hand. It was there that Koren fell in love with quality leather.
The daughter of a single mom doing it all on her own, Koren learned first-hand how to create leather goods with beauty, soul and purpose. In the 70’s, Koren’s mom helped create a small leather shop in Washington D.C., where she was tracing feet and making sandals by hand. Toni helped grow that business to 30 stores before she was bought out, losing the only job she’d ever known and her pay-out as well.
With her passion for leather, Toni decided to start her own company. When Koren was asked to help, it was an easy decision. With no money and simple designs made from a funky leather from Colombia, South America, the mother-daughter duo launched Hobo.
Koren spent the first year of Hobo in Bogota working with the sample makers to develop a look that was uniquely Hobo. She and her mother worked alongside each other on the dining room table from her mother’s home for the first 15 years, shipping leather bags off the back porch. Throughout this process, Koren learned many lessons from her mother like how to design bags with purpose. Toni also taught her the importance of details, that women know quality and that every woman needs and deserves a bag that will make her life better and be a form of self-expression.
Hobo has been in the Ray family for two generations. With a passion for the authentic beauty of well-crafted designs, the early days of the family business rested on modern craft. At Hobo, this emphasis on design means handpicking the leathers in order to create timeless leather pieces. Today, Hobo mixes beauty and functionality, with pieces sold in small boutiques to large department stores like Nordstrom.
Here is what Koren had to say about the impact her mom’s passion for quality leather has had on her and her love for Hobo:
Tell me about your relationship with your mom Toni. How has your mother-daughter relationship evolved throughout the years?
All of my life, my mother has been my greatest mentor. Even before I was old enough to truly appreciate her, she was a source of strength for me. As a single mom, running her own business, before women even did that, she always gave 110 percent to whatever she did. I learned from her that you get out of life exactly what you put in.
As I got older and began to appreciate her more, I saw that she ran her business with the same principles by which she led her life: honesty, hard work, authenticity, fairness and a passion to follow her heart. Once we started Hobo together and I had the opportunity to work alongside her every day, I understood much better what it takes to begin a business from nothing and how to sustain the growth. In particular, building a strong company has everything to do with the people you bring on board, how you encourage them to work to their greatest potential and how you support their professional growth.
I strongly believe in the culture that my mother created in the early years of Hobo. She led by example, demonstrating that she wasn’t afraid to roll up her sleeves and take risks, even when we were a small company with everything to lose. After years of admiring my mother’s leadership, I can only hope to follow with the same integrity, grace and grit.
Building a strong company has everything to do with the people you bring on board.
Take me back to 1991. How did you come to the decision to start a business together?
Hobo was born, as all great businesses are, from the powerful mix of necessity and passion. In 1991, after my mother was let go from the leather business that she had helped grow, she turned to her expertise in leather and her passion for purposeful design. She decided to start over with a few simple designs in a funky, natural leather from Colombia.
She needed some help and called me. At the time, I was a recent graduate of Northwestern University. We started Hobo on her dining table with the last of my mother’s IRA money. With a little luck and a lot of hard work, we sold our bags, first to small specialty stores and eventually landed our first big order at Nordstrom, paving the way for our growth.
With a little luck and a lot of hard work, we sold our bags.
What is your husband’s role in the business? Do you enjoy working together as a family?
I couldn’t ask for a better partner and friend. David has been a part of Hobo since the very beginning. Today, he runs all of the operations, sourcing and sales teams, but in the early days, just like me, he wore many hats. He’s never afraid to roll up his sleeves, and I’ve never seen a challenge he won’t face or a problem he can’t solve.
As Hobo thrives as a second-generation, family-run business, David and I still focus on creating beautiful, authentic leather goods that are made to last. We stay true to our passion and enduring design philosophy with handpicked leathers, timeless designs creating bags that only get better with age, oh, and we have a lot of fun doing it!
What do the day-to-day operations look like at Hobo?
No two days are ever the same, which is what makes what I do so fun.
How do you balance career and family?
It’s not always easy, but I believe it’s about understanding and accepting that you can’t do it alone. I am fortunate to be married to my best friend and business partner, David Brewer. It helps to have someone who is working toward the same goals. Hobo is our passion, but family always comes first.
Even my mother, who is the most driven person I’ve ever known, once said to me, when I was letting work get the better of me, “Honey, remember they’re only handbags.” It’s good to have people in your life who can help you keep it all in perspective and celebrate the victories, big and small.
It’s good to have people in your life who can help you keep it all in perspective and celebrate the victories, big and small.
What inspires you when designing bags?
As a child of the 70s, I grew up in a world of artists, musicians, craftspeople and leather while being raised under the craft bench in my mom’s iconic leather shop. It is there that I learned my craft and a respect for possessions created with beauty, soul and purpose. Yet, my inspiration comes from real people who are living life on their own terms, the rebels who don’t play by the rules, who express themselves freely, with conviction and with their own individual style. I design bags to be loved every day by everyday people.
How is Hobo unique? What separates it from competitors?
I subscribe to the belief that the more you stay “true to your roots,” the more authentic you remain. We strive to do this every day, and I believe this is what separates Hobo from other brands. Hobo is a second-generation family-run brand whose origin lies in modern craft. When we started Hobo 30 years ago, we had a passion for the authentic beauty of well-crafted designs. Today, I stay true to our enduring design philosophy that is equal parts beauty and flawless functionality.
Also, at Hobo there is a focus on mentorship. My mother taught me a sense of responsibility for guiding our company into the future and the importance of mentoring the young people who are coming up behind me to build Hobo. I believe that the values I learned working alongside my mother for 17 years have served me well in my leadership role at Hobo.
We currently employ nearly 50 women, ages 23-75, in positions from sales to marketing, accounting to warehousing, design to purchasing. Many have come to Hobo right out of school, eager to be a part of an authentic brand with a real story. I am proud that we are supporting young women coming into the work force. After years of admiring my mother’s leadership, I can only hope to follow with the same integrity, grace and grit and instill the same passion and confidence in a new generation of creative women.
Tell us about some of your Hobo Icon bags (aka your best sellers)?
I am often asked what makes a design an icon and my answer throughout the past 30 years has not changed: purposeful design. My mother taught me to live with integrity and design with purpose. Today, I remain committed to making leather goods that only get better with use and wear, bags you reach for on repeat for both their utility and style.
We have some amazing icon styles that are evergreen and evercool, designed to stand the test of time and remain our bestsellers year after year. My mom always says that quality and cool never go out of style. That is what makes a true Hobo icon.
What is your favorite Hobo design?
To ask me to pick just one would be like asking me to pick a favorite among my children, but if I were stranded in a train station, farmer’s market or grocery store and could only have one Hobo, then it would have to be the Lauren. Equal parts wallet and clutch, the Lauren brings together the best of Hobo. It has heritage design elements with, versatile function and style. I use the Lauren every day, and it goes with me from carpool to airport to dinner out. I couldn’t live without it.
What are your hopes for Hobo in the future? Is this something you’d like to pass down to future family generations?
We believe the time is right for a brand like Hobo. There is a convergence of consumer values that aligns with the philosophy of Hobo. Consumers are voting for quality over quantity, a respect for the utility of the products they invest in and a desire for more indie and intimate brands that have real people behind them.
We have a true story that we believe is worth sharing. Our story is connected to a love of craft that spans two generations. While we have the ability to expand rapidly into new categories and markets, we are not in a rush to do so.
Our story is connected to a love of craft that spans two generations.
We are in it for the long game and have learned never to sacrifice brand integrity for fast growth. For us, success looks like becoming a third generation (we have four kids growing up surrounded by leather) heritage brand whose reputation and foundation around modern craft and quality transcends into new Hobo products.
To learn more about Hobo, follow them on Instagram at @hobotheoriginal.
Feature image via Reserve Home