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Hobo: A homegrown business with international appeal

Wednesday - 10/30/2013, 8:12am  ET

KorenRay.jpg
With her mother, Toni, Koren Ray has grown a local brand to a national, household name. (Courtesy David Burroughs Photography)

WASHINGTON - Walk into almost any specialty clothing and accessories boutique today, and chances are you will see an oversized leather wallet designed as a clutch, with a colorful fabric pattern and a magnet sewn to the inside.

Look closer and you will see the name of the company behind these popular leather goods: Hobo.

The brand has become one of the most recognized names in women's accessories -- and it got its start on a dining room table in Annapolis, Md.

Twenty-two years ago, Toni Ray, a single mother and co-founder of Georgetown Leather Design, cashed in her life savings after her D.C.-based leather goods company was bought out.

"She called me and she said, ‘I need your help,'" says Koren Ray, co-founder of Hobo and Toni's daughter.

The two decided to take Toni's background and expertise in stylish leather design one step further -- they launched a line of bags for women.

"She really felt like there was an opportunity to design handbags and sell leather goods for real women that were stylish, that had quality but still had lots of function, so that really was where Hobo was born," says Koren, who now runs the company with her husband since her mother's retirement six years ago.

Hobo's signature clutch wallets are sold in more than 3,000 boutiques across the country. (Courtesy David Burroughs)

For 15 years, Koren and Toni ran their company from Toni's dining room table.

"In those early days it was just a little line of funky leather bags with two colors," says Koren. "We've come a very long way since then."

In its first years, Hobo bags were manufactured in Bogota, Colombia, and the company's first show took place in a beat-up van.

"We put our collection of handbags in it and we drove to New York in 1990," Koren says.

But Toni and Koren's persistence paid off when Toni gifted a Hobo bag to the leather goods buyer at Nordstrom.

"She came back and said, ‘This is the most amazing piece I've ever owned,' and she gave Hobo and opportunity," says Koren, who says the deal with Nordstrom was the launch Hobo needed to expand.

Now, Hobo is in more than 3,000 boutiques and department stores, such as Lord and Taylor, Dillards and Nordstrom.

The company has also grown from its limited product choices, to different colors, different leathers and different styles. And celebrities, such as Taylor Swift and Eva Longoria, have been spotted carrying the bags.

But despite the company's success and growth over the years, Koren made the decision to keep Hobo's roots in Annapolis, not New York or Los Angeles.

"For all the traveling that we do for selling and for all the traveling that we do for sourcing and going to factories and shopping the market, it's really nice to come home to Annapolis, where our heart is and where our heritage is and where it all began," Koren says. "It's very important to us as a brand and as a family."

And as for the company's name? Koren explains the brand "Hobo" was inspired by the independent women for whom the company makes its designs.

"We really believe that our creative, original design appeals to women who are individuals, who live by their own rules, who create their own fashion sense," she says.

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