All great successes have an element of providence—for the Oshkosh Trunk Company, it came in the form of a surplus of deadstock canvas. In the 1800s, an unnamed American mill had been churning out red-and-yellow striped canvas for use by Spanish diplomats, fueling a demand that suddenly shuttered with the end of the Spanish-American war. The mill was left with heaps of the fabric, which they eventually sold to an enterprising luggage company in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Though initially an under-appreciated acquisition—the canvas was used as a base and often painted over—the Oshkosh Trunk Company came around when a buyer placed an order for a line of trunks with the stripe included. With this order, the pattern—and the company—took off. Riding the wave of the jet set age, Oshkosh expanded to an international luxury brand with stores in New York, Paris and London. Though as the years passed, the company eventually disbanded, and by the end of the century was all but lost.
Konrad Duchek, a long time fan and entrepreneur, remembers the stripe. Growing up, he would nestle up beside the trunks as his family made their summer migration to their lake house. “We used to spend pretty much the whole summer up on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire,” says Ducheck. “So I always associated the trunks with summer fun and good times.” The memory stuck, but the brand had died out. A perfect storm of labor problems, the automobile and the democratization of air travel obviated the need for luxury trunks.
But when Duchek was milling around Paris decades later, he saw the trunk and its signature stripes, and got an idea. “I was over in the flea markets north of the city, in Porte de Clignancourt,” Ducheck recalls. “There are a couple of vintage Louis Vuitton and Goyard dealers, and in the corner of one of these dealers is this stripe trunk. So I started talking to the dealer, and he tells me, ‘It’s this great American brand that no one really knows about. It was sold here, but it’s since been forgotten about.’ I wanted to buy the trunk, but the dealer wouldn’t sell it because it was his personal trunk.”
Duchek met with experts and worked to formally relaunch the Oshkosh Trunk Company as Chief Trunk. The name refers to “the chief,” which was the nickname for the iconic stripe in the brand’s heyday. You won’t find any trunks in the new line, a decision that respects the current state of travel. “Design is not a democracy,” Ducheck explains. “You have to have a voice and leadership, and you have to put something out there that maybe the consumer didn’t expect. But then you also have to be able to react to what your consumers are saying, what they need, and to fit in their world.”
Dedicated to avoiding the mistakes of the past, Chief Trunk tries to anticipate new developments in the ways their customer moves. Items like the schooner tote, the duffel and the hybrid “brief tote” show an understanding of the sweatpant-elegance of modern travel. “Part of what Chief Trunk is trying to get back is a little bit of the elegance and the glamor of travel,” says Duchek. “It’s about the American good life, the American road trip—you’re traveling to something, to a gathering, to people. You’re going somewhere interesting and new.”
While the new bags aren’t the rigid hardbacks of yore, they are solid pieces of functional design. The beefy 24-ounce canvas holds its own against the rigors of the modern commute. The stripe itself is yarn-dyed just like it was in the 1800s, which means it won’t flake or rub off. Riri zippers out of Italy and full-grain leather continue the sensation of durability and substance. And a water-resistant coating is the final seal of approval on these come-what-may wares. Visit Crest & Co. online to view the Chief Trunk collection in its entirety, where pieces sell for between $125 and $595 depending on the desired design.
Images courtesy of Chief Trunk