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Cheryl Schulke Stash Co.

Stash Co.’s Cheryl Schulke is Building Bags (and More) for Leaders

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As many stories do, this one begins with a journey—a forty-minute trip west to the small Texas town of Sealy, where the land is mostly undeveloped and the sky is big and free. Down back roads and across train tracks, there waits a mattress factory. It looms large, tall and white against the Texas sky, with more than one hundred years of memories housed within its wooden walls.

It is the old Haynes Mattress Factory, built in 1909, where Daniel Haynes showcased the technology and skill that allowed his Sealy mattress brand to become a global success. Even today, tufts of soft cotton sit in holding bins, alongside the massive, patented technology that turned out tens of thousands of mattresses throughout much of the twentieth century. The machinery creaked to a halt over 40 years ago, but the spirit of innovation they represent lives on.

I sell to leaders—I don’t sell to followers. I sell to people who want a one-of-a-kind piece that gets you followed around in the airport in Paris because people want to know, ‘Where did you get that bag?’
-Cheryl Schulke, Stash Co. Owner + Builder

Today, a small team of dedicated artisans uses the space to build beautiful, handmade leather goods under the name of Stash Co. Each piece designed by owner Cheryl Schulke—from totes to journals to elegant minimalist clutches—is brought to life using vintage tools, hand-selected hides, and the kind of old-fashioned ingenuity that makes Texas famous.

The result? Genuinely unique products—the ultimate luxury in a world defined by consumer culture and mass production.

Stash Co.
(L) Haynes Mattress Factory. Photo by Debora Smail. | (R) Crossbody, Astro Hair Hide. Photo by Cheryl Schulke.

“I sell to leaders—I don’t sell to followers,” Cheryl explains. “I sell to people who want a one-of-a-kind piece that gets you followed around in the airport in Paris because people want to know, ‘Where did you get that bag?’”

Cheryl is a maker through and through, born with an enterprising spirit that was passed on from generations past. With an architect-carpenter as a father and grandparents who purchased the Haynes Mattress Factory in the middle of the last century and swiftly added upholstery and decorating businesses to their operations, hers is a legacy of innovation. “I worked here [at the factory] when I was in high school, and I think that might have struck a love for textiles with me,” she muses. “That fueled my creativity.” As did the rural Texas landscape, with all those wide open spaces waiting for the right imagination to fill them up. “What did you do to entertain yourself? You went skipping stones at the pond, or exploring in the woods with a notebook to write. That’s all there was to do, and I think all of those things fueled my creativity.”

“Raising things from nothing,” she adds, “was essential to my growing up.”

As a maker, designer, and business owner, it’s essential to her adulthood, too. But Cheryl’s professional career did not immediately revolve around those gifts—she spent years traveling the world as a corporate leader in the technology industry, working 90-hour weeks and selling the intangible. Though her position required leadership and innovation, something was missing.

Haynes Mattress Factory. Photo by Two Cats Communications.
Haynes Mattress Factory. Photo by Two Cats Communications.

 

The Best Stories Break the Rules

After the birth of her first daughter, Cheryl turned back to her roots. She dabbled in creative writing, taught yoga, and returned to photography, a longtime interest. An early client owned an antique shop and offered Cheryl a fateful swap—a few photos for a cowhide.

“I thought, ‘Okay, I don’t know what I’m going to do with that,’” Cheryl laughs. “So I hung it over the back of the chair for months, and the Round Top Antiques Festival came up.” Cheryl was keen to head to the festival with her camera gear, but she didn’t have the right vessel for her equipment. “I didn’t want a bag that everybody else had,” she says. “So I cut the cowhide, I took an old belt out of the closet, and I made myself a bag with my home sewing machine. I went out to Round Top, and I couldn’t believe it—I got stopped like 50 times. People were asking, ‘Where’d you get that bag?’”

In a cosmic twist, the woman who traded her the hide talked Cheryl out of that first bag—this time swapping her another, bigger cowhide. Five bags later, it was clear that Cheryl had hit upon something.

One of the nice things about being a maker is that, if you don’t know the rules, you can break ‘em.
-Cheryl Schulke, Stash Co. Owner + Builder

For their next anniversary, Cheryl’s husband, entrepreneur and Stash Co. CFO Paul Forde, gifted her an industrial sewing machine. Armed with the right equipment, the dream took off. “I decided to make a business out of it,” she says. But she knew she had a steep learning curve ahead.

With an architect for a father and a husband equally as innovative as she, Cheryl’s workshop quickly blossomed into a laboratory of self-determination and invention. “I am self-taught,” Cheryl explains. “Every day is university around here, even after 12 years.”

She’s an enthusiastic student. “I grew up in the hardware, construction, and lumber business, so my husband and I have developed unique techniques and tricks that utilize those concepts—we use all kinds of crazy stuff that isn’t found in a normal saddlemaker shop,” she says. “We had a vacuum press machine downstairs, that Paul actually built for me, and we use it to compress two layers of leather together. That’s a woodworkers’ technique—I don’t know any leather workers who do that. But one of the nice things about being a maker is that, if you don’t know the rules, you can break ‘em.

(L) Market + Modernist, Dusty Cowboy. Photo by Cheryl Schulke. | (R) Cheryl Schulke. Photo by Gary Griffin.

Technique isn’t the only thing that sets Stash Co. apart from the industry. As dedicated as Cheryl is to her process, she’s equally focused on the materials with which she’s building.

“I call myself a collector, and materials are what inspire me,” she shares. I’m a storyteller as an individual and a writer, so I’m looking for materials that have a story, that look interesting. Every single hide you get is completely different.”

Those very differences are what companies churning out mass-produced products desperately seek to stamp out. But they’re part of the magic to Cheryl. “I want to see all the natural beauty—the marks, the scratches,” she says. “When you buy something from us, it’s going to accumulate story as it ages. Some people want perfection—I think the story is the perfection.

Pick up any piece, and you’ll discover the truth in this sentiment. The bags of Stash Co. are a study in story. Organic, burnished edges celebrate the individuality of every hide. Some pieces even bear the original brands from the cattle that once grazed in the Texas prairies. That’s not something you’ll find in other brands, where uniformity is key—and wastefulness is second nature. “When we’re done cutting a hide, there’s not enough left to wipe the sweat off your forehead,” Cheryl says with a smile.

Cheryl Schulke. Photo by Gary Griffin.
Cheryl Schulke. Photo by Gary Griffin.

 

Made in Texas, Carried Around the World

A winning combination of creative and pragmatic, Cheryl isn’t solely concerned with the beauty of her materials. “Cowhides are like a piece of art. You have to balance usability and design with the art of it. I think we do that really well. I’m interested in functionality, in usability.”

Some people want perfection—I think the story is the perfection.
-Cheryl Schulke, Stash Co. Owner + Builder

With each iteration, Stash Co.’s bags develop, subtly evolving for a customer base that moves fast and values the best. But even as Cheryl optimizes for functionality, she’ll never consider compromising quality. “A lot of people, once they figure something out, think, ‘How can I make this cheaper?’ Our focus is always on how to make it better.”

Cheryl’s customer base recognizes that dedication to quality, and Stash Co. enjoys a loyal following that’s quick to recommend the brand.

“It’s a passion thing,” Cheryl explains. “People who find us really love us. They give our things to their friends as gifts. The leaders collect, and they come back because they can’t wait to be the leader in what’s next.”

As evidenced by her product line, her customers favor travel, and that’s led to a growing international recognition. Stash Co. bags can be found from India to Australia to Singapore, splashed across Europe, and even in New Zealand and South Africa.

“Never underestimate the value of word-of-mouth,” Cheryl says.  “Houston is such an international city, so if someone comes in, word gets around. People come looking for things that were truly made in Texas that can’t be gotten anywhere else.”

Stash Co.
(L) Artisan Backpack, Caramel. (R) Artisan Fyn Small, Caramel. Photos by Cheryl Schulke.

“I’ve been working and living in and around Houston for 25 years, so my heart is there. We have this love and openness to global culture, which I think Houston reflects,” she muses.

With such a diverse client base, it makes sense that Stash Co.’s brick-and-mortar, Curate by Stash, is located in one of Texas’ biggest centers for tourism—and the place where Cheryl received that first cowhide. The tiny town of Round Top (population: 90) hosts an unbelievable, multi-week antiques fair in the spring and fall of every year. The festival attracts collectors from all over the world, and Stash Co.’s unique, handmade pieces have been a real hit. “I got to do the big fly-all-over-the-world job, but this one’s filling my soul,” Cheryl says.

2017 was a significant year for Stash Co.—their busiest yet. As the brand grows and garners further recognition, Cheryl reflects on what’s next for her business: “Less,” she says succinctly. “2018 is the year of ‘No,’ because I said ‘Yes’ to everything in 2017. In 2017, we wet every line. We put corporate branding out there full throttle; we put wholesale out full throttle; we opened a brand-new, beautiful new retail space in Round Top. In 2017, we did it all. So this year, we’re trying to figure out how to maximize the investments. We’re going to make our own way, put our ear to the ground.”

“My goal in 2018 is to do more design and take more pictures. Tell more stories. My horoscope told me this is the year to write the book. We’ll see.”


Featured image by Gary Griffin.

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