At first glance, Curtis Calder seems to be exactly what you’d expect of a designer at the helm of a successful luxury fashion brand. He’s handsome and charismatic, today clad in a sleek black sweater from Acne Studios and Hugo Boss trousers; it's a look that epitomizes his love for well-tailored minimalism. We get a hint of his passion for functional design from his shoe choice: a pair of Nike Air Max 90s. That combination of commanding form and thoughtful function is Curtis’ signature, and it’s evident in every design for his budding accessories label, Anson Calder. But while most of his contemporaries sketched and sewed their way through design school, Curtis spent six years working in the high-finance world before decamping to found his own high-fashion brand.
The idea of “Engineered Luxury™” is the very core of Anson Calder. Its focus on utility, high-end materials, and absolute minimalism sets it apart. Curtis’ inspiration for the brand comes from trailblazers like Nike founder Phil Knight, who persevered despite seemingly insurmountable odds, and Steve Jobs. “Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like,'' Jobs once said. “That's not what we think design is. It's not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” That idea that design and function are inseparable is key to the Anson Calder ethos.
Curtis comes from an unlikely background for an accessories designer: investment banking. He never received any formal training in design but always had a special fondness for leather goods, often stopping to examine the details and ingenuity of bags he’d spot on a friend’s shoulder or in a shop window. When his banking job took him and his family to Switzerland for two years, he gained a new appreciation for precise, intelligent design. Later, living in New York City—and in a typically tiny New York apartment—cultivated his love for efficiency and a well-organized space. When Curtis took his first prototype wallet to Bennett Liberty (a venerable craftsman who has spent the last fifty years making leather goods for the likes of Coach, Ghurka, and Oscar de la Renta), he described Curtis’ design as a perfect marriage of engineering and fashion—a fitting epithet for the son of a fashion merchandiser and an aeronautical engineer.
“Never in a million years did I think that I would end up working in the fashion industry,” Curtis says. “I had a very successful career working for J.P. Morgan. I don’t think I’d done anything truly creative since elementary school.”
Curtis created his first wallet out of printer paper and packing tape. “I was unable to find a wallet with the features I needed, so I made a prototype. I brought it home to my wife, Allison, who loves to create things; we thought it would be a fun project. It wasn’t until after my diagnosis that we finally remade the wallet out of leather—that was really the first leather Anson Calder wallet.”
Curtis had his dream job at J.P. Morgan, but in March of 2013, he was diagnosed with Facioscapulohumeral Muscular Dystrophy (FSHD), the same degenerative muscle disease that had put his grandfather in a wheelchair 30 years earlier. Because Curtis’ disease was progressing much faster than normal, his doctor worried that Curtis would soon be wheelchair-bound, too. It became clear that in order to stay mobile, Curtis had to leave the job that was keeping him at a desk for 90-plus hours each week and do something that would keep his muscles from deteriorating. That’s when he began thinking more seriously about his paper wallet prototype and decided to pull out his wife’s sewing machine. With Allison’s help and tutelage, Curtis taught himself to sew and began experimenting with design.
“Even months after my diagnosis, I still thought I would go back to the same job at J.P. Morgan,” Curtis says. “Initially, the bags and wallets were a fun hobby that kept my brain and body active during my medical leave of absence. We thought we’d make a few wallets and bags for the friends and family members who loved the things we had made for ourselves. But as we made more prototypes and perfected our designs, everything just kind of started to snowball. By the time I was well enough to go back to work full-time, my wife and I felt motivated to take on this insane risk and start our own business. We really enjoyed working together and thought this would be an exciting new path for us.”
Curtis and Allison officially founded Anson Calder in January of 2015, building a brand identity that combines artisan materials and fine craftsmanship with functional minimalist design. The line has expanded from a single wallet to a range of leather goods that are particularly popular with commuters and travelers, thanks to Anson Calder’s patent-pending organizational system.
The inspiration for his brand’s name comes from his son. “My wife and I liked using ‘Anson Calder’ for our brand name because it’s the name of our eldest son, who was named after my great-grandfather. To me, Anson Calder combines the past and present; for our business, that means a marriage of tried-and-true, high-quality materials and old-world craftsmanship with new-world technology and innovative design. We’re making leather goods that have that heritage-brand quality, but are designed with today’s tech in mind. Our bags and accessories are made for those who appreciate meticulous organization but don’t want to sacrifice style.”
The brand boasts international sales in more than 50 countries and Curtis is proud that much of their business still comes from word-of-mouth. “Orders often come in clusters; one person will buy a wallet then they must tell all of their friends and family how much they love it. It’s crazy! Sometimes we’ll get one order from a tiny town in... Massachusetts, let’s say, then a few weeks later, we see a bunch of orders trickle in from the same tiny town,” he explains. “It makes me want to send them an email and ask, ‘Who told you about us?!’ I think our customers love that we make quality products they will use for years rather than fast-fashion accessories that fall apart quickly and lead to wasted materials.”
As for the next evolution of the brand, Anson Calder is gearing up to expand their line even further, with new styles, materials, and colorways. “We've been getting a lot of requests for products that tailor to the athleisure movement, like a gym bag you're not embarrassed to carry into your office,” Curtis says. “We’re also planning to offer bespoke items and additional colors. We have a red leather now that people are really loving.”
When he’s not traveling to meet suppliers or developing new designs, Curtis breaks away from the demands of building his business and keeps his inspiration flowing. He loves spending as much time as possible with his family, often Lego building with his four young children. “I also love being active outside. I really enjoy cycling because it’s so efficient and clean. Every ounce of energy I put into it gets me that much farther and allows me to see that much more of the countryside. I guess I value efficiency and purpose in most things I do.”
Curtis’ love for intelligent design has quickly grown a cult following for Anson Calder; brand loyalists share his enthusiasm for everything being in its proper place—visible, accessible, and organized. In a fast-paced world where just getting from point A to point B can feel like a marathon, Curtis’ goal is to eliminate the little stressors of daily life—like rummaging through your messy bag or struggling to retrieve your credit card when your hands are full.
“You use your wallet and briefcase every day. Shouldn’t you love them?” Curtis asks. “We’ve brought more efficiency to your wallet and bag. I’m always mulling over how we could bring that same efficiency and organization to other areas of life; there are a lot of ways I’d like to expand the Anson Calder brand. But for now, knowing that we’re making life easier for our customers and that they absolutely love what we make—that’s what inspires me to keep doing what I’m doing.”