Introducing Passavant and Lee

Founded as the result of a business vision shared between two close friends, Passavant and Lee is a new brand of accessories for men that has been garnering considerable interest from fashion buyers and journalists. Although the brand is only being unveiled to the world in 2013, over the last three years friends Jon Passavant and Benj Lee have invested their time and expertise and worked closely with manufacturers in the US and UK to develop their first product, the ‘Passavant and Lee Nº 25 Aluminum and Leather Briefcase’.

With its attractive industrial undertones conjured by combining aircraft-grade aluminium with supple, full grain leather, the briefcase has certainly caught the attention of The Style Examiner. To find out the plans that Passavant and Lee have for their new venture and their contribution to the realm of men’s accessories, we interviewed the founders and designers exclusively for our readers.

The Style Examiner: To start, how did you two meet?
Jon Passavant: I met Benj through a mutual friend in 2008 when he first moved to New York for modelling. We had a lot in common since we had both been in the industry for a while, and pretty instantly became friends. We’ve shared a lot of great times together; I’ve travelled to his family home in Ireland, and walked through some difficult times in our lives as well. One of the biggest honours of my life is to be the godfather to Benj’s first son Thaddeus.

TSE: In addition to modelling, you two have also undertaken some very hands-on work in property development and urban regeneration. What made you go down the road of male accessories?
JP: It’s an amazing privilege to have worked with some of the most gifted and respected designers, photographers and creative directors in the industry. I learned so much from watching them create and bring their visions to life, and maybe I didn’t even realize it fully at the time but it gave me inspiration to start something. When I met Benj, he had such passion and creative desire; it was clear there was no one else I’d rather work with. For me, becoming friends with Benj provided the vehicle to explore what could be possible, and I feel like we pushed each other creatively to develop something we’re proud of.

TSE: The ‘Passavant and Lee Nº 25 Aluminum and Leather Briefcase’ is a stunning piece of design. How did you agree on the lines of the briefcase? Did you work it out together and agreed on the design all the way through? Did you involve anyone else in the design process?
JP: The final product is really a combination of our initial design idea while needing to work with the unique properties of the materials. We realized quickly that there’s a reason people have engineering degrees – it’s complicated. We worked with a faculty member at Yale for over a year to discover how we could manipulate the metal to do what we want. And it wasn’t easy – our first prototype was forged by hand out of steel. Slowly over the course of about 18 months, working with over 10 different aeronautical engineers from Connecticut to California, we developed a process that works, and we love the end result.

Benj Lee: The design process has been a constant balancing act between functionality and visual beauty, a challenge which I love. Whilst we sought technical help to achieve what we needed with the aluminium, all the design work has been a collaboration between Jon and myself. Beyond that, working with the leather craftsmen to bring the designs to life in all their detail has been a long and rewarding journey, and we now enter production with great relationships as well as great processes in place.

TSE: Why did you decide on the combination of materials that seem, on the surface, so different, such as aluminium and leather?
BL: Part of what drew us to these two materials was exactly their differences of look and feel which give an attractive contrast, but primarily it was their physical attributes: the aluminium is light and strong (once heat-treated) and the leather is workable yet hard wearing. There were a number of different options that may have fulfilled the function but we loved the timeless aesthetic of working with these two materials, and knowing that both the vegetable tanned leather and the aluminium will age beautifully. And there’s nothing like it out there.

TSE: You once defined the briefcase as “combining beautiful raw materials and innovative design with a timeless style harking back to [your] classic British and American roots”. Jon, you were brought up in western Pennsylvania and Ben, you grew up in London. How do you see your nationalities influencing your work?
JP: The places we come from have a huge influence both on the aesthetics of our design as well as in how we make them. Using aircraft grade aluminium to me speaks of adventure and achieving what seems impossible. We’re proud to be able to make our products in America but certain pieces of the briefcase, such as the lock, are handmade in Britain – making it a true collaboration. Since all of this was born out of friendship, it seems important that both America and England are going to be central in how we design and manufacture.

BL: My upbringing brought me into constant contact with classic British design, whether the architecture of central London, or the objects on my grandfather’s dressing table or gun cabinet. From a young age I developed a fascination with beautiful accessories, furniture and clothing of past generations springing from a heritage of craftsmanship and meant to outlast their owners.

TSE: So far, what has the reaction been to the ‘Passavant and Lee Nº 25 Aluminum and Leather Briefcase’ from press and buyers?
BL: The reaction has been really positive and so exciting for us to see.  For something that has been a passion project for so long, to start getting recognition and interest is really encouraging. We are looking forward to these next few months as the bag releases and we meet with buyers.

TSE: Your initial start-up focus is just one product. Could you share what your expansion plans are for the next few years with the readers of The Style Examiner? And, in the long run, what are your expectations for the future of Passavant and Lee?
BL: We are already prototyping the products which will sit alongside this briefcase and build it out into a range including a slimmer attaché case, a portfolio and a travel wallet. Beyond that we are in the design phase of further accessories that will follow up this initial offering. In the longer term our dream and vision is to expand into apparel and become a full lifestyle brand.