• La Portegna tote bag

Style

Papa’s got a brand new bag

When José Urrutia founded his La Portegna handbag brand, he was inspired by his adventurous grandmother and her stories of a close friendship with Ernest Hemingway

Words: Clare Finney

It’s clear just from stepping through the doorway of La Portegna that this is no ordinary bag shop. There are no loud logos splayed around the place, no gaudy campaign imagery, and the archetypal starched and painted assistant has been replaced by a humble-looking man in a polo shirt and cords. His name is José Urrutia—La Portegna’s founder and creative director.

One only has to imagine Marc Jacobs jumping behind the counter to realise how far brands have travelled from the days when owners were habitually out on the shop floor, chatting to regulars, but José wants a brand with a face to it. “So many brands become so big they have become faceless,” he laments. “My survival rests on knowing my clients, knowing what they want and being true to myself.” But this admirable sentiment alone is not what makes La Portegna so radically different from every other bag store you know.

Officially founded just a few years ago, La Portegna’s roots date back much further—to 1933, and a chance encounter between José’s grandmother Marie and one of the most famous authors of the 20th century. “One day I was playing with the lion rug at my grandmother’s house, and I happened to ask where it came from. She said it was a present from a friend she’d made on her travels,” he recalls. “It was Ernest Hemingway. Then she showed me a whole album of photos of him and her time abroad.”

You’ll find some of these pictures inside the shop: faded, black and whites of José’s grandmother at sea, her brothers in Ceylon, Hemingway on the cruise ship, Hemingway with the lion he killed. These hang on a feature wall, above the old leather bag that accompanied Marie and would become the blueprint for La Portegna in years to come. “Just look at the stitching,” says José longingly. “Back then it was about quality. None of this bling-bling or logos—you just had to touch it to know it would last.” This nostalgic longing is made manifest in La Portegna’s beautiful travel accessories, made “as they used to be”, for a price that, as José puts it, “doesn’t make your heart completely stop”. 

José Urrutia, La Portegna’s founder and creative director

Bohemians and bullfighters
La Portegna tells a story: Marie’s story, from her first cruise in 1933 and her subsequent travels, to her later years in Spain, where Hemingway visited them. It was on one of these occasions that José’s grandfather offered Hemingway the use of their house in the mountains to draft one of his books. That early draft became For Whom the Bell Tolls, the writer’s celebrated novel about the Spanish Civil War. “We don’t have proof that he did, that’s the thing,” laments José, “but that’s what I’ve been told.” True or not, there’s no denying the effect Spain had on Hemingway, nor the fact that a great many of his connections there came through Marie Urrutia and her bohemian circle of artists, poets, authors and bullfighter friends.

“Expert bull fighters were considered artists” says José. “They were very well respected, and would often end up marrying a proper lady, despite starting off very poor.” Though not a fan of bull fights—“they are quite boring”—José can’t help but admire a man so fearless in life, they’ve proven everything. “Their presence alone is so different,” he continues. That Hemingway was similarly enamored is no secret to anyone—yet even here there’s a tale to tell.

“My grandfather knew a great bullfighter,” he recalls, “called Belmonte. He was famous because he was so short he couldn’t jump out of the arena, so he had to kill the bull every time.” One night when Hemingway was over, Mr Urrutia introduced the two, and they stayed up all night talking. The pair went on to remain friends, and Belmonte was characterised in two of Hemingway’s books: Death in the Afternoon and The Sun Also Rises. “They actually appear together in Midnight in Paris, the Woody Allen film,” José enthuses. “That small bullfighter Hemingway is with? That’s Belmonte.”

For José, his grandmother’s blessing has been a wealth of stories, but her curse has been to leave him with a deep longing for a time long passed, and a way of travelling that can never be relived. “Having a grandmother like that gives you this mystique about travelling—which is amazing,” he insists, “but it’s also a bit of a problem.” 

Unspoiled by tourism
Setting off to explore the world after university he soon realised that the rise of technology and cheap flights meant travelling these days was not what it once was. His grandmother’s photos reveal a world unspoiled by tourism—empty beaches, lonely grand hotels, the Taj Mahal deserted except for her brothers in front of it. There was space and time to experience a place, and meet people. “No booking online, no rushing for flights—and no email,” he says, wonderingly, looking at his iPhone with despair. “The ultimate luxury these days is to turn this thing off.”

These days he rarely gets chance to: running La Portegna is fun, but it needs constant attention. Setting up new shops, managing staff, creating new bag designs and overseeing manufacturing is a huge undertaking for anyone, no matter how committed they are to the cause. “To synthesise my family history, my love of travel and my work in branding with what’s inside my heart is a dream,” he says—yet like a dream, it’s not easy to hold on to. José is wary of forcing his brand too hard in a new market, however good it is, and would “rather be understated than show off and push people away”.

“If people want to know everything about the brand, it is there,” he says, pointing to a discreet embossed label inside a nearby bag. “I am convinced the British know enough about quality to recognise it when they see it, though.” So saying, he jumps up, grabs his water bottle and pours it over the outstretched bag. I gasp as the water hits it—yet far from staining, the drops bounce off, and roll merrily away. “Water repellent coating on the canvas—for your British weather!” He laughs at my astonished face. But what’s more astonishing, to my mind, is how long the village responsible for La Portegna has been working with leather for.

The Hemingway connection
Though I had heard before of southern Spain’s talent for leather, I had no idea just how historic it was: “300, 400 years old,” he says. “Because they were in the mountains, they haven’t sold out, they use traditional techniques.” That, plus such modern twists as belie José’s traditionalism (iPad cases, lightweight holdalls, metal-free belts for airports), make for products that are “still super functional, but also take you back to all the romance of travelling in the past”. Fine leather. Functionality. A lifespan of 20 years, perhaps longer—even without the Hemingway connection these bags are tempting, but, being a bibliophile, I gently steer the conversation back to his grandmother and her deeply illustrious friend.

Any romance there? “Not that I know of. I never asked the question, but I think they were just friends,” says Jose. Any other gossip at all? “Umm—my mother thought he was gay?” She wasn’t the only one, I smile, remembering his African stalking stories—but I sense I’ve reached an impasse. There’s a limit to what a grandmother tells a grandchild—and it is she, not Hemingway, that José is really channelling through La Portegna. “When I design, I feel attached to her. I want to think that if she were here, she would look at my work and think ‘good’.’”