Like Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, Robert M. Lee was ahead of his time. In the mid-1960s, Lee, an outdoor enthusiast, and businessman, designed and fabricated a line of clothing and equipment explicitly created for life on the Serengeti. Working with sailmakers in Angola, he swapped out heavy canvas for a new polyurethane-coated nylon. The material, called Battue, brought lightness and waterproofing to traditional shoulder bags and duffels, with a shock-absorbing foam core and a snag-resistant jersey inner core. He returned home to New York and set up shop. Thus, Hunting World Inc. was born.
Lee’s little gear company soon offered a big selection—distinctive luggage, leather goods, apparel, sporting goods, even watches. Battue bags became an underground status symbol, especially in Japan. By the 1990s, Hunting World was running full-page ads in The New York Times alongside Barneys and Bergdorf. But Hunting World was relying on a reputation—clever, stylish, durable—that it could no longer live up to. Customers who encountered this generation of product in person were surprised. Many of the great designs from Hunting World’s core line had been replaced or disappeared entirely. Even the names of the styles and patterns—“metallic tweed,” “mystical shade,” “encompass jacquard”—were tacky.
I was one of those customers.
It was only after I started buying vintage catalogs on eBay, and researching the brand through Japanese sites, that I discovered Hunting World’s fabulous history and more curious product experiments.
In old press photos, Lee appears in impeccably tailored outdoor clothing, riding a camel on a conservation expedition in the Chinese Pamirs or shooting clay birds with the Duke of Valderano. The accompanying ad copy espouses his philosophy: “Mr. Lee designs for function first, believing the aesthetics will follow. He tests his gear personally and also equips others who are going into the field, asking for their feedback. After all, if a bag can withstand rugged conditions in the field, it can easily cope with the rigors of Tokyo, New York, or Paris.”
It’s easy to be distracted by the lifestyle accessories, which range from zebra-skin magazine caddies and springbok hassocks to safari-styled Danish “supercube” furniture. (Available with genuine zebra tops. Naturally.) But late 1960s era Hunting World field bags are what you really want to collect. Among them, the Versatote from the 1968 “Out of Spain” line is a standout.
Produced by a small saddlery shop in the Spanish mountains, which Bob Lee supposedly discovered on a hunting trip, these bags are hewn from a unique, regional leather. It embodies everything great about early Hunting World wares.
Despite its latter-day speed bumps, Japan’s interest in the brand never waned. Hunting World has now been revived, with a line designed by Yosuke Aizawa, showing full collections in Milan since last year and developing limited-edition pieces especially for Dover Street Market in Ginza.
Are the new bags more technically sophisticated? Sure, and you can still get a modern approximation of Bob Lee’s designs through Brady, a luggage maker in Birmingham, England, whose models retain the same names. But where’s the fun in that? Instead, grab an old catalog, hit the vintage markets, and get to hunting.