See more of the story

Greg Heinemann knows how to build a brand. For about four decades, he has provided advertising expertise to a full range of clients, from beer brewers to health care companies.

During the pandemic, Heinemann launched his own luxury leather bag company called Heritage Gear that offers totes and weekender bags embroidered with college logos and now professional football teams.

He saw a hole in the sports gear market: premium products that are built to last. A Heritage Gear duffel bag or weekender costs $595 and a smaller tote bag costs $295.

"I would go to University of Minnesota basketball games and [alumni] are wearing a $25 shirt and a bad hoodie," Heinemann said.

And on a visit to Notre Dame, where he attended graduate school, he found nothing of high quality that might appeal to a wealthy alum who'd flown in for a game. "I was just watching people buy all this junk," he said.

But for many people, college nostalgia is something more than just showing school spirit or championing a good sports team. "It's this idea of connecting those memories and these experiences in a way that there's something that you are proud to wear on your body," he said.

Heritage Gear now has licensed deals with more than 20 universities and colleges and all 32 teams of the National Football League. It is slowly rolling out bags for different teams. This holiday season, the firm branched out to a variety of other products including cashmere and merino wool scarfs, luggage tags and, soon, candles.

Its Ski-U-Mah candle for the U will feature black cardamom, amber, water lilly, musk and vanilla, scents that evoke water and fresh air. One candle called Game Day will be infused with incense, birch tar, leather, amber and myrrh, aiming to capture the scent of a football.

A wool tote and overnight bag with University of Minnesota branding in the Heritage Gear warehouse in Edina, Minn.
A wool tote and overnight bag with University of Minnesota branding in the Heritage Gear warehouse in Edina, Minn.

Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

Heinemann is well known within the local advertising community. A University of Wisconsin graduate, he started his career at Pabst Brewing Co. He later helped start and lead several local marketing firms, including Blackwatch, Agency Eleven, Denali Marketing (which was later acquired by Olson), and most recently Adrenaline Health.

Heritage Gear's other partners include Brian Cooper, who has experience in leadership roles at Target Corp. and UnitedHealth Group; Mark Jessen, former chair of the University of Minnesota Alumni Association's board of directors; and Matt Birk, the former Minnesota Vikings football player who ran for lieutenant governor this year.

College licensing is a tricky business, Heinemann said. Making deals with colleges required not only getting approval from the schools and their boards but also their collegiate licensing groups, he said. Heinemann said he wanted to stay out of supplying school clothing since major brands like Nike and Under Armour dominate the space.

The University of St. Thomas signed on as a Heritage Gear partner after deciding to transition from the NCAA's small-school Division III to large-school Division I, said Colleen Utecht, director of campus stores at St. Thomas.

"After meeting with the local owners, speaking with other partners and seeing the products ourselves, we knew the bags would be a good addition to our shelves and help bring our offerings to another level of quality and craftsmanship," Utecht said.

Because Heritage Gear can sell St. Thomas bags at other stores and online, the school's on-campus stores don't need to carry as much inventory, she said.

The University of Minnesota Alumni Association sells the Heritage Gear through its MN Alumni Market, an online shop that exclusively sells alumni-made goods and services. Both Cooper and Jessen are University of Minnesota alumni and life members of the alumni association. This year the "MN Alumni Market" also opened a store in the McNamara Alumni Center.

"High-end U of M-inspired gear is hard to come by," said Lisa Huber, vice president of marketing and business development for the alumni association.

The firm uses a variety of sources including American Woolen Co. out of Stafford Springs, Conn., which provides the wool, and a manufacturer in Naples, Fla., that gets some of the leather bags handcrafted in the Dominican Republic. All of the bags are shipped to Heritage Gear's new Edina office and warehouse, which fulfills orders.

Consumers can buy Heritage Gear products in university bookstores, through alumni associations, on the company's recently redesigned website and at select high-end men's retailers, like Twill in Edina and Martin Patrick 3 in Minneapolis.

A selection of scarves, leather luggage tags, and scented candles branded with college logos and colorways, photographed in the Heritage Gear warehouse in Edina, Minn.
A selection of scarves, leather luggage tags, and scented candles branded with college logos and colorways, photographed in the Heritage Gear warehouse in Edina, Minn.

Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune