Ryan McDonald is a walking advertisement for New Hampshire. The bearded, rangy Granite State native is quietly affable and wrapped in flannels and corduroy. He carries a prototype of a roll-down bag he's designed for his company, Finn Utility, that is in equal turns rugged and graceful. A typical New Englander, he'd rather talk about his hobby, fly-fishing, than his job, but the former designer for Adidas and Carhartt cares deeply about the carryalls he's been dreaming up in his cabin in restful Gilford on the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee.
"The corporate world started to drain on me, and I'd always had a passion for fly-fishing, so I created a shearling fly wallet," says McDonald. "Fly-fishing has always been at the core, but I do want to be inspired by that instead of limited by it."
The bulk of Finn Utility's goods, from side bags to reel cases, are still designed with the angler in mind. Stitched by a collective affiliated with NorthStar Sewing in Littleton, New Hampshire, these waxed twill and canvas bags are designed to take exactly the sort of beating a river can dish out. In particular, they are perfect for expeditions on the Winooski River and Maine's Rangeley Lakes, where McDonald casts when he's not at home designing for his increasingly successful company. Unfortunately – or fortunately if you're looking at it from the economic perspective – McDonald has been spending less time in his waders of late. He has been getting orders from high-end fishing shops like the famous Cascadia Fly Shop of Corvallis, Oregon, and the undersung Bear's Den of Taunton, Massachusetts. Owning a Finn Utility product is on the verge of becoming a thing.
"The name comes from my grandfather, who invented a fly called the Redfinn and from the idea that the utility side really matters," says McDonald. "I don't want to use the word urban with the duffels, because that's not right, but they're more stylized and burly."
That's why the Huntington, a 23-inch, dark green duffel with a fabric liner, and the Deerfield, a similarly proportioned safety orange bag without the liner, are likely to be McDonald's first bags to catch on with non-fishermen. Both are a bit heavier than the average carry-on, but that's because they're made of higher-quality materials and designed for the trail rather than the airport. Surprisingly, that makes them just about the best gym bags on the market. They look great with everything and wear in very slowly. Like McDonald himself, they're appealing without being flashy.
Having such successful products so early on in a venture might go to the head of someone not from New Hampshire, but McDonald is happier talking about what's coming than what has already arrived. He's finishing a high-end knife roll that will end up being the ultimate Christmas present for cooks and working on a waxed backpack capable of handling both a laptop and a fly rod. He handles prototypes for his new products and looks at them thoughtfully. For a moment it is unclear if he's carefully considering what he can do to improve them or whether he's just zoning out for a moment, thinking of a river – probably a bit of both. [Deerfield Duffel, $350; finnutility.com]