Why messenger bags are timeless?
Founded in San Francisco, Timbuk2 has been sewing messenger bags in the instant city for more than a quarter of a century. Much has changed since 1989 as the small firm moved from making messenger bags for friends to a global audience. Its iconic hold-alls are slung over shoulders of all sorts of cycling city dwellers and not just couriers anymore.
Set up by bike messenger Rob Honeycutt as Scumbags initially, Timbuk2 is today led by Patti Cazzato. The mother of two held previous management roles at Gap and Levi’s, whose female line she signed responsible for.
Nora Manthey went to see the CEO in Timbuk2’s Californian factory to speak with her about manufacturing in the USA, the female touch, and how to keep a brand’s essence alive sustainably.
Meeting Timbuk2 CEO Patti Cazzato in San Francisco
Patti Cazzato meets me in San Francisco’s Mission district, a hub for the town’s hippie hipsters. It is where Timbuk2 was born, and where it has its headquarter still 27 years later.
Only an unobtrusive metal sign designates ‘Timbuk2’ at the edge of a warehouse’s old brick walls. It “carries the soul from manufacturing,” Patti later describes the building that used to be a carpet factory.
Inside, the industrial structure is an open plan space with high ceilings, which are rounded off with a mezzanine. The few remaining walls are scheduled for demolition to make way for an open factory with adhering showroom and offices.
The straight-forward openness of the space suits the blonde lady, who crosses the length of the room to welcome me. Patti Cazzato is smaller than pictures suggest but radiates a calm strength, which she might have acquired when bringing up a boy and a girl single-handedly while working full time.
As we begin our tour, she gives me a brief of the firm’s “family history,” telling how Rob Honeycutt founded Timbuk2.
Deeply rooted in the bike community
Rob had cycled the States until he hit San Francisco, where he settled working as a messenger. “If you think back to 1989” Patti offers, “bike courier is how people were rushing documents around and how post was being delivered pre-Google and other technology today.”
When Rob saw a friend’s bag he liked a lot, but the friend would only sell to him and no one else. This is when Rob started sewing bags for himself and for his messenger friends also, the legend goes. The manufacture “evolved into customising immediately,” says today’s CEO, and so the tri-coloured flap for simple and versatile customisation was born.
Timbuk2 is proudly rooted in the Mission district and Patti is careful to tap into the brand’s heritage: “We really believe we are part of this infrastructure, and we are making sure the community stays here and is employed here.”
Hence the idea of an open factory. Once refurbishment has finished, walk-ins will be able to customise their bag in-store and pick it up an hour later, or choose to watch the ladies sewing it together live.
While we are walking down the production line that essentially consists of tables with sewing machines and easy access to colourful pieces of fabric, Patti explains a messenger bag takes “18 minutes to make to order” and about a week to ship. It is what she calls “custom combined with speed to market” and custom is taking up speed. Timbuk2 holds a 44-percent market share in the U.S. messenger bag market. “Something that is unheard of,” the CEO says and pins the success down to consistency and uniqueness.
Timbuk2 is second largest manufacturer
“Every single custom item ordered anywhere in the world is made here,” Patti stresses and the brand is San Francisco’s second largest manufacturer, topped only by an international beer company.
Nevertheless, where once all Timbuk2 bags were made to order in the Mission, as the range expanded so did production. All non-custom Timbuk2 bags are made in Indonesia and Vietnam today. In both factories, Timbuk2 is the “largest customer so we maintain all the compliance,” Patti assures me unquestioned.
Those sewing in California mostly speak Chinese, and thus it is Patti, who claims that working conditions are “great.” A rotating routine on the production line and the fact that most workers have been on board for 16 years supports her words.
This year, backpacks have been added to the custom range and another two products are to follow. Fabrics are “flipped four times a year depending on the season,” she says, while we are watching a man cutting stripes of cloth. “It keeps custom fresh” and ensures that no bag is the same.
Most customised orders are placed online. Internationally, custom makes 15 percent in the overall business but in direct sales the custom share is closer to 30 percent. The rest comes from an extensive line that increasingly includes lifestyles that are far from messenger culture.
So how do you integrate that into the brand’s ideal, I ask Patti as she leads me to the back of the factory, from where the messenger bags are shipped. “It is a lifestyle that centres around the bike,” the CEO concludes, “but also tech.”
In such close proximity to Silicon Valley with Google, Apple, and the likes, her claim makes sense. “We are not a tech company,” Patti mocks “but we are of the tech community inspired by start-ups.” Many of those formerly small ventures like Facebook, or Tesla are among Timbuk2 B2B clients.
Consequently, most of its holdalls are suited for a 13’’ laptop, including the new women’s line called Femme. This line “bears a lot of my touch,” Patti admits “because when I got here, I felt we had a really premium collection for the male customers that was driving about 10% of e-commerce and retail but wondered why we are not accommodating the premium female customer.”
Incorporating a female touch: FEMME messenger bags
But what is female in the Femme? “We solve the same problems like water bottle, or U-Lock but 90% of women carry leather handbags,” a material Timbuk2 just started to combine with its traditional cordura for the first time in 2015.
Still, the messenger bags are not designer bags but more casual, “urban in nature” as Patti puts it. She sees Timbuk2 solving “the problems for the urban commuter.” The new Lux backpack indeed speaks to the sportive urbanite and convinces with multiple and well accessible bags and compartments. A beer opener breaks up any gender cliché and is definitely to the like of a lady.
While we are moving to the end of the warehouse, we approach the repair section. After refurbishment, this side of building will become the so-called ‘Life-Cycle Centre’ but at the moment it really is a big pile of bags. As Patti fondly pulls out pieces in different states of wear and tear, she says that here “we get to see people’s love of their bike bag.” Customers often sent letters with their holdalls, explaining why a 20% discount for breaking up with the old bag will not work for them and why they much rather evoke Timbuk2’s lifetime warranty that roots back to founder Honeycutt. “We encourage customers to keep their bags and to repair their bags, or we will recycle it. We have a programme, where we decompose everything if it is beyond repair or beyond donation level,” Patti continues.
Apart from donated bags, there are also the commissioned ones, which are “always connected to a cause, mostly one the artist chooses,” the CEO explains.
The caring suits the single mother of two and the company. While we are moving upstairs toward the office floor, Patti tells of weekly shared meals before she introduces everyone in the bureau. Most people sitting at the desks look young and healthy. And that is what mostly connects every one working here.
“I thought I gonna be working for this boy brand but everybody is more connected by health and attitude then they are boy or girl here. So as soon as I said I practice Yoga seven days a week and hike, they were super accepting,” Patti summarises her start.
Yoga? “I wasn’t a cyclist before” she admits and it it is here that she mentions her dual burden as a working single mom for the first time and only to explain, why she stopped cycling for a while.
Today, cycling is an important part of her work. She understands “that you cannot really have a strong hand in the creation of a product unless you really are a rider,” and so Patti talked to colleagues to get started again and has got back in the saddle ever since.
For being at the helm of the company, her experience from both her own start-up as well as her roles in big companies like Gap and Levi’s helped her define the needs of the small enterprise. “While there was a lot information, it was not all in one place and had not been communicated to everyone,” she says. This meant she had “to make sure everyone is on the same page to who we are selling to.”
For females that page in the brand book is actually called Paige, a quirky girl, who Patti describes as “fashion informed” but individual and one that gets around mostly on her bike, be it to work or party or university. You can sense the director’s affection when talking about her.
While age group and style might be what most brands target today, Timbuk2 does seem to have an edge with its strong roots in the bike community and its new leader. “Everybody wanted to see what a female CEO could do for this firm,” Patti says.
Quite a lot. From mainly selling online, she steered the firm to now owning and operating 16 stores, half of them in the U.S. and half overseas with partners. The first European Timbuk2 store opened in Iceland but eyes are on Berlin and London, too.
While we take a seat in the yoga room, clearly her addition, Patti tells me how she sees her business and why she loves it. “Being here, in a midsize company means you got enough money to do what you need to do and it is just a lot of fun to be involved here, and I like growing.” The spirit of Timbuk2 seems very much alive.