STUDIO: James Anthony - Minimal Bags

STUDIO is back! My life over the last few months has lacked consistency in any and all departments, but the dust seems to be settling now. I have a great feeling about what this means for the future of Truss and Ore as well as the STUDIO series.  

In getting back into the swing of things, I recently participated in the spring Renegade Craft Fair where I had the great pleasure of meeting James of Minimal Bags. James is such a kind and charismatic person that we were instantly chatting as if we were old friends. MB products have been beautifully designed and crafted with care in the Mission neighborhood of San Francisco. As I'm writing this however, James is getting ready to set off on a new adventure in Barcelona. I loved hearing about the start of and inspiration behind Minimal Bags as we took a hike up to Bernal Heights from his home in the Mission and I can't wait to see what Barcelona will inspire for James and his craft!   

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Ana: I like to start these conversations out by asking people to tell me a little bit about themselves - as a creative person, as an artist, as a maker...to kind of let you guide this.

James: Okay, which part should I begin at...let's see. Well, I moved to San Francisco about four years ago from Florida - I had grown up there, I lived the majority of my life there, went to college there, had my first boyfriend there, had my first breakup there...all of that good stuff. I love Florida, I loved growing up there. It's a great place - I love the beaches - but it's a little slower paced so I needed something that was a bit faster. Not that San Francisco is New York speed but it's definitely a bigger city. I'd been here before. I visited for work like five years before I moved here and I loved the city, so I moved in 2012. I moved over here with my boyfriend at the time and we lived in a studio in the Haight - on Haight and Masonic, blue building with a red door - so freakin cute. And then we kind of went our separate ways after about 6 months and I moved in to this apartment here [in the Mission]. This is more like my entry story to San Francisco...

A: That's all good! It's all part of how you got to where you are now so it's all good.

J: Okay. So I've been living here ever since and I love it. I love the Mission. I think it's one of my favorite parts of San Francisco. It's got this Mexican, Central American influence - you see a lot of that originality. My landlord has been there for over 30 years, she owns the whole building. You know, there's the corner store on Treat and 21st - I walk in there, they know me by name, they give me IOUs. It's got that neighborhood feel.

A: Oh yeah, that's awesome. 

J: And that's what I love about the Mission.

A: So how did minimal bags come about?

J: Gosh, so after I made that move and I broke up with my boyfriend, I was in this moment where I was absolutely where I wanted to be in life - as far as location went. But I was very unhappy with my job. That's when it all began. I decided that I was just gonna try everything. I had this quarter life crisis and I was like, "Fuck it, whatever comes my way, whatever interest I have, I'm just gonna start trying things!"

A: Yeah! That's great.

J: So I picked up boxing, climbing. I've always done a lot of physical activities as a kid. Then I read this list - it was "Top 15 Things To Do Before You Turn 30". And you had the normal things of: fall in love, travel alone, make friends with an enemy...

A: Ooh, that's a good one. 

J: That one was pretty challenging but I did that at work and now he's a pretty good friend of mine. But there was one thing that stuck out to me and it was: make something and try to sell it. So from that point on, it was kind of always in my head that I wanted to create something, but at that time I didn't have the inspiration. I didn't have what I wanted to create. 

A: Okay, so you're at this moment of having the desire to create something but not knowing what...what happens then?

J: So I was watching this movie, maybe you've seen it? The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

A: Haha, yeah!

J: Okay, so you know the plot of this movie. I loved this movie! I did not expect to because it's one of those big blockbusters and I like Ben Stiller, but I'm not in love with Ben Stiller. 

A: Hahaha, right. 

J: But I loved this movie because it was this guy in this job producing negatives for Time magazine and he had been working with this world-renowned photographer who no one was ever in contact with except him. And he would send him negatives in the mail and this photographer sent him a letter saying, "I'm retiring, this is my last photograph, THE epic photograph and I want you to print it." And the negative was missing, it was not inside the envelope. So he was forced to leave and go search for this man who - no one knows where he is. And this is the type of guy who's never taken these risks in his life. He's always just done his normal routine and stuck to what he knew, nothing adventurous. But from this part of the story on, it was this huge travel adventure around the world. He was jumping on boats, doing all these things - it was fuckin awesome. So I got this sense of adventure from this movie and there's this part in the movie where he is long boarding down a road in - I think it was Scotland or Ireland - but it was along this mountain range. And he has a bag strapped to his body, it's like an old military laundry bag with a rope on it.

A: Oh, yeah.

J: I saw that bag and I was like, "That's really bad ass, I want one of those bags." So I went online and tried to find something like it. I found things similar to it but I couldn't find exactly what I was picturing, so I thought, "Fuck it, I'm just gonna make it." So that was when those two pieces came together. I ordered a sewing machine. I watched YouTube videos of this seven year old girl, she taught me how to sew. 

A: Oh my gosh, that's awesome. Haha. 

J: Haha. And I just started sewing. Taught myself how to sew, started doing sampling and prototyping. And it just picked up from there.

A: What a fun inspiration story! 

J: It was completely random. Like, "Yeah, that sounds good, that's cool, I would like to try that." I've always enjoyed creating things with my hands. In my line of work as a software engineer, we don't create tangible products, you know. Everything is on a computer and there's something about creating a thing that you can touch and feel. It's so different.
I remember when I sold my first bag - to be able to create that from scratch, then go somewhere and have someone appreciate your work (who's not a friend or family member, although I do appreciate their support) but to have a complete stranger come up and say, "Not only do I like your work, but I'm gonna pay you for it" that is just...I can't even describe. I mean, you've experienced that I'm sure.

A: Yeah, it's a great feeling. And not that I necessarily need validation, but it does really validate what you're doing.

J: Absolutely.

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A: So after the bags, you began making hats as well and started expanding a bit?

J: Yeah, we now have the bags manufactured in the Mission and the hats are manufactured on the East Coast, so the construction of the five panel hat is there. I pick out the materials - if we're doing full suede, or a suede brim and a color, an undertone, leather strap, so on and so forth. We customize all the components, pick out the textiles.

A: Very cool.

J: Yeah, and those have been great because they sell very easily. You know, I feel like a hat is one of those purchases - this is more talking business side of things...

A: That's cool!

J: ...but hats are an easier sell. Someone who has seen a five panel hat knows if it looks good on them, knows how it fits - one size fits all, it's adjustable. Something like a bag, especially a bag that's not like a typical backpack or traditional drawstring bag - someone has to see that in person to really commit to it. And if you're going to a show like Renegade, most of the time you kind of have to have it in your mind: "Okay, I'm gonna go to Renegade, I'm gonna look for a bag." 

A: True.

J: With hats it's like, "Oh, hats, yeah these look nice!" So that was a great introduction for that reason. Sold them like crazy, it was very popular. And another cool thing about the hats that we have is we have absolutely zero branding. Which I always like in my things. I hate having branding on my clothing so with the hats we did the same thing - no branding. Just exactly what you see - five panel hat construction with suede. That's it.

A: Perfect. I like that too. My boyfriend really liked his, by the way.

J: Yeah? Awesome! Which one did you get him? 

A: The light denim one with the brown suede. It's great.
So, you're kind of in the middle of a big transition. Do you currently have any goals for Minimal Bags or are you just gonna see what happens? 

J: Gosh, I've been asking myself this question for six months now. I mean, Minimal Bags has been doing really well... It's been work - in the beginning it was not easy, I had zero sales online when I first started out even with doing a lot of social media advertising and Google ad words and that type of stuff. But once I started getting out in front of people and doing the whole show routine - SF Bazaar, West Coast Craft, Renegade, Urban Air Market - you know, the whole gamut, people really were drawn to the product. Which, to be honest with you, I didn't know how people were gonna take it. I had talked to a few other bag manufacturers and a lot of people kind of looked at the rope portion and were like, "Oh, you're using rope, huh? Interesting..." But to be honest, that is the first thing that any customer is drawn to. The rope is what sells these bags. 

A: Yeah, that's because no one else is really doing that. 

J: Absolutely. And while there are - not necessarily design flaws, but using rope comes with some other constraints. Like if it gets wet, or if it gets dirty, it shows really poorly. With ropes or drawstring bags a lot of the issue is that when you wear it, it doesn't have full support like a traditional backpack. So there are drawbacks but I think once I found how to market the product, like as a beach bag or a park bag or a day bag, then it all fell into place. Then I could target those individuals and get it going.

A: Perfect. So how about currently, in the short term? You're going to Spain, so is MB on vacation while you're there?

J: I think what I've decided is this... I want to morph MB into something else or take it to the next step. I think it was a really great place to start, especially for putting some things in my portfolio from the design perspective, but I want to develop something new. And I think what I loved about MB was that the product was very much inspired by and designed for San Francisco.

A: For sure.

J: So I'm gonna go to Barcelona, I'm going to kind of take that same concept - meet up with local makers, other creatives, see what the lifestyle is like there and then design a product around that.

A: That's a great way to go about that, I love it.

J: Versus trying to infiltrate with the existing product. Not that I don't I love it, it's done really well for what it is but I wanna take it to the next step for sure.

A: Totally, and you're right - it's such a fitting bag for the San Francisco lifestyle. Park days, this sort of hike right now, that's what so many people here are into.  

J: Exactly.

A: Cool. So another thing I like to ask everybody is what words of advice would you have for someone who has a passion that they want to turn into a business?

...if you are really passionate about something, commit to it and just do it.

J: Well two parts to that. First, recognizing your passion and being confident enough to seek that passion out regardless of what situation you're in, because many people don't - more of the creative arts tend to not pay as much as things like in the engineering industry, so people tend to use those as hobbies. But if you are really passionate about something, commit to it and just do it.

A: Yeah. 

J: Once you've gotten to that point, turning it into a business...that's a whole other beast. Because to be honest with you, not every product is going to be able to be commercialized to the masses. 

A: True.

J: And that's fine, that's totally fine. I think there's a place for every type of product. Like this bag for instance, I don't think this bag is fitting for a store like REI to release it to the millions. I don't think it would appeal to that large of a number of people but I think it appeals well to the San Francisco crowd, so it works here.

A: That's a very good point.

J: So I think trying to understand - own your product for exactly what it is, find your target demographic, who's interested in your product and then just market the shit out of it. Get in front of their faces, go and talk to them. I think that was the first big step I ever took - which is always the hardest - taking your product in front of someone else who's not your friends or family and asking, "Here, what do you think? My friend is developing this product and he wants to get feedback." And having someone tell you to your face, "Well I like this, I don't like this." You know what, I've had people be like, "I would never use this bag," but then I've had people be like, "Wow, that's really cool!" So you know, finding the target demographic that your product appeals to and then just try to understand them. What they like, what they do.

A: That's really great advice actually. A good thing for me to keep in mind myself. 

J: Trust me, it was a learning process for me too. I struggled in the beginning. I was like, "This is gonna be a traveling bag, a hiking bag." What I wanted people to feel when they used this bag was exactly what Walter Mitty was feeling: that wanderlust, that adventure. That's what I felt when I saw that movie and saw that bag on his shoulder. You know, he just threw a bunch of shit in it, he hopped on a boat, grabbed a long board and was skating down the side of a mountain. I was like, "Fuck yeah, that's exactly what I wanna be doing!" So when I was originally trying to sell the product and turn it into a business, I was marketing it towards that feeling. But when I actually started using that bag on an every day basis, like I took it on a really strenuous hike - I took it to Yosemite, what I realized was that it's not fit for those environments. If you go to Yosemite and you are taking a day pack out you need something with two straps, something that harnesses in the front, something that is more functional.

A: Right.

J: So I made that mistake in the beginning, trying to target my bag towards people that aren't really appealed to it at all. So don't push it, just figure out what works for your product, own your product for exactly what it is.

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 A: Yes, good advice indeed. 

Why do you think handmade and small business, locally manufactured products are important? Like to the average person, who doesn't necessarily go to shows like Renegade and might just shop at their local mall - is there one point you would want to get across to them?

J: I would say... I think one thing most recently that has really started shifting the landscape of business in general is design. The aesthetic of the product, how well it works with your life, not only functionally but form-wise - a product that works well for you, and looks good doing it too. I enjoy the sexiness of a product. So to that point, I think that handmade products are better designed in the aesthetic point of view because the person designing them is going to take a lot more effort in choosing the materials that work well or for example - we use a heavy duty canvas and the rope we have here is 100% cotton through and through...where you could just buy a cheaper rope that has polyester on the inside, which would be saved us money but... 

A: That wasn't the point. 

J: Yes, absolutely. So I think someone who is a maker, like you, like me, like a lot of people in this city - it's their love, it's their passion and it represents them and their reputations so they're gonna take the time to really understand how to present this product in a beautiful way. 

A: Yeah, I love that about handmade products too. And I've loved our chat. Is there anything else you wanna add? Anything you feel like we should touch on?

J: I guess just that I'm really happy that I met you.

A: Me too!

J: And I really appreciate your work as well.

A: Oh, thank you!

J: Like seriously, I'm not just wearing this [ring] just for today, I wear this all the time and I got a compliment on it the other day. And you know, when I was walking around Renegade, I wanted to get a wedding gift for my sister and a Mother's Day gift for my mom and some things for Alan, my boyfriend, and I wanted to get handmade things. So I was walking around Renegade with the intention of buying gifts for everyone and the way I choose my gifts is how well I connect with the people - the makers themselves.

A: Yeah. 

J: But there were some people that - I mean, love what you're doing, but there was no attempt to engage. I think that's half the battle.

A: Yeah, forming a relationship with your customer instead of just a transaction. 

J: Yeah, because you're not just buying the product, you're buying a part of them too and that was the whole reason why I was buying things at Renegade - because I wanted to know the artist, to be able to take it back to my mom and be like, "This is designed in San Francisco and I went on a hike with the person who made this." I wanna be able to tell that story and have her be like, "Wow! You know this person, you know their work." I think that's so much more valuable than, "I ordered this on Amazon and got it shipped prime." 

A: Hahaha, yeah, totally.

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Thanks so much, James, for taking the time to chat with me in a busy, transitional period in your life! Can't wait to see what's next for you! 

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