In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.
In recent years, there's been a backlash of sorts against the "It" bag -- easily identifiable bags that sport too many logos and offer too little in the way of practicality. Fashionable women today prefer sleek Mansur Gavriel totes or Céline trios, which feature quieter designs and more subtle logos.
But there's another -- far more affordable brand -- that has become just as ubiquitous, solidifying itself as the go-to for unfussy, cool, functional bags: Baggu.
Emily Sugihara launched Baggu with her mom Joan shortly after graduating from college. The idea was to create a reusable shopping bag that was cute and more than just your standard cotton tote. She succeeded and the Standard Baggu, a nylon shoulder bag that comes with and fits in a 5" by 5" pouch, was born. A day rarely goes by that I don't see at least one in Manhattan or Brooklyn (especially Brooklyn) -- same goes for her her Duck Bag, the Backpack and the Basic Tote (which I have myself -- it's one of the best totes on the market for the price in my opinion). Her bags are now sold in over 1,000 doors, everywhere from Apple to Colette to J.Crew to West Elm -- a testament to their versatility and broad appeal.
Thus we jumped at the chance to chat with Sugihara (she splits time between San Francisco and Brooklyn) about how she grew a simple idea into such a successful brand. Read on for our interview.
What is your background and how did you get into design?
I studied economics undergrad and then I studied design at Parsons for a year and then I worked as a designer at J.Crew for a year, which was kind of my only real job. I have always been kind of entrepreneurial, so I knew that’s what I wanted to do eventually.
How did Baggu come about?
My mom and I came up with the bag design. I graduated in 2005 and then we started working on Baggu in 2006 and launched in 2007.
What was the first style?
It was the Standard Baggu. We were trying to fill a need that we saw, we wanted to create shopping bags that were nice-looking and affordable and there wasn’t really anything like that in the market at the time. We were just solving a problem.
How did you fund the line in the beginning?
We self-funded. It funds itself now. We were profitable almost immediately.
That's impressive. You're also big into keeping things fairly eco-friendly. How do you do that?
When we're doing a new fabrication, I do a fair amount of research into what’s the best option for the function we’re trying to fill so when we started using our cotton canvas there was a big debate over whether we should go with organic cotton or recycled cotton and after doing a bunch of reading we decided. Our way of doing it is to read all the research we can find, including the amount of water used and the total impact. We approach it first from a function standpoint and then we’re trying to find the most eco-friendly option that will fit.
You also keep your bags super affordable while maintaining quality. Is that a challenge?
That’s something we think about a lot is we’re trying to make nice-looking stuff that’s available to anyone and accessible to anyone, so when we’re designing a style we think a lot about making everything as simple as it can be which to us is aesthetically beautiful, but that also translates to [lower production costs]. We think a lot about how it’s going to be manufactured and how what we’re doing would be translated for mass production.
Do you still work with your mom?
She still works on design which is kind of what she’s always been interested in, but she’s never been very involved in running the business. Early on, people always assumed that since my mom was older that she was making business decisions.
How much of your business is direct-to-consumer online versus wholesale?
We’re about one-third Baggu.com and two-thirds wholesale.
You guys are sold in such a broad range of retailers, from Urban Outfitters to West Elm. Why do you think that is and how do you decide which retailers to target?
In general, we’re trying to make bags for everyone, so we love that a random hardware store in Minnesota carries Standard Baggu, but you can also buy them at like Colette in Paris, which is, like, the coolest store in the world. In general, we know the types of stores that we can sell the most volume through, but in terms of choosing wholesale partners, we pretty much don’t discriminate, and our product line is versatile, so there’s something in there for everybody.
What style is the most popular?
It continues to be the Standard Baggu. The simple canvas tote is a close second and the basic tote, our simple leather bag, is also very popular.
How do you come up with new styles?
It's usually everyone that works at Baggu carries Baggu, so improvements usually come from us using the bags and thinking, oh, it would be better if the pocket was a little bigger or a different closure could make it easier to use. New product ideas are usually people saying, "I was packing my suitcase and needed a way to organize my stuff..." And then when we started doing leather, you’re working with these skins and one of our ways of doing leather and making it more environmentally friendly is we try to use all of our scraps, so the keychains came about because we were like, ok, after we cut all the bigger styles, theres the scrap we have left over, what can we make out of that?
What would you say has been the biggest challenge in growing your business?
I wish there was only one big challenge; every year it changes so much. In the beginning, it was that my mom and I were doing everything ourselves and so it was like, how do you manage a warehouse and how do you manage employees, so I guess scaling. But we've been doing this for seven years now and we're now growing at the pace that we can handle our growth really well.
Has it been difficult running your business from two different parts of the country?
I'm based in San Francisco, which is where all of our designers and operations people are, and then all of the sales people are in New York, but I'm back and forth a lot. One of the challenges was how to figure out how to keep the company still really connected and cohesive and feeling like one team.
Has there been a moment or milestone that made you feel like you had finally "made it"?
There was some point I think a few months after we launched the website, we do production in China and you have to order a huge quantity of stuff and we didn't think we were going to be able to sell enough and we launched our website and all of a sudden we were getting tons of orders and we sold out of our first order really quickly and at that point it was clear that we had made something people really want which was so cool and when I felt that this is actually going to be a viable business. I realized like oh wait I might actually not have to go get a job again. That is a very cool feeling.
Why do you think you got such a huge response at launch?
We launched just on Baggu.com, and we were lucky that when we launched we got a really great bit of press and getting that gave us a lot more early exposure than we would have gotten otherwise, so we had almost immediately we had lot of stores calling us.
What was the piece of press?
It was a full-page spread in Teen Vogue. So our first few thousand customers were all teenage girls. I did all of the email customer service books back then and it was funny to see as the brand progressed how our customer base changed.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to start, say, an accessories brand?
I think that the way that you execute the quality of your production, the quality of your customer service, is really important and you have to enjoy doing that stuff and not just enjoy drawing handbags, or you need a friend who really likes doing that stuff and have them do it. I feel really lucky that I had a business background, but I see a lot of people who love designing and just want to be designers and I think that's a harder place to start a company from. And actually taking the business side of your business seriously makes a huge difference. Also, reply to all of your emails within 24 hours.
Impossible. So where do you see the brand five to 10 years from now?
We're on the path we've been on which is measured, steady growth. So we'll be bigger, we probably won't have stores in every city, but hopefully every major one.
Are there any immediate plans to open stores?
Yeah, we have a retail store in Brooklyn. That's doing really well and we're working on one in San Francisco. I think it will just be and extension of what we're doing now. We're slowly evolving and expanding our product line, making good stuff and also evolving how we do business and trying to figure out how all the interesting technology that's happening fits into our sales cycle.
Would you ever expand beyond bags?
I'm definitely not closed off to it, but I feel like there's so much more in the bag category that we could cover.