A few weeks ago I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to visit the studio of San Francisco based bag and leather goods maker Joshu + Vela. J + V’s Noah Guy had just returned from what sounded like a dreamy Indian Summer trip to Montana and graciously invited me to tour his space and give me the rundown on what’s happening at Joshu + Vela. Check out Joshu +Vela's pop up shop at Voyager starting November 8th.
ed. note: All N's are Noah and all M's are me, below and throughout.
N: So Robert told you we are going to do a shop at Voyager?
M: You’re going to do a pop up? When’s that going to be?
N: November and December.
M: I figured you probably were and that’s why he prompted me to get in touch.
So let me give you the grand tour. This is obviously the sewing room. This is the other room which is always in a state of flux because it is not totally sorted out, but it’s storage, because we have to keep all raw materials on hand before I can say I can do something, and it’s also assembly. These are unassembled bags, so they’re sewn.
Most of what we do is three parts: leather, sewing, and assembly. These are sewn, the leather is cut here, and then we assemble using hardware and we use solid copper rivets. These are probably the most painful, most time consuming rivets that there are.
M: Why is that?
N: Because they require five operations, and most rivets require one. But they are solid copper and no other rivet is as strong as this. Nobody has been using them for the past 100 years except for saddlery and electrician pole climbers. So they are really strong and also really expensive, they are between 20 and 30 cents a piece. At an OEM cost that’s pretty high.
And here we have solid brass parts and then solid steel. The steel is all mil spec (US military standard.) We try to use full metals wherever we can.
This will eventually be another sewing zone. We’re gonna get in a couple more VM-1 (??) This old Singer is a Singer cut-sew that we’ll be using soon I hope. Sometimes it takes a while to get these old machines totally ship-shape.
This is where we store all the leather because it’s dark. We get full hides. We have a lot of leather right now. And then we cut and assemble leather parts here. We’re cutting everything by hand.
M: Where do you get your leather from?
N: It’s from Wicket & Craig of Pennsylvania which is US veg tanned, supplying the saddle-making industry.
M: How long have you been in this space?
N: It will be three years in February.
M: Have you been making bags that whole time?
N: Well, the first 8 months was a lot of setup. We started with about two machines, and quickly added 5 more, and had to get parts for them. It took a while. In fact, I’m still setting up. I have another machine on order.
It’s a process, the actual “making” of something. Actually, to be honest, the process comes in making more than one thing, and then making it for a not-so-ridiculous price.
M: Did you start with one model and then you’ve expanded from there? Or did you start off trying to do several things, then realized you had to scale back before you moved forward?
N: Well, I’ve done this before but I’ve never owned my own factory so I had some experience going in. I just rented time in a factory before, and by factory, I mean five sewing machines.
I started with the zip backpack. Looking back on it, it was the most complicated style. We still don’t have a style more complicated. It was maybe a little silly, but in a way, because it was complicated and needed a lot of working parts and lot of moving parts, different machinery to perform different operations, it really got a lot of my machines on line working through that; the binders, the zipper stitchers, all the different parts, all the different leather components (we use two different weights of leather.) It’s still the most complicated, time consuming bag [to make.]
We started with that one product, but quickly we added a tote bag, which is also sort of complicated, but not nearly as complicated [as the backpack.] And I had designed that bag before and I simplified it three times, through three iterations. It’s a process. A super long process.
M: So, right now, how many styles of things are you making?
N: Right now we have 13 styles.
M: And you’re continuing to expand that? Will there ever be a point where you decide you are making enough different things?
N: The goal was to do seven. So we are going to do seven times two, so it will be seven men’s and seven women’s styles. Or seven unisex and seven men’s. We’re slowly expanding. We’re not adding anything more than what we’ve set out to do right now. We’ll probably be dropping some styles after Spring.
M: Is your background in apparel?
N: It is, actually.
M: Did you always know you wanted to be making bags and accessories? Or has that been the natural progression of your career?
N: I don’t think it’s been the progression, and I honestly don’t think that I’ve always wanted it, it was just something I’ve always done. I actually started making bags in August of 2001 and I have never made anything else but bags.
M: Was that because it was something you needed? What drove it? What was the initial inspiration?
N: I think I was interested in it because it’s a physical product. There’s a few different reasons. One, it’s product based rather than apparel based so it’s a more manageable starting point. With clothing you can’t just make one piece and put it out into the market. The market has higher expectations. They wants lines, they wants collections, and they want it to change rapidly.
M: It’s season driven...
N: Right, they want it to move. So it was easier for me to comprehend doing.
I personally tend to buy used clothing so I related more to buying bags. I buy bags and shoes new. [Making bags] felt like a gateway to apparel. I’ve always been interested in men’s apparel. With women too, bags initiate change in look. The industry often describes women’s shopping habits as buying a new bag every season instead of expensive statement pieces as a way to refresh their look. And I think with men, men get particularly stuck. Buying something easy like a bag can help start you off in a new direction.
How long have you been in San Francisco?
I moved with my family from New York in ‘89.
Whoa, so you’ve been here a while.
I’ve been here a long time.
Do you feel being headquartered in SF is vital to your business? Would you be doing this elsewhere? How does being located in SF affect, or how is it conducive, to what you do?
That’s a good question. I ask myself that all the time. Sometimes the answer is it’s not at all necessary because it’s a city that, without sounding judgemental, leans on the tacky side dress-wise. Then the other thing is at times it feels like if you’re not doing tech, what are you doing here? But then, I love this city. I love the accessibility to the rest of California. As a city, it’s beautiful. We have the wind, which we all hate, but it brings in fresh air.
As far as being critical to this business, I’m not sure. I think it’s nice. I like it. There’s an element of uniqueness; there’s maybe nobody else doing exactly what I’m doing here. In other cities in the U.S. maybe there’s something similar. But having been here a long time, I really like San Francisco. I hope that the tech people don’t push us out.
Me too. As a fairly recent transplant I’m still trying to figure out everything that San Francisco is. The thing that really drew me here, aside from having some family in the area and my mom having lived here in the 70’s and early 80’s and having an intense love affair with SF, then moving back to the East Coast, but always missing it... that really instilled in me this intense curiosity about this place, but after spending some time here, it was just the beauty, the sheer beauty that drew me in.
It is beautiful. And that’s part of it, but it’s also a city where people come to find themselves, and that can be either really boring, and painful, as people are always leaving, but it can also be really cool because it can mean a lot of good, creative energy.
New York has creative energy too, but it’s also tempered with this strong desire to succeed. They have that which is not as prevalent here. It’s still prevalent, but it’s different.
M: Back to the bag making, how long does it take to actually make a bag?
N: That the thing I’ve been working on for three years, trying to figure that out. I still don’t know. The first bag, the zip backpack, at first I was estimating it at 3 ¾ hours.
M: That’s straight through?
N: No, if it was straight through, from start to finish, it would be longer. It would be maybe 4 ½. That’s why it’s so hard to create a guesstimate. You save time by running a bulk of bags. It’s hard for me to figure out what’s the critical number. Is it 50? Is it 30? Is it 100? At what point does it become efficient?
It may sound weird and business-like, but my bags, to some people, are already expensive, but the zip backpack, for instance, is underpriced for what it is. One of the main elements is the cost of the labor. Sure, the materials are expensive, but it’s the cost of labor, the hours that go into making a bag, that’s what makes it really spendy. Since I’ve started doing this I’ve gained a new appreciation for expensive Italian goods because I now understand why they are expensive.
So it does take a while. Even as we get more efficient I think the making of the zip backpack will still be over three hours, maybe we’ll get it down to 3 ½, but again, I’m never really sure. It’s different than doing custom business where you might know exactly.
M: Your products are not bespoke...
N: Bespoke meaning custom for one customer, no. That’s not our business. We’re small run, bench made production. Still hand made, but in small runs.
M: How many people work with you?
N: Currently there is five people working with me. It’s a really good crew right now.
M: Is that the largest number of people you’ve worked with?
N: It’s the largest number. I’m thankful. It’s a really good crew. We’ve got two people on sewing, two people on assembly and cutting, and now one person helping me with web stuff.
M: Collaboration also seems to be a big part of your business model. You’ve done bags with Tartine, you’ve done bags with Four Barrel. How did those collaborative opportunities evolve and why is it important to you?
N: I wasn’t looking for it. It evolved naturally. It just happened one day. But since I’ve been doing it I really like it. There’s a lot of great things about it.
One, it’s sort of relieving not having to be fully responsible for a design. And two, it’s exciting. I feel more like a designer when having to think about a particular clientele and what they want. Considering both the store owner and manager, and the people who go there. It’s fun and it’s also a less expensive product which is also really exciting and interesting. I think the Four Barrel bag is 50$ and the Tartine bag is 45$ and my average bag is over 200$ so it’s exciting to make something that is still nice but much more affordable.
M: What are your aspirations for Joshu + Vela? What is your future? Where are you headed?
N: Right now I think the future is working first with Robert and Voyager and having the store-in-store in November and December. It will be my first time doing retail and my first time building out, creating an environment.
I really see that as being the future for the line. It will provide a lot of things. Hopefully eventually it will allow for me to have more reasonable prices. It will allow me to do small runs of unique fabrics, prints, and what have you. And that’s what I really want to do: small run, interesting styles. Instead of working so much in the wholesale business, on a one year swing, or six month swing, I want to release capsules of styles more quickly. Right now I can’t. I can design and produce something in weeks, but if I have to wait for the wholesale calendar it’s like eight months or something.
That’s where I want to go. And I want to do more collaborations. Get people in here with new prints and new styles and be able to bust out 100 of something and move on to the next style or next print.
M: Lastly, what is the significance of the name Joshu + Vela?
N: Joshu+Vela: my middle name, Joshu, and my original partner's middle name, Vela - who quit the business very early on - before we even rented space.
M: Those are all my questions, anything else you’d like to add?
N: Oh, and I guess the other thing, since I’ve been talking so much about the logistics of the business side of this, is that I want to work with more fabrics and dyes and surface treatments, as well as prints. Working more with the artistry of fabric and fibers.
(All images here within courtesy of Noah Guy and Joshu + Vela- all images copyright ©2012 / All Rights Reserved)