viewed either as an accessory or a necessity, carry bags have been
taking the place of backpacks and purses in every array from college
life to business use. Even the most infrequent freelancer has grown
accustomed to carrying around their laptop and materials for an
on-the-go environment, not to mention being the carry-all choice for
the growing bike community. So naturally the idea of making them a
fashion statement was bound to happen.
Velo City Bags has taken on a life of its own as a business, putting a new spin on the look and use of these bags, showing them off for both versatility and appearance. I got a chance to chat with designer and founder Nathan Larsen, as well as apprentice Esther Meroño about the company and its bags as well as their thoughts on local fashion and business. (Photo credit to Greg Hebard)
Nathan Larsen & Esther Meroño
Gavin: Hey guys. First off, tell us a little about yourselves.
Nate: I'm 31 years old and I've lived here all my life. My wife Debbie and I live downtown and we love it. I've been vegan for nine years… I don't know… I have a hard time talking about myself.
Esther: Nate also likes complicated board games and hot tubbing. As for me, I'm Nate's apprentice at Velo City. I'm 22 and in my senior year at the U, getting my bachelor in English Lit/Poetry. I like to eat and I ride my bike everywhere.
Gavin: Esther, how did you eventually come to work with Nathan as an apprentice?
Esther: Right now I'm really moral support more than anything else 'cause school is keeping me busy, but basically I was good friends with Nate's wife Debbie and knew Nate was looking for someone to help out. I was laid off from one of my jobs and had been wanting to learn to sew for a while, so I volunteered to help out. All of a sudden, Nate had business cards for me and I was sewing shit ... I still need supervision though, it's gonna be a while before I get up to Nate's level.
Gavin: Where did the idea for making these bags come from?
Nate: I started sewing in high school making my own clothing and snowboarding gear. Then I made a bag for my wife as a Christmas present about eight years ago. My own bag broke and I needed a new one, before I started riding a bike. I don't buy anything made in China unless I know it's made ethically and I didn't like what other bag companies offered. I thought their stuff was shit. So my only options were to create my own bag or buy something I didn't like. That's when I made my first pedestrian bag, about two and a half years ago.
Gavin: How did you go about making some of the first bags, and what were the difficulties you came across along the way?
Nate: People really liked the pedestrian bag I made so I made a few more to hand out to friends. Then I started riding my bike to work and realized I needed a bag that worked better for biking and was better suited for Utah weather. I checked out other bike bag companies and wasn't satisfied. So my options were once again, buy a bag I didn't like or make my own. I made my own. Some of the difficulties came in finding the right measurements and the right materials, especially since I wasn't able to buy entire rolls of stuff.
Gavin: Where exactly did the name for the company come from?
Nate: Velo means bicycle in French and I kind of liked it. The bags are definitely designed for city use and that appealed to me as well. I also like that if you put them together, it says "velocity."
Gavin: When you first started putting the bags out for the public to see, what was the initial reaction from people?
Nate: I think they liked them. That's why we're still doing it!
Esther: I actually heard about Velo City from Nate's brother-in-law when I was trying to find a bag that would be more efficient to bike in. I really didn't like the messenger bag look other companies have and I wanted mine to be custom. I try to buy local whenever I can, and when I saw Debbie's backpack that Nate had made, I was like 'that's exactly what I've been looking for.' Our bags are different and customizable, I think that's what initially attracts people to us.
Gavin: What would you say are the benefits to your bags from those you'd find in bigger retail?
Nate: They're custom, which a lot of big companies don't offer. Also, most messenger bags have a lot of straps involved, and ours do too, but they're not hanging all over the place, they're clean, which I think appeals to a lot of people.
Esther: I think it's also important to note that our prices are comparable to bigger companies, but you're supporting local, and you're getting just as good if not better quality products.
Gavin: How did the idea come about to move onto backpacks and pouches?
Nate: Backpacks were launched at the same time as messenger bags. With the pouches, the idea was already there, I just didn't want to throw it all out at once.
Gavin: Is it difficult to fill a custom order for the colors, or is the appeal worth the cost of making it?
Nate: Both. It is difficult in the sense that it costs us more money because we can't buy items in bulk and it's hard to find suppliers that will accommodate those needs. On the other hand, people enjoy being a part of the design and process and knowing that their bag is one of a kind.
Esther: It's also kind of fun for us. We don't have to crank out the same bag over and over and we get a good laugh out of some of the color combos people choose ...Well I do anyway.
Gavin: Are there any plans to expand beyond what you're doing now?
Nate: Eventually we want to get into panniers and rack bags. We recently moved into a bigger space, but we'd like to have a store front at some point so people can come in and get more hands on with the materials and the process. You can kind of already do that by checking out our material swatches and the bags we have at FRESH, as well as order a custom bag from them.
Gavin: Seeing how you're a part of it to a degree, what are your thoughts the Utah fashion scene, both good and bad?
Esther: We've worked with Amicus Clothing Co. before for the Fashion Stroll and think they're pretty awesome. Honestly though, we're not super involved in the fashion scene outside of working with local apparel stores. Nate's wife Debbie makes beanies...
Nate: I don't see much good in it to be honest, I think it's very trendy. There aren't many people doing anything new and interesting. I'm pretty basic in my fashion sense. I do like that the Green Element uses environmentally friendly products and what Zuriick Shoes is doing with their canvas shoes ... not so much the leather stuff.
Gavin: Anything you believe could be done to make it more prominent?
Nate: I think people need to take more risks. I hear a lot of ideas from other people about opening stores, but they don't do it. It's kind of hard here, we don't really have a good district for it. Everything that begins to develop and areas that start getting vibrant end up getting screwed by their landlords, they can't afford rent so they end up shutting down.
Esther: I definitely think there's room to grow, but this town's a little weird because there's so much tension between artists and the like and the conservative agenda. Everything seems twice as difficult here. There's some good stuff going on though, like Matt Monson's Fashion Stroll and such.
Gavin: What are your thoughts about local retailers and how they deal with local products?
Esther: They're definitely troopers. In this economy it's tough to be a local retailer, especially with mall and outlet stores everywhere you go, and the internet making it so easy to shop cheap. I think it's important that we all support each other, and for the most part, that's what's happening.
Nate: We've worked with Matt Monson's Model Citizen and he's turned his shop into a purely local endeavor, which I think is pretty badass. FRESH is carrying our stuff and Zuriick's along with some other local brands. I'd like to see more local bike shops supporting the recent boom in cycling, especially the fixed gear community and commuters. I don't feel like they're well represented in the shops. All I see when I go in those shops are road bikes and tights.
Gavin: Do you have any favorite localized shops you like to work with or shop from?
Nate: I like to support Saturday Cycles because I think they offer the best bike equipment and gear, but they're only open on Saturdays and they're in Bountiful so it's hard to get out there. I like Earth Goods, they've got nice hippy stuff. Slowtrain's where I get my records and CDs.
Esther: I love eating out so I'm all about local restaurants. Vertical and Sage’s are probably my favorite. FRESH is awesome and I plan on doing some winter clothes shopping there. I just got an awesome print framed at Signed & Numbered… Craft Lake City was pretty awesome and we hope to be involved with that next year.
Gavin: Being a smaller business, how has the current economy been treating your business?
Nate: It's kind of hard to say 'cause we started when the economy was already shit, but we have increased business and are still increasing.
Esther: I think our new website is going to bring in a lot more business.
Nate: As for the website I'm a little nervous it'll bring in too much business, being as it's only us two. We'll figure it out though and it'll be okay.
Gavin: What can we expect from you and Velo City the rest of the year and going into next?
Nate: I just designed a new hip pack we're releasing. We're also going to plan some Velo City events next year, alleycats and the like. We'll see what direction the website takes us.
Gavin: Aside the obvious, is there anything you'd like to promote or plug?
Nate: Check out our bags at FRESH, we should be getting some hip pouches over there soon for the holidays. You can also custom order bags from there or from our website.
Esther: Our bags and pouches will also be featured in Davey Davis' upcoming bike opera, "The Tale of Don Giovanni: That Indomitable Hipster.”