Dreamers and Doers Come Together: Baggu
Baggu, meaning "bag" in Japanese, came from humble beginnings and has grown into a successful bi-coastal company in just a handful of years. The brand–started by mother-daughter duo Joan and Emily Sugihara with the help of Emily’s childhood friend Ellen–produces the most beautiful and durable bags in the biz at a fraction of the cost – and a fraction of the waste.
We visited the San Francisco studio of Baggu to talk to founder Emily Sugihara about her entrepreneurial prowess, the importance of collaboration, and what it means to be green.
Photography by Aaron Wojack
Can you tell us about the beginnings of Baggu?
My mom and I started Baggu back in 2007 before most people really knew what reusable bags were. It was a craft project that went big.
How did you evolve what was originally a hobby into such a successful and well-respected company?
I have been really entrepreneurial since I was a kid, so I was focused on building Baggu in a way that could scale right from the start. Ellen also saw the potential early on and was a fanatic about making sure the branding looked really polished.
Tell us more about growing your team into what it is today.
Well, it took seven years, one person at a time. It’s also such an ongoing process. Hiring the right people both in terms of their skill set and finding a good culture fit is definitely a challenge – but also something we have gotten pretty good at. Today we are 21 people split across two offices: one in San Francisco and one in Brooklyn. Each office kind of has its own vibe, but they are also strangely similar.
How have collaborations and partnerships played into the growth and success of Baggu?
We LOVE collaborating with other brands, especially Urban Outfitters! It’s really fun to get to adapt our products to different aesthetics. The Urban customer is really fashion forward so we get to go wild with crazy colors and prints. We also get massive exposure from our collaborations – it’s a great way for people to discover our brand.
What were some of your biggest challenges along the way? What are some of the biggest risks you’ve taken?
Starting to work with leather seemed like a big risk at the time. We were known as a really eco-friendly brand and we wanted to find a way to do leather that fit within those values. We really didn’t want to alienate our core customers. We found a way to do it by designing shapes that were really low waste and using only naturally milled hides. It also gave us a chance to try making stuff in the USA.
Can you walk us through the process of making your iconic leather shopping bag? What are the advantages of a simple, durable design like this one?
You start with a skin. We use cow skins, because they are a waste product of the meat industry. Then you use a big metal die to click out the shape of the bag. The leather shopping bag just needs one die and you cut it twice, once for the front and once for the back. The U-shaped cut out from the neck of the bag gets made into a pouch. Then you skive the edges where the bag is going to be sewn together. Skiving means shaving down the leather so it gets a bit thinner so the seams are not too bulky. Then the bag gets stitched together, seven seams in all. Then the seams all get hammered flat. The hammering is the key to having the bag look good – it’s the leather equivalent of ironing. Then ta-da! You have a bag!
What does it mean to be a “low waste” company?
Lots of things! The biggest place you’ll see low waste is in our product design. We intentionally design things that don’t leave behind a lot of scrap and don’t use more material than necessary to get the job done. In the offices, it’s all little stuff that compounds. We are pretty much paper free. Everything is digital, we don’t use paper towels. We compost…
What part has social media and the immediacy of the internet played in the growth and evolution of your brand?
Oh – the Internet is amazing. It’s definitely what allowed us to get so much exposure early on and grow so quickly in the beginning, and it’s what allows us to keep growing. We pretty much only think of marketing in terms of the web, so when we plan photo-shoots we are thinking first about how stuff will look on screens, not printed. On the back end it allow us to do a ton with a relatively small team.
What advice would you give to your 20 year-old self?
Buy more Apple stock! Also – you can teach yourself pretty much anything, and get good at it if you practice.
What is a typical day like for you?
I wake up at 7 and then I eat some chia porridge with fruit and drink a cup of tea while reading on my Kindle - I’m a big reader. Maybe I shower. Head to the office, which is a 3-block walk from my house. I work at a stand up desk now, so picture the rest of my day standing up. When I get to my desk I start with Asana and organize my actionable items for the day. Then I do some email. Maybe I go to yoga. At 1, we all cook healthy lunch together in the office. We do this every day. It’s called lunch club! Afternoons I have meetings or do design work or computer work. After work I’ll go for a surf or go to ballet class depending on the day or the waves. I try to so dome kind of exercise every day. Back home my husband and I cook dinner, usually Japanese-ish food (he cooks, I clean). Maybe TV? Cleaning the house? Kindle, bed.
What are five other things you’re interested in right now?
I’m interested in seven things: ballet, surfing, ceramics, Bonsai, van build-outs, technology, and I’m also really into my husband.
How To: Make a Bag
1. Cutting - measure twice cut once! If I am making prototypes I usually just go from measurements and draw them on the fabric with chalk.
2. Cut your lines extra straight - your whole pattern will go together better that way!
3. Pinning is important for straight lines, especially on slippery fabric like ripstop nylon.
4. Sew your seams straight.
5. Ironing is the most important part of sewing - it makes your project look polished. Press your seams!
6. Pinning in handles.
7. Ta-da! A simple daypack.