Photo by John; all others courtesy of WIG Bags
This is the second in a series of interviews looking into what it will take for Chicago to develop a thriving bike-related business community, focusing on messenger bags. Earlier I talked to Tia Meilinger from New York City’s Vaya Bags to learn how she launched a successful global business. Last week I caught up with Isaac Grigsby from Chicago’s WIG Bags over breakfast at the West River Café, 4400 N. Kedzie in Albany Park, a few blocks from his workshop, to discuss his business and his views on the local scene.
In the early 2000s Grigsby started WIG, Wheels in Gyration – “It means the wheels are always turning, I’m always trying to figure something out or put something together,” he says. Since then he’s made thousands of custom bags and shipped them to every corner of the globe. But he says he has no interest in having his products – messenger bags, backpacks, camera bags and more – sitting on store shelves.
We talked about the origins of his business, the features of his courier bags, how he gets the word out about his products and why he doesn’t like sewing custom images on the flaps of his bags. Grigsby also gave his opinion about why it’s difficult to launch a bike business in this city and told me what it’s like sewing carrying cases for rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
What’s your background with bicycling?
I come from a family of bicyclists. Both my parents were cyclists, from the Woodstock era up into the Eighties. My dad had an affinity for road bikes, mainly for high-end British road bikes. So I grew up in a house with really nice bikes. I got on my first bike at about age four and started pedaling away. It just seemed like it was second nature. At six I got my first road bike. My dad built it up with 20” tires and a frame that he got from some guy in Japan. I haven’t not ridden a bike ever since. I’ve owned two cars in my life and both were because I was living way, way away from the city for a short time for work.
Where did you grow up?
Portage Park, Oak Park and Albany Park.
How did you get involved with doing textile work and tailoring?
My mom is a fabric engineer. After my parents got divorced when I was five, my older brother decided to stay with my dad but I was shuffled between the both of them. So for six months of the year I would be in Puerto Rico, Barbados, Costa Rica, and other places like that where the textile industry is huge and my mom would be working. So the world of sewing and putting things together was always there.
When I came back my dad, who was an artist, taught me the skill of seeing things in a three-dimensional realm. As I grew older I tied these things together and I realized that I could sew things the way I saw them.
What kind of art did your dad do?
Everything from cartooning to fine painting – whatever it took for a guy in the Eighties and Nineties to make a living as an artist. No graphic art or commercial art.
Grigsby with his “Chicago Backpack”
How did you get into making messenger bags?
In about 2000 I started an apprenticeship as a cabinetmaker. Early on I was really drawn to Japanese joinery, which is done all by hand with no power. And so working in a shop that was all power tools all day long and wanting to work with my hands to do Japanese joinery, I couldn’t do it there. But my boss, who became my best friend, allowed me to take home whatever stock I wanted, wood, tools, anything. I had no way of bringing that stuff home by bike, so I needed a bag.
I went home and sewed myself a bag – I’ve always had a sewing machine that was big enough. The bag was very raw, nothing like it is today, just something to carry wood home in. Two days later I show up at a bar. Buddies of mine are there and one of them says, “Hey man, that’s really great. Can you make me one?” I tell him I don’t have enough materials. “Well can I buy that one?” So I sold that one, the market was born and I’ve been going since.
So that must have been a pretty big bag, to be able to haul lumber.
It was gigantic – it was a cape. It was like 12” deep, 24” long across your back. I had towels that I sewed in to protect me from the edges of the wood. The guy loved it.
So I made another one and another one and another one and it caught on with some friends and whatnot, during the pre-hipster time, your era of riding and being a messenger [mostly the Nineties, although there were plenty of hipsters around back then].
You were basically the first messenger bag company I was aware of in Chicago. Were there any others before you got started? There may have been somebody doing this during the Nineties but I don’t remember them.
Being around here in the Nineties, anything I saw was either Zo or Timbuk2. If somebody had a Zo bag it was clear they were really on top of things. The first fixed-gear “porn” website was the guy in Brooklyn – I can’t remember his name right now. When I started wanting to put bags into production I emailed him and said, “What do you think about a Midwesterner doing this.” He said, “Build it and they’ll come.” I said, “You’re right. What’s it going to hurt?” but I don’t know if I was the first one here.
So is the business just you at this point or do you have any employees or helpers?
No employees. I have helpers who come in from time to time when I have large overseas orders that I can’t handle with my regular workload.
Are you just doing bags now or do you have a day job?
I have many jobs. Some business consulting, and working part time for a family store, helping them for the holidays and things like that, when they just need somebody they can trust with the money. These are uncles and aunts and stuff from my dad’s side.
What are some selling points of your bags?
The main selling point is that when somebody contacts me, they talk to me. When they have a special need, say a shoulder injury or they’ve got to carry a fish tank around on their back, I can make a bag that’s going to facilitate that, that’s going to be padded, that’s going to hold its shape, that’s going to not move around.
“Boxter” for carrying large boxes
To date I think I must have made over 4,000 bags since 2003, when I started out. I made 160 my first year and after that it just grew exponentially. In an average week I’ll do six to twelve bags, depending on how intricate they are. I have slowed down over the last year. I don’t sell bags to everybody. If somebody wants something that looks pretty, with pretty colors and a big picture of their local race or flag, I usually decline to do that. It’s not that it’s not my style, but there are people who do that better than I do and I don’t want to play around wasting the customer’s time and my time trying to create a picture.
You saw our interview with Tia Meilinger from Vaya Bags – she specializes in that.
Exactly. You know, Roland from R.E.Load, Dan from Seagull, even Adam from Zugster, when you look at these guys’ stuff, it’s phenomenal. I think Seagull is the best out there right now for doing imagery on the flap of a bag. Each one I see is just mind-blowing.
So if you don’t do images, what do you specialize in?
Fit. Body mechanics. Understanding that your shoulders are narrower than mine [ouch!], that that bag needs to fit you a certain way, so that when you have your laptop, your camera, your lunch, your shoes and your clothes in there and you’re riding down the street in a rainstorm, that bag’s not sliding down underneath your armpit or digging in your trapeze muscle or your collarbone.
For me it’s all about fit and how it works, that it works just the way it should. Most bags on the market are strictly aesthetic. They’re just filling up shelf space and they’re going to end up in a landfill. That’s one place I don’t want my bags to wind up. That’s why I make my bags one at a time, paid for in advance before it goes to the customer.
Can you walk me through what your bags are like, what materials are they made out of, and what features they have?
Everything’s made from 1000 Denier Cordura Nylon, inside and out. Everything’s taped and sealed, which means I use a heat tape on the liner or I’ll spray it. I set up a little spray booth in the back of my studio with fans and everything, so I can spray a water-soluble sealant back over the stitches, if necessary. If it’s going to be a food bag for a guy delivering food from a restaurant to a customer then you have to do it, because by sealing the bag you also create a vapor-block heat barrier that keeps the food hotter. The kid gets a bigger tip, the people are happy and they call him back again. It’s a trickle-down effect of good service.
Food delivery bag
Then there’s padding: padded back, padded strap. All clips on the bag are wide so you can open them with gloves on. They’re big, fat clips that your fingers go right to. All the clips I buy now are YKK brand because they’re very round, and if you use a crappier square clip, in the summer it can pinch your exposed flesh. Round clips don’t do that, they just kind of push the flesh out of the way.
One of things that sometimes gets overlooked is, if it’s a sling-style messenger bag, people tend to put the light loop up on your shoulder so that when you’re down in drop bars your light is flashing up at all the helicopters and airplanes, not in the eyes of the drivers. So I always put the loop at he lowest possible location, that’s going to be closest to your ass.
What are some of the channels that you sell your bags through?
Mainly word of mouth. I feel that print advertising is kind of insulting to the customer. I mean, I don’t need to be told what right or what’s wrong for me. I can kind of figure that out. But I guess that there’s a certain segment of the population that wants to be told what to do and so advertising works for them. I don’t foresee them becoming my customers.
WIG’s no-frills “The People’s Bag”
I use a lot of the free media that I can get, which is Flickr, YouTube and Vimeo. My Facebook page has become more just people who are fans of mine, friends basically, customers who I’ve built stuff for who enjoy my personality or my work. I’ve broken, I think, 1.5 million hits on my Flickr. That’s probably my biggest selling point, that I constantly refresh it and put all my new products and ideas on there. I put every 10th or 11th bag up there. Or it could be something that when I’m done with it and I push it aside from the sewing machine and I sit back and I look at it I’m like, wow, did that come out of me?
It sounds like you’ve got all the work you can handle. Making messenger bags isn’t the only thing you do but…
My numbers also come from the fact I also make a lot of tactical bags. These are three-day assault packs, bags to carry ammunition RPGs [rocket-propelled grenade launchers], rifles, gear, stuff like this.
Who are you selling those to?
Private contractors. About three years ago I had a group of contractors contact me to make them a specialty bag that would allow them to move through an urban place and look like you or me. So I put together this bag for them and they showed it to their buddies and their buddies like the idea that there’s a guy they can contact directly who can actually make something right.
So when you say private contractors, do you mean guys who are working in Afghanistan?
A lot of them are just regular guys who get hired out to protect highfalutin people, I guess. All I know is that some of the weapons that I’ve had to measure for bags, I wouldn’t want to be on the other end of those things. It scares the s— out of me. But then when I talk to these guys I realize that they’re just like you or me, it’s just that they’ve chosen a different path in life. It’s like OK, if this [weapon] is going to save your life and keep your kids seein’ their daddy, I can do this. They do pay more than I cyclist, I can tell you that. They get charged more than a cyclist, I should say.
Are you interested in just doing messenger bags or do you like doing different types of work?
I like it just where it is. I’m already a globally recognized person. I’ve shipped to every continent. If I pull out the world map and start putting pins in places where my bags exist, it’s almost funny that one guy could put bags in all these places. There are cyclists everywhere and there’s people everywhere who want camera bags and bike bags and tactical bags.
SLR (single lens reflex) camera bag
So you sell more bags through the Internet to other places than you do in Chicago?
Yes, it’s about 80:20. My numbers for this city, for my own hometown, are so low it’s ridiculous.
It sounds like you’re not interested in having your bags sitting in stores. Have you ever done that?
A block away from here there’s Iron Cycles. They have two of my bags in their window, mainly because me and Brandon are good friends and I’m friends with everybody who works there. It’s four blocks from my studio. I don’t think those bags are ever going to sell. But when I can’t get somebody into my workshop to look at a bag, I have a retail place where they can go and look at them and try them on and say, “Oh, this is nice.”
Does it seem to you that a city with as vibrant a bike scene as Chicago has should have more bike accessory businesses, more frame builders and things like that? If you agree that’s an issue, any theories about why that’s the case?
Space? For a guy to build frames or build accessories or whatever, storefronts are ten to twelve dollars a square foot. And when you base that over twelve months, that’s a big nut to crack from selling wallets and bags. That’s an almost impossible number to meet and still pay your rent, feed yourself, and pay your gas and electric.
Chicago’s also not as bicycle-friendly as we’d all like to think. The truth of it is a lot of it’s just city hype. They say, “Oh, we’ve got all these bike lanes, we’re doing all this great stuff.” And when you’re stuck in that microcosm it looks like we’re doing great. But when you step out of that microcosm and you’re a regular citizen, the people who are all around us, bike lanes don’t even exist. When they’re driving in their car and they see someone in front of them in a bike lane they freak out.
Is it our responsibility as cyclists to help them realize that they don’t need to freak out, that it’s OK to drive next to bike lanes, that we cyclists are not going to run into you or go all over the place? It is, but you and I share that space with inexperienced riders who are on their cell phone, they’re riding scrapper bikes, they’re going on and off the sidewalks, they’re going in and out of traffic. That makes it hard for the rest of us.
So with those issues, it’s tough for anyone to start a viable bike business in Chicago. A business should be something that thrives, that you can make a living from. In some other places, let’s say you’re in Ohio, the city actually wants to work with the proprietor of the business and you can rent 2,000 square feet for $500 bucks a month. Your average living cost is not even close to what it is in Chicago and you can hire a few people and show them the ropes.
It’s not so here. This is an expensive city to live in, even if you live with roommates. The average person, I think their monthly nut has to be between $700 and $1,100 a month, at least to survive. That’s a lot of money to come up with for three or four employees plus the owner of the business, and then there’s overhead expenses and material costs.
A yard of Cordura costs between $12 and $20, depending on the quality of the fabric. If you buy it in bulk it’s reduced but not greatly reduced. Then you’ve got webbing, you’ve got clips, you’ve got sewing machines, you’ve got oil for the machines, you’ve got electricity, you’ve got heat to keep you warm and air conditioning to keep you cool so you can keep working. All of these factors never occur to people when they say, “Well I could do this.”