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A Chicago flag-inspired messenger bag by New York’s Vaya Bags – all photos in this post courtesy of Vaya Bags

I believe that one sign that you’re in a great city for cycling is a proliferation of successful bike-related businesses. For example, a study done Mia Birk when she was bike coordinator of Portland, Oregon, found that the local bike industry has contributed $100 million and 1,500 jobs to that city’s economy in recent years.

There are a currently a handful of folks here in Chicago making great handmade bike products. You can find their bags, caps and other accessories listed in our gift guide. But it bothers me our city doesn’t have its fair share of independent bike-oriented businesses, and I’m not exactly sure why we don’t. It probably has something to do with the fact that, while we who live here know this is a great city for urban riding, the cold winters and lack of easy access to country roads and mountain bike trails prevent this town from being a magnet for bicycle entrepreneurs.

Back in the Nineties when I was a cycle courier, it always bugged me that every bike culture Mecca worth its bearing grease was represented by at least one well-known messenger bag company, except for Chicago. It was like that article in Vibe magazine during our pre-Kanye/Common hip-hop drought calling this “a city of three million [individuals] who can’t rap.” Was Chicago really that lame?

Nowadays there are two locally owned messenger bag companies in town, Chicago WIG and Steadfast Bags, (am I missing anybody?) They do great work, but I believe they’re mom-and-pop operations that don’t distribute nationally. Are these entrepreneurs interested representing Chicago nationwide and, if so, what will they need to do to take their businesses to the next level?

In the near future I’ll be contacting WIG and Steadfast for their perspectives on this topic. To get some background on the industry, I called Tianna Meilinger, owner of a Vaya Bags, a small New York company that makes colorful, handmade messenger bags and other bike accessories out of recycled materials like scrap and surplus sailcloth and old inner tubes.

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Vaya sells their products in stores around the globe, including Chicago’s Renegade Handmade. Meilinger gave me the history of how she turned her hobby into an international brand, but also shared he views on the importance of supporting local bike businesses in your city.

How did you get started making messenger bags?

I started making bags around 2005 out of the necessity for one. I was going to college in Boston and commuting by bike to school and work. I needed a bag and I decided to make myself a bag that was suited to my needs, waterproof with a stabilizer strap, padded shoulder strap and all those things. People really liked the bag that I made for myself and wanted me to make one for them.

I was an environmental science major in college. So at first I was thinking, oh, I’ll make bags until I find a real job [laughs] in my environmental science field, and then I just kept making bags, and that became my real job.

I moved home to New York in 2006 and sold my bags to friends and at little craft shows, things like that. I had a workshop out in my garage and started making bags from home then, selling them at art and craft shows and also selling them online.

So when you were at the stage where it was basically a cottage industry, just making bags for friends out of your home, what happened between then and now? How were you able make that next step to it becoming something where you had multiple employees and were selling bags around the country?

I think it was mostly the fact that I created a business the way I wanted it to be. I didn’t follow any business models or have any business background. I basically wanted a small business where everything’s completely handmade, and we get to interact with the customers, which is really rewarding. We love to see customers with their bags, love to get their feedback and also for them to be involved in the creation of their bag, such as picking colors and designs.

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I started doing bigger craft shows and more people started ordering from the website. I was able to keep costs down by using recycled materials, and I didn’t invest a lot from the beginning. I just had kind of a go with the flow, let’s see how it happens attitude. By keeping my costs down I was able to save up money to keep it going and eventually I got a storefront in Queens and had enough interest that I needed to hire employees.

How many people are working for the company and what’s the breakdown of who does what?

My friend Grace Kim and me make all the bags by hand. My friend Angie Boylan does the office work, taking orders and dealing with the paperwork and contacting people. She also helps make stuff when things are slow in the office.

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Grace Kim and Tianna Meilinger

Your bags are distributed all over the world now, in Tokyo and London, and several U.S. cities.

Yup, but most of our sales are from online orders. We get them from everywhere – Germany, Singapore, all over. We also do shows like Renegade Craft Fair in Chicago every year, and it’s one of my favorite cities to hang out in and do craft fairs. Everyone’s so awesome and really nice.

So the Renegade Handmade store is the only store that sells your bags in Chicago right now?

Yes. I’m interested in finding others. It’s just a matter of getting the time to go out there and talk to people.

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So, do you think it would be a positive thing for all the major bike cities in North America to have a messenger bag company that kind of represents their town?

Yeah, I think it’s important to support local businesses. If each company has a small, local following I definitely think it’s great. But it’s also important to have a healthy variety, because not every bag is perfect for every person. So I don’t think someone should think any less of somebody who buys something that’s not local. But I definitely support people buying local, handmade goods.

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You know, it’s hard sustaining a messenger bag company. It’s a lot of work and a lot of ups and downs. It’s definitely not for everyone, because there’s a lot of competition out there. I often get people asking why they should buy a handmade bag from me when they can get it for less from Timbuk2, who has them made in China. But I think a lot of people these days are into supporting local, handmade products, which is awesome. It really gives back to the community.

What do you think are the strengths of Vaya bags, the selling points?

There are several things that set us apart. One is the use of recycled bike tubes, and scraps of sailboat awnings and old banners. I think that the fact that they’re waterproof is also a really good feature. And I think that while they’re awesome looking, they function really well for the purpose of riding your bike around with stuff, being comfortable and not getting your stuff wet if you get caught in the rain. And I use materials that come in a variety of different colors, so people can really customize them – the possibilities are endless

I checked out the photo gallery of custom bags and you guys have done some great work. I really like the one you did based on that old Japanese print of the waves crashing near Mt. Fuji.

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The Great Wave off Kanagawa? Oh, thanks so much. That one was a challenge. I was really happy with the way it came out.

It must have been tough to translate such a complicated image into cloth.

Steven adds: It’s interesting that two San Francisco-based bag makers have opened shops in Chicago in 2011, both in Wicker Park on Milwaukee Avenue (within blocks of each other): Mission Workshop and Chrome Bags. 

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  • http://twitter.com/DanSwick DanSwick

    Excellent article, John. I have often wished we had more local bicycle-related businesses here in Chicago. Really looking forward to reading the rest of this series. 

    • http://gridchicago.com John Greenfield

      Thanks Dan!

  • Erin at Kozie Prery

    I am always amazed by the high quality and quantity of work Tia is able to sustain.  I’ve been thinking I would love to have some sort of organization here in Chicago to promote handmade cycling goods at shows across the country like InterBike and the Handmade Bicycle Show.  Sometimes the cost of these shows are prohibitive for a small company but they might be the best for reaching potential customers on a nationwide basis.

    Another thing is to sell wholesale we take a huge cut in the profits – even more so in consignment where the seller only receives half.  I love selling at Chicago stores because they make money when they sell my caps and the caps are a draw to their store and I love supporting our local businesses.  But as much as I would love to sell nationwide I wonder where that would leave my profits.

    Selling online is the best for me, even though I have to photograph and write a description for every cap.  It is a lot of work but I reach cyclists around the United States.     

    • http://www.stevevance.net/planning Steven Vance

      Is every cap you make unique? 

      For readers that want to know more about Kozie Prery, they can visit the official website, http://www.kozieprery.com/buy.html. 

  • http://seaofstatic.tumblr.com Anhalt

    “Nowadays there are two locally owned messenger bag companies in town, Chicago WIGand Steadfast Bags, (am I missing anybody?), but I believe they’re mom-and-pop operations that don’t distribute nationally”

    WIG ships bags all over the world. In fact, I’ll never forget him telling me how he receives more international orders than he does local ones! (This was in May of last year.)

    • http://www.stevevance.net/planning Steven Vance

      This reminds me, Isaac shows on his Flickr the bags he makes. He often writes the first name of the recipient and what city they’re in. 

      For example, this bag went to Sakaya, Japan.
      http://www.flickr.com/photos/chicagowig/441922623/

    • http://gridchicago.com John Greenfield

      I figured that, but I don’t believe they’re stocked in stores in other cities. It would be nice for people in other towns to see handmade Chicago bike products for sale, just as handmade bike products from other towns are sold in shops here.

  • j. peters.

    you can go nationwide when you have original bags and not just copies

  • Maria Boustead

    My business Po Campo is a Chicago based company that designs and manufacturers bags for city biking. Okay, no messenger bags in our line yet but it is nice to have an alternative to that, yes? We went the wholesale route rather than the craft show route – so more Timbuk2 vs. Vaya – and after three years we have nationwide and international distribution. The bags were developed based on what we wanted for city biking in Chicago, so it is very exciting for us to see those design elements appreciated around the world.

    A lot of our customers tell us that having a Chicago brand in their shop is a unique selling point for them because while Chicago is known for a lot of things (architecture, music, Obama), it isn’t as associated with cool bags or products. Chicago has an amazing history of products and manufacturing that has largely gone away so I’m thrilled to have Po Campo be a part of its future.

    • http://www.stevevance.net/planning Steven Vance

      Thanks for sharing this narrative. At which stores in Chicago are Po Campo bags for sale?

      • Maria Boustead

        We have about 15 dealers in the Chicago area. You can see the list here: http://www.pocampo.com/stores/. Roscoe Village Bikes, Rapid Transit and Copenhagen Cyclery have been big supporters from the beginning.

  • Lua

    Hi congratulations on you beautifula bags,,,I have a big interest in getting a bag (messenger) with the city of Chicago…I need it for a Xmas present is it any way you can send to me all info,  I would be very happy if you answer me…….thank you do much…………..silvialua@yahoo.com.