When Mikhail Avrekh, a recent transplant to Connecticut from the Bay Area, wants to find a kindred spirit, he simply looks for the spiral logo. To the Cal alum and Yale comp-lit graduate student, the Timbuk2 messenger bag that bears it has proven the equivalent of a secret Northern California handshake.
You’ve seen them. The frequently oversize three-paneled bags slung over shoulders, molding to commuters’ bodies as though born to them. The intellectual, earthy colors like sage green and brown. And the iconic oval spiral innocuously embroidered on an end panel. “When I see someone with the bag, I stop and say, ‘Are you from the Bay Area?'” Avrekh says. Almost invariably, he discovers, the person is. The bags have led to bonding and subsequent rendezvous with newfound acquaintances. Having this social beacon, he says, makes up for “the weird looks I get on campus from East Coast people in pea coats when I wear my North Face fleece.”
Toted by countless locals, stocked with everything from legal contracts to diapers, and revered with an almost mythological immortality, the unassuming satchels have come into their own as a bona fide Bay Area fashion statement. That’s great for Timbuk2, which has sewn and assembled the bags since 1989 in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill neighborhood, although it recently outsourced some operations to China.
With their durability, bike-friendly design, and deft skirting of the backpack-versus-briefcase dilemma, the company’s messenger bags have become the accessory to business casual for the twenty-to-forty demographic. It’s impossible to avoid bumping into them on BART. That they are pricier than most backpacks and hard to find outside specialty stores such as REI and Elephant Pharmacy only adds to their cachet. The styles have unabashedly San Francisco names: Noe, Marina, Soma. “I think people realize that it’s a decent investment,” Avrekh says. “You can be a student and have this bag for ten years.”
Few brands, except perhaps the Prius, are sported more proudly in the Bay Area. Men who wouldn’t be caught dead in a polo shirt flash the spiral. Women who prefer to be, rather than wear, Citizens of Humanity cheerfully plunk down $80-plus for a bag. In the land of Timbuk2, neohippie, bohemian, metro, artist, corporate, emo, student, techie, and mom types exist in happy harmony.
At Timbuk2’s Hayes Valley concept store, the sturdy messenger bags seem to float on wall-mounted shelves just like their Coach and Bottega Veneta counterparts. Here, customers can customize to their heart’s desire, as they can online. Want your bag in red, green, and yellow? No prob — usually. The canvas is, well, yours, and the ability to individualize has fed the bag’s cult status. Patti Roll, Timbuk2’s marketing manager, spends much time keeping abreast of product-related blog hits. It helps her stay in touch with her customers, whom she sums up as “people who forgo the comforts of suburbia to live in an urban city — Web 2.0 people, graphic designers, engineers.” Apparently, a hotly debated Web topic is whether the smaller messenger bag is a “man-purse” or a “murse.”
Timbuk2 now plans to involve its more diehard fans in the actual design process, especially for big steps such as its new luggage line. The company’s first bag was designed for men, and proved popular among bike messengers and muddy bike commuters. But women have increasingly made Timbuk2 their fashion statement, Vogue be damned.
Sonya Thompson, a yoga instructor and masseuse in San Francisco, doesn’t even carry a purse anymore. “They hold up really well,” she says. “Better than other messenger bags.” Her custom-colored number has hauled everything from schoolbooks — “I like that the bag is water-resistant, for all the rain here” — to groceries, and it joins her on bike rides and international trips.
At See Jane Run, a women’s athletic store in Oakland’s Rockridge, Timbuk2 products with feminine styling are now available in dizzying variety. Sales associate Adaya Brand-Thomas says moms, students, and professionals frequently come to the store looking specifically for Timbuk2 products. “There’s not too many other places to buy them, and this is one of them,” she says. “They last forever.”
These products, which include iPod cases and wallets, sell briskly, but top sellers are the messenger bags and purselike “Metro” bag. Brand-Thomas owns a Metro — “It’s the ‘take a book and a bottle of water to Dolores Park’ bag” — and two sizes of messenger bags. “Which one I carry depends on how many classes I’m taking” and whether she’s headed to the gym, she explains. The security of the bags, she believes, also appeals to women. “I still carry a purse, because the Metro isn’t very girly — it’s a bag you can get dirty. But I’m not really a commuter, and the bags are a good deterrent for thieves because you can close them two ways.”
Not all the company’s designs have been hits. A drawstring style called the Cinch was a flop, likely because it made things difficult to dig for. But, as Brand-Thomas flips through the company catalogue, it’s clear that Timbuk2 has begun marketing heavily to women. “This year, they really expanded their women’s selection with the Macy and Swing bags,” she says. The latter is apparently a popular baby bag. There’s a new laptop sleeve, called the Curly Q, with feminine quilting, and pink and purple are increasingly on display: “Yeah, those colors are pretty girly. The straight-up pink bag was really popular, too.”
Not all Timbuk2 carriers are diehards, of course. Some even speak of — gasp! — converting to another bag belief system. Sam Judd, a real-estate attorney for Ross Stores, totes a green Timbuk2 bag attractively emblazoned with the logo of the Mavericks surf competition. “My girlfriend works for them, and I sort of inherited it,” he says.
He used to carry a backpack. But despite having the bag for a year and a half, he’s loath to call himself a convert. “It’s big and sturdy, but the way the pockets are arranged is kind of random and disorganized,” Judd says. “It’s easy to get stuff lost in there. … If someone offered me a new bag I’d consider it. But I guess I’ve kinda gotten used to it.”
In Judd’s view, the popularity is all about the brand: “I associate it with a granola, organic type of person. Bohemian. But with money. The Trader Joe’s [shopper].”
Backed by new Timbuk2 CEO Perry Klebahn, who came out of Stanford’s design school, Roll intends next to strengthen that branding by emphasizing the classic recognizable bag style while upscaling it somewhat. “We’re designing a series for spring ’08 with increased function and flair — something that you can take to a board meeting,” she says. Some products in the women’s line will be phased out, she says, and the company will work toward its new goal of becoming what she describes not as a national brand, but a “local brand in many cities.” There will be some fun products, too, like a black glow-in-the-dark bag — “kind of like the guy who only reveals his superpowers at night.”
Timbuk2 may have its work cut out for it, though, in the face of upstart competition. “My friend works at Chrome at 17th and Folsom, which also makes a great bag,” yoga instructor Thompson notes. Asked if she’d ever switch, she grins and whispers guiltily: “Yeah, I was kinda thinking about it.”