Label Spotlight: Topo Designs

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Colorado’s Topo Designs is one damned impressive young label. Started by three friends with a shared affinity for the outdoors (and the many activities contained therein – out in?), the co. deftly mixes the best design and construction elements of gear from the 70s and 80s, with those of contemporary high-end goods from Europe and Japan, to produce a range of bags that are as handsome as they hard-wearing (that is to say, very).

Every Topo Designs bag is crafted in the Rocky Mountain state in an LEED certified facility, using 1000d Cordura nylon, natural leather, and mil-spec hardware. Designed with specific tasks in mind, each bag comes equipped with a dizzying number of details and features (including waterproof liners, padded straps, various clips and attachments, and pockets, upon pockets, upon pockets). Despite all that goes into their making, the bags’ pricing is extremely reasonable, with most of the styles totaling in at under $100 (and no style over $150). Affordable, functional, great looking, US-made from quality materials – and that’s just their first collection: like I said, damned impressive.

Co-founder Mark Hansen recently took some time out to answer a few questions through email. Here’s what he had to say.

WS: How’s business?
MH: This turns out to be a really fun question to answer – we’re really excited and pleased with how things are going. I think with every venture there is that point where you start to feel the momentum of “wow, this is going to work, wait, this is working!” and I think we’re entering that zone. It’s taken a few years and definitely some sweat, but it’s fun to be shipping out bags. It’s still early enough that I really enjoy taking boxes to the UPS store.

How would you describe Topo Designs’ code of ethics?
Our code has been driven largely from how we’ve been treated in the working world. We understand what it’s like to do a lot of work on a product and have a client not really want to pay for it or to expect something done “yesterday” – I’m sure it’s a fairly common experience to hear things like, “hey can you just knock out that in an hour, it’s easy, right?” from people that really have no understanding of what goes into the work. Coming from that, coupled with the fact that we have sewing machines and we’ve made these bags, we have a better idea on what it takes and we work to respect that and we work hard to find people that work in a similar manner. Really just boils down to treating others the way we want to be treated. That’s the nice answer to the question – naturally the three of us give each other no end of grief and have totally unrealistic expectations of each other – but, it’s all in good fun – right guys? right?

How is Topo Designs able to maintain its code of ethics while still producing affordable products?
Well, we were never very good at math…. We approached this from the side of what we wanted our end products to retail for rather than what we wanted to make. So once we decided we wanted to make a nice pack for under a $100 we just had to work to figure that out. It really boils down to what we want, or I should say, are willing to make on our products. We really have a long view of this, we aren’t trying to make a fast buck on a trend, we are building a company. And I think to do that as honestly as possible, it’s about pricing things reasonably and working with suppliers that are sustainable. It may not be the fastest way to make it, but we hope and believe it’s the path that will keep us around for the long haul.

Why do you think bigger companies can’t (or won’t) do the same?
I think the simplest answer to this is, of course, just about the money. But beyond that, I think it’s also largely about habit. I think in any industry it’s easy to fall into the trap of “this is the way it’s done” whether that is how manufacturing is sourced or how things are designed or even customer service. And while it may seem overly simplistic, the larger the company gets the more difficult it is to change these things. Market pressure can change this of course, but it takes time. There will have to be enough people willing to shop differently before the larger companies follow suit.

Do you think Topo Designs’ code of ethics has helped to attract customers, or play any other role in the success of the company?
I would sure like to hope so – and we’ve definitely had feedback that people are excited to find that we actually make our bags in Colorado. That said, I don’t think we, or any company really, can expect to succeed on just that alone. The product has to deliver. We are very mindful of how our products get made, but we also really care about the end result. We definitely believe that we can be true to both.

Are there any specific new ways Topo Designs is currently working to increase its level of social responsibility? If yes, what are they?
This is a really interesting topic to us. There are some great role models out there, TOMS shoes or Warby Parker are two obvious and much talked about examples. This is an area where we’d love to hear feedback about what people think that would look like for a company like ours. We’re still young as a company and have a lot we can still work toward.

On a personal level, do you think the growing demand for socially responsible products is a fad, or, representative of some sort of larger shift in consumer culture?
I think what we’re seeing is similar to what happened with organic food over the last 10-15 years. 15 years ago my dad, for example, had never even heard of organic food and when he did he made dad jokes like, “aren’t all vegetables organic?” Now that’s really changed, large chains have organic in their own private labels, a sure sign it’s really sunk in that it’s something people are looking for. I’m hoping that we’re seeing something similar to that in regard to more responsible products. Similar to organic initially it’s something that buyers have to seek out and often be willing to pay a bit more for, but if we collectively keep doing that, it brings about big change. Heck, my dad even buys organic now.

For price and purchase info, visit Topo Designs.