This spring, Emily Sugihara, the founder of the chic reusable bag company Baggu, took up surfing and bought a longboard, only to encounter a problem—how to get the thing from her car to the water? "My hand literally doesn’t go around the bottom of the board, and sometimes you have like a half mile to walk," she says. "If I carried it on my head, it hurt, and my arms fell asleep from trying to carry it."
So Sugihara did what she often does when faced with a logistical challenge: She took to her sewing machine, creating a canvas sling that lets her carry the board over one shoulder. This month, Baggu will begin selling the surf sling—which can also be used to lug boxes, canvases, pictures, and a number of other hard-to-contain objects. "Most of the Baggu ideas come from someone at Baggu going, ‘You know what I really need?’ And then just making it," Sugihara says.
The personal process that led to the surf sling’s design is emblematic of how Baggu develops many of its products. It is this DIY creative spirit—combined with standard business skills—that shaped Baggu’s success. Since the company’s founding in 2007, Sugihara has prioritized aesthetics, utility, and sustainability in designing her bags, all while keeping an attentive eye on Baggu’s long-term growth. That focus has led to sacrifices, including Sugihara’s early decision to manufacture most Baggu bags in China, allowing the company to reach its desired price point. But her strategy has paid off; with the exception of 2009, the company has approximately doubled its sales and its staff each year.
Like the surf sling, the first Baggu bag began with a dilemma. In the winter of 2006, Sugihara, then a designer at J. Crew in New York, wanted to give some reusable shopping bags to her eco-conscious mother, Joan, who lives in Emily’s hometown of San Diego, as a Christmas present, but she couldn’t find any that were cute, well-made, and affordable. So she bought some fabric and took it home to her mother, a talented seamstress who taught her daughter to sew when she was girl. The pair began creating the bag they wanted but couldn’t find. As the design evolved, Sugihara and her mother mailed prototypes—about 100 in total—coast-to-coast through the spring of 2007.
The bags were more than just a sewing project for Sugihara, a born entrepreneur who once sold watermelon-shaped erasers from the Oriental Trading catalog to her fourth-grade classmates, keeping track of her profits on Excel spreadsheets. As an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, she and her roommate, Yu Wang, started a company that sold white American Apparel T-shirts printed with any single word of the customer’s choosing. The shirts were a must-have item on campus through 2004, when Sugihara and Wang graduated and disbanded the company. The experience taught Sugihara the importance of building labor costs into pricing. "Once we got to the point where we had more demand for T-shirts than we could make ourselves, we couldn’t outsource it," she says, "because we couldn’t find anyone who would do it as cheap as we would."
With that experience in mind, Sugihara designed the first Baggu not just for aesthetics and functionality, but also for manufacturing. The bag’s exceedingly simple design, a knockoff of the standard plastic bag, contains just one seam along the bottom and gussets that allow it to stand up when full. Another priority for Sugihara was to minimize waste, which is why each bag is made from a single piece of fabric and sold in a pouch cut from between the bag’s handles. The material she used—ripstop nylon, the stuff hot air balloons are made from—is infinitely recyclable, meaning it can be reprocessed again and again without breaking down. It’s also strong—the bags can hold up to 25 pounds.
Sugihara initially wanted to make the bags in the United States and explored several factory options around San Diego. She quickly realized that manufacturing locally would mean selling the nylon bags for upwards of $30, which did not fit into her vision of affordability. "It was very important to us to make it realistic to buy six [or more] of our bags, because that’s how many you need if you’re grocery shopping for a family," Sugihara says. "At the same time, we didn’t want to make a bag that was so cheap that it wasn’t valued and became trash quickly."
She eventually settled on mass producing the bags in China, which allowed Baggu to sell the grocery bags for $8 apiece. The lower price, she reasoned, would mean Baggu could have a greater impact on people’s lifestyles and replace more plastic bag use. To ensure Baggu factories comply with ethical and environmental standards, Baggu has worked with several companies, including SGS, that monitor their conditions. Though she has received some criticism for basing most of Baggu’s production in China, Sugihara stands by the decision. "This system of manufacturing in China is already in place," she says. "Hopefully we’re actually improving the situation there by keeping our factories to an ethical mode of production."
Baggu’s first shipment sold out quickly, thanks in part to a feature that ran in Teen Vogue before the bags were even available. Over the next few years, the company introduced new colors and styles, including cotton canvas back packs, tote bags, and pouches, as well as smaller and larger versions of the original bag—products that ranged in price between $7 and $34. It took some time before Sugihara, who initially viewed her bags chiefly as grocery store products, embraced them as fashion accessories. "At some point we were just banging our heads against the wall trying to get it into grocery stores while all this design and fashion interest was just falling into our laps," Sugihara says. Marketing the bags as a fashion object "came a lot more naturally for us and seemed like a lot more fun." Baggu has collaborated with designers and stores—such as Caitlin Mociun, Shabd Aledander, and No. 6 Store—to create unique prints and materials.
In late 2011, Baggu released a line of higher-end leather products after it became clear that people were using the nylon and canvas bags as purses anyway. These were Baggu’s first products to be made in the States; the bags, which retail between $140 and $160, are manufactured in New York City from leather milled in Argentina. Sugihara plans to make the surf sling and future surf products in the United States too. The fact that Baggu orders these products in smaller quantities than its other bags makes local production cost effective.
Baggu is totally self-funded, which has helped pace its growth, Sugihara says. "When I was staying up all night shipping orders, I was like, ‘Oh, we need a warehouse,’" she says. "And then again, I was staying up all night writing customer emails, and I was like, ‘We need someone to help with customer service.’" Sugihara’s childhood friend Ellen Van Der Laan designed Baggu’s logo and officially became creative director in 2008, when the company could afford to pay her. Today, Baggu consists of 11 employees in its office in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, plus Sugihara’s mom, who still designs for Baggu from California.
Sugihara has plans to release more surf and beach items in the future, but beyond that, the direction of new products really depends on the lives of the people at Baggu. "As we all grow up and our lives change and we take on new interests, we’ll definitely come up with new ideas," she says.