How Timbuk2 Became More Than a Messenger Bag Brand
From supporting local manufacturing in SF's Mission District to making luxe bags built for mobility of all kinds
The story of Timbuk2 is a classic, mirroring those told by a select few of contemporary culture’s most influential founders. It starts with a tinkerer in a garage, driven by a DIY spirit to make a better product, and ends with an iconic design that will surely last the test of time. And like at least one other, this story too takes place in The Bay. Only here, San Francisco is more than just a backdrop, it’s the backbone.
Since the day bike messenger Rob Honeycutt churned out his first Scumbag messenger bag—as the brand was originally named—on a home sewing machine in 1989, San Francisco has been part of the Timbuk2 story. It was in the Mission District where he’d spend the next 14 years working upwards of 100 hours a week making bags and hand delivering them to local independent bike shops. And it is there, in the Mission, where the brand still resides, making 100% of custom ordered bags by hand (Timbuk2 is officially the largest manufacturer within San Francisco city limits). Only now they deliver worldwide, and their brick and mortar shops span a dozen locations.
San Francisco’s influence goes far beyond the physical—the city’s vibrant, diverse, and gritty nature inform the brand’s holistic approach to making intuitive bags for moving through the urban landscape. In the 90s, this meant messenger bags for cyclists. Now, it means a wide range of carrying solutions for all city dwellers, whether their transportation of choice is a bike, subway, car, plane, ferry, or their own two feet. Regardless, the shared characteristic is a tendency to stay on the move. And no matter where you’re headed or what you’re carrying, the need for functional, durable design is equal.
Yet even as Timbuk2’s scope and product line have expanded, the goal of solving problems with functionality and forward-thinking manufacturing has remained the same. Honeycutt first began pioneering mass customization by offering custom bags in 1994 and later launched the first online customization platform in retail in 2000. Four years later the Timbuk2 Lifecycle Program was launched to encourage customers to recycle, repair, and repurpose old bags. Through this and other sustainability-minded partnerships over 15,000 bags have been repurposed—bags that would have otherwise ended up in a landfill. It’s all part of a hardly-publicized effort to lead their community (both literal and figurative) in a better direction for the generations to come.
With such forward-thinking policies in place behind the scenes, efforts to update the outward facing identity came to a head in 2014 with the hiring of Timbuk2’s first-ever female CEO, Patti Cazzato. Leveraging her extensive experience with iconic lifestyle and fashion brands like Levi’s and Esprit (back when Susie and Doug Tompkins were still at the helm), Cazzato quickly brought in a strong new design team from various areas of the industry to execute her vision and refresh the brand’s aesthetic direction. The move signaled the beginning of a new era for the once-modest messenger bag maker.
Working collaboratively, the brand has begun to breath new life, creating a distinctly more sophisticated identity with additional silhouettes, a broader range of technical materials, and a more modern design language. In an era where brands cling to their heritage with white knuckles, squeezing all they can from their archives to mask a lack of contemporary creative direction, it’s exciting to see a brand with such deep roots in niche culture as interested in evolving as it is celebrating where it came from.
Finding such a balance hasn’t been easy, though Cazzato’s appointees, drawing on their own diverse backgrounds, have managed to both elevate the brand and helped it reconnect with its DIY roots.
Overseeing all visuals of Timbuk2’s customer-facing identity, from typography and photography to influencing brand partnerships and packaging design, is Nelson Garcia. Born in the Philippines and raised in San Francisco (he emigrated to the city at the age of five), Garcia is a true local through and through. Drawn to the things that moms once warned their children to stay away from—hip-hop, graffiti, skateboarding—he found community in S.F.’s subcultures as a youth.
With family in the Mission, Garcia was never far from Timbuk2’s humble beginnings. He even got his first tattoo at age 16 in a studio on 20th and Shotwell—in the very building that now houses Timbuk2’s global headquarters, factory, and showroom shop. Such experiences very much inform his aesthetic sensibility, and in turn, help Timbuk2 stay true too (cue recent collaboration with street artist APEXER). Who better to have as “keeper of the brand aesthetic,” as Garcia describes his role.
Countering such strong West Coast vibes is New York native Jen Larkin, who joined as design director around the same time as Garcia. With a background in fine art—primarily graffiti, graphic art, painting—and extensive experience in high fashion product design (she previously spent six years directing the design of leathergoods at Coach), Larkin has been instrumental in the execution of Cazzato’s vision. “It’s exciting because it kind of brings me back to my roots as a street punk,” Larkin tells us. “For me, to approach design in a new way is fun. We’re just trying to lay a little more style onto the function, and make it more modern and more relevant to what’s happening.”
As the design teams work 18 months out, what’s hitting shelves now and in the upcoming season will be some of the first designs to be created entirely under the control of Cazzato and her new design team. With a greater exploration of silhouettes and materials, a genuine attention to subtle details like hardware and graphics, and of course, lots of functionality on the way, we recommend keeping an eye on Timbuk2.
And hey, if all that sounds too fancy for you, you're always welcome to go online and customize your own bag, which no doubt will be made just feet from Larkin and Garcia’s desks in the heart of the Mission.