Inside Baggu, the Hypercolorful, Reusable Tote for Every Generation

“Always listen to your mother” isn’t exactly the kind of central tenet they teach you at Harvard Business School. But for Emily Sugihara, the California-raised, Brooklyn-based designer behind the reusable bag line Baggu, it’s a piece of advice that’s been invaluable to the brand’s runaway success since its founding in 2007. Back then, Sugihara was a Parsons grad working as an assistant designer at J. Crew and just coming to realize that a corporate job wasn’t her calling. “As a kid, I was very entrepreneurial, and I always knew I wanted to have my own company,” she says. At home over Christmas break one year, Sugihara and her mother began talking about making a line of reusable shopping bags. Her mom was “sort of a treehugger” and an artist in her own right — an expert seamstress who learned to sew making her own clothes as a kid in rural Michigan — and Sugihara was a die-hard New Yorker-in-training, sporting fingers turned purple each week as she lugged home bags full of groceries.

Together they came up with a bag that’s almost exactly like the ripstop nylon Baggu that still sells today: long handles that fit comfortably over the shoulder, gussets along the bottom that allow things like milk and eggs to stack, and a single, double-reinforced seam that’s the result, Sugihara says, of her mother’s “sewing genius.” (Her mom, once a therapist, now works almost full-time on Baggu.) Since then, Sugihara has taken her mother’s advice on everything from the brand’s color palette to its potential collaborators. “My mom saw Shabd Alexander on Martha Stewart one day and sent me this email saying, ‘I just saw a girl on TV who looks like you guys could be friends. She lives in your neighborhood and does tie-dye!’” Baggu and Shabd just released their second collaboration this spring.

The mom factor is particularly amusing considering that though Baggu began in a more utilitarian vein, it’s since become a must-have fashion accessory, sold at hip emporiums like Need Supply and Colette. “We thought it was a natural fit for grocery stores,” says Sugihara. “But we ended up finding our home in fashion, in a design or apparel setting. An $8 bag in a grocery store seems expensive, but an $8 bag in J. Crew seems like a steal.” Though the original Baggu is perfect for groceries, the Baggu team finds it’s being used for so much more: “You can buy a pair of shoes at Prada and put them in your Baggu and feel okay about it, whereas you might feel weird whipping out a Whole Foods bag,” says Sugihara.

Baggu’s fashion cred can be attributed in part to its crisp graphic identity and its amazingly varied color palette, both of which are heavily influenced by Baggu’s creative director Ellen Van Der Laan, a RISD grad and childhood friend of Sugihara’s who came on board soon after Baggu’s launch. Sight Unseen recently sat down with Sugihara and Van Der Laan in Baggu’s sunny Williamsburg storefront studio to find out more.

Baggu’s team now works out of large, sunlit studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, but when the brand began it was more of a family affair. “To order bags from China, you have to order a lot,” says Sugihara. “It’s not like you can get 100 bags. It was suddenly like, ‘Okay, we have to order 40,000 bags.’ We put them in my parents’ garage and my 15-year-old brother did fulfillment. We got really lucky and had almost a full-page editorial in Teen Vogue before we launched, so we enabled our website to take pre-orders. The factory rushed those to my teeny tiny apartment in Brooklyn Heights, and I stayed up for three days packing and shipping orders to get them out.”

From the beginning, Sugihara and her mother designed with production in mind, simplifying each prototype to make it easier to sew and to use materials more efficiently. “I wanted to make the bag out of one piece of fabric because seams are where bags blow out,” says Sugihara. The pouch each nylon Baggu folds into completes the waste-free cycle: It’s made from the extra fabric that falls away with the “neckline” cutout of each bag.

“Whenever we’re designing something, we think about what we as young, fashion-conscious people like, and then we think, ‘How would our moms see this?’ We want to make stuff that people our age will think is fashion-forward but won’t alienate others,” says Sugihara. “I think our mission all along was to be the bag you could feel good about pulling out. It’s an awkward interaction, the first time you use a reusable bag, but after you’ve done it once it’s second nature.” Baggu’s new nylon daypacks (top) and Shabd backpacks (bottom), though, have a bit less of a learning curve.

The new nylon daypacks, which will be released June 1, are similar to Baggu’s canvas backpacks, except that the daypacks can fold into themselves, basically reversing into their own pockets. They’re also water resistant, smaller, and much lighter than the canvas backpacks. Shown here is new custom hardware for the daypacks, which Baggu commissioned in matching colors with the Baggu logo rather than using off-the-shelf black parts.

Baggu’s first collaboration was with the New York–based fashion label No. 6. “I was skeptical and giving them a hard time when they called because I didn’t know who they were,” says Sugihara. “I’m not that cool.” The collaboration yielded a series of bags with prints that included constellations and leopard spots, inspired by a trip through the label’s vintage print archive. Shown here is a small inspiration board Van Der Laan developed with the No. 6 designers.

When Baggu first began collaborating with Shabd, the bags were hand-dyed — a beautiful but ultimately unsustainable process. “She could only make about 10 per day,” says Sugihara. Now the bags are shipped blank from China and sent to an industrial dye house in Los Angeles, where Shabd worked to teach the factory her process. Because they’re the result of a two-part manufacturing process, the bags are a bit more expensive than Baggu’s typical offerings ($58).

From the beginning, the nylon Baggu’s shape was based on the classic plastic grocery bag, but these original prototypes, says Sugihara, had way too many seams. Besides, of the yellow one, she says: “I think it’s kind of ugly.”

“A couple of years ago, we were looking for different materials to use,” says Sugihara, “and we made one in Tyvek. But it turned out not to be as durable as we expected, even though it’s cool looking. You can’t wash Tyvek the way you can wash nylon, and there ended up being a big difference between the apparent value and what we’d actually have to charge for this kind of bag.”

Depending on sales and trends, Baggu releases new colors and discontinues old ones. When the bag first debuted, the team came up with a palette of 8 colors — both subdued neutrals and saturated poppy tones — but they all sold so well that Baggu eventually branched out up and down the Pantone spectrum.

“Each bag needs to be a good color, but they also need to look good together,” says Sugihara. “At one point we had almost 50 colors, a lot of puke greens and yellows that weren’t selling very well. We’ve since pared down to about 30 colors.”

“Golden Topaz bombed abominably. Any muddy color doesn’t do well for us. Black does really well, and our top nylon color is red. I love looking at color data and seeing how it changes, but we’ve also just learned to trust our gut.”

An archive of every nylon Baggu ever produced. “We try to keep the colors somewhat generic so they can be interpreted in any way,” says Van Der Laan. “If you’re into fashion, and you want a crazy color combination, we have that. If you’re a dude and you want three black bags, there’s that too.”

Inspiration for both colors and prints comes from everywhere; on wholesale manager Pia Howell’s desk, I found this assemblage, which may or may not be used as fodder for future prints.

A fabric sample Sugihara and her mother picked up on a trip to Japan later became the basis for a best-selling print. Baggus in general are big in Japan; the name is Japanese for bag. “Greenbags was taken,” Sugihara laughs. “Eco Bags was also on the table. But Baggu seemed the least embarrassing when we weren’t yet a real company, when you had to call someone up and say, ‘Hi, I’m calling from Baggu.’ Plus, it’s a good-looking word and it’s easy to remember.”

Other prints include nautical stripes, an abstract flower print, and these elephants, which were drawn by Van Der Laan.

An alpaca Baggu is forthcoming this August.

Inspirational clippings, along with possible future patterns, arrive in the mail from Sugihara’s mom on a regular basis. “We did the original nylon bag for about a year, and when we wanted to expand, my mom mailed us a duck bag that was very close to the thing we ended up producing. At this point, she’s the shape designer, Ellen is graphics, and I’m the business person who figures out how to mass produce everything, but we all overlap.”

The architecture of Luis Barragán provided color inspiration for the spring/summer canvas bags, which range from teal to coral to gray.

The new canvas backpacks for spring will launch this May and will be for sale in the first-ever Sight Unseen Pop-Up Shop, which opens Friday, May 13, at the American Design Building at 45 Great Jones in New York. On Saturday, May 14, a Baggu artist will be on hand, customizing bags with hand-painted initials. Please stop by!