By Chloe Dalby and Anne Stericker.
“Love what you do, love what you make, and make it to perfection.” — Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs may have said it, but L.A.-based design and manufacturing company KILLSPENCER lives it thanks to founder Spencer Nikosey. KILLSPENCER specializes in backpacks, messenger bags, weekender bags, and accessories, all designed and manufactured in their downtown L.A. workshop. From their materials (everything from leather, wax coated cotton, and wood to repurposed military spec fabric) to their employees (9 full-timers), KILLSPENCER is dedicated to creating not only the most innovative, sustainable, highly-crafted goods possible, but also in fostering a community of makers who love what they do and love what they make. And, well, if perfection is possible, these guys are getting pretty damn close.
How did you get the name KILLSPENCER? Someone wrote it on the wall at my school, and I thought “what the hell, who would write that?” I didn’t know if it was my ex-girlfriend or a friend trying to mess with me. It was pretty powerful, and I wanted to use it and turn it into something positive. I always wanted to start a company but could never figure out a name, so I bought and trademarked killspencer.com.
What was the idea behind starting this business? I was in school and I wanted to carry all my stuff (laptop, computer cables, books,) in a waterproof and sustainable backpack, but there was nothing on the market with the quality or the details that I needed. Around that same time I visited a military museum and noticed a military truck tarp in one of the exhibits. I immediately knew that I needed to make a backpack out of that material; it had this nostalgic feeling, it went through battle, protected people, and was very high-tech. I asked the curator of the museum how to get access to it, and ended up with a huge 18-foot military truck tarp, took it home, and started cutting it up.
I told my mentor that I wanted to learn how to make a backpack but that I’d rather just design it and give it to someone else to create. He told me that he wouldn’t teach me unless I bought a sewing machine… so I bit the bullet and invested $1,500 in something I had never tried before and made the backpack the next day.
Who was your mentor? His name is Bobby Chang and he is the cofounder of the bag company Incase.
How were you introduced to Bobby? I was studying industrial design at the Art Center College of Design and one of my teachers put us in touch. Bobby helped me take that initial leap in buying the sewing machine; I had the drive to make something unique, but his guidance and mentorship really helped me take that risk. Despite it being a big chunk of my savings it turned out to be a powerful tool.
When you outsource manufacturing, you hire pattern makers and seamstresses, people who source material as well as material specialists. But I had to perform all of those functions myself. By understanding every part of the process I was able to choose which aspects I was most interested in.
I’m curious about what was involved in learning how to use your sewing machine. At first I didn’t even know how to thread the thread, so I spent a lot of time reading the manual. I also watched a lot of YouTube videos and visited local factories in downtown LA. That’s how I learned how to sew, and I haven’t sewn my finger once! I’ve broken a lot of needles and have had a lot of close calls but I haven’t hurt myself yet.
So you’re self-taught. Yes, I’m self-taught but I’ve also learned from some amazing people and I work with extremely talented craftsman. We learn from each other every day.
What is your design vision? The vision behind all of my designs is to make something that is both functional and innovative. I am really interested in researching new materials, new manufacturing processes, and methods for combining things that aren’t typically used in the bag industry.
When I first started I was interested in finding the highest-performing fabrics. From that initial contact with the military museum I was able to meet people with long military traditions in their families, and suddenly I had access to vintage materials that had been sitting in warehouses for 50 or 60 years. I spent a lot of time discovering them and adding new military spec parts, like patented buckles and waterproof zippers, to my bags. I started making bags that looked classic on the outside and were also very functional on the inside.
What is are the first products that KILLSPENCER started making? We started off making a weekender bag, a business messenger bag, and a special ops backpack.
What other products do you make in addition to those things now? We’ve actually taken those bags and done multiple iterations. After using a product and really spending time with it, the design features that make the product useful become more obvious. Now we basically have everything you might need for work or leisure, as well as for typical weekend travel: everything from bags to iPad cases, briefcases, and a doppfolio, which is a dopp kit for your toiletries that folds flat into a folio for iPads or magazines.
We also have products for the iPhone, including a model with a card carrier. We had to develop new manufacturing and mechanical processes, and we have our first patent pending on it. It’s very exciting. There’s a piece on the inside that can hold multiple credit cards, which is actually pretty difficult to design.
Who are your design gods, the people you look up to? I spend a lot of time researching Steve Jobs; he changed the world with what he created and refined over the years. I’ve read every book I’ve found on him and his company. I have so much respect for Apple’s creative goal: to make the best products possible. That inspires me.
When it comes down to it, the only thing that matters is the customers’ experience with your product. I want our customers to feel and experience the high quality and handcraft of what we do. Our shop exposes the whole process, so you can see the people who are designing, creating, and shipping your products. Our team is dedicated to making a small amount of very highly-crafted goods. We want to push that vision as far as we can while still maintaining our integrity.
Tell me a story about your fantasy customer. We actually have a bunch of “fantasy customers” right now. They just say, “here’s our credit card, just bill us and send us your new stuff.” Those are the real fans. We really appreciate their trust in us, so we always throw in a bunch of extra special things with those orders. The best customers are the ones that give us feedback and push us to make better products. It’s not just about dollars and cents, it’s also about creating something that people are proud to wear. When someone comes down to our shop and sees all the hard work that we do, and then uses our products, it just feels amazing.
What are the characteristics of your ideal customer? The people who buy our products don’t want what everyone else has. There are a lot of people in creative industries — architects, doctors, designers, filmmakers, — who buy our products. Our ideal customer is a person that is aware of materials, appreciates details and who looks for things made in the USA.
It seems most of your products are sort of masculine. Any plans to design something that is a little more geared toward women? We have been getting a lot of requests from women to make bags for them, since a lot of the bags we make are more obviously masculine (harder edges and lines). I’ve been getting feedback from my women friends about what they carry and thinking about how to work those in.
Do you also do any of the assembly when you first do a prototype? Every product starts as a sketch in my sketchbook and then, with the help of a bunch of assistants, I quickly sew a material prototype. Then I hand that prototype over to my team of craftsman and they help take that prototype to its finished form. I’m not the best sewer, but I can come up with the idea of what I want and those guys refine it. We’re like a unit. Over time we’ve been able to develop products very quickly from start to finish.
So everything you sell is made here in this workshop? Everything is designed, developed, manufactured and shipped from this downtown Los Angeles workshop.
Why are most bags so unsatisfying (except yours of course)? What’s the best bag you own that you didn’t make? I took a research trip to China to visit a bunch of factories, and when I saw how some of biggest companies (and some smaller companies, too,) in the world make bags, it made me realize that I never want to make products overseas. The conditions are sub-par, and there’s nothing unusual about the product. Our shop and our products have integrity all the way through, and we treat everything we do with love and respect. That’s something that those factories can’t beat.
Our products are designed to fit the essentials; everything has its place. If you figure out how to carry the top three essentials —computer, wallet and phone — in a concise area, then everything else follows. Extra space, for sweatshirts or books, is important too, and needs to be built in. Most bags are way too detailed. For that reason I think one of the best bags I’ve ever owned was a Jansport bag I had while growing up. Sometimes you just need something super simple.
What is your favorite material? My favorite material is the repurposed military truck tarp we get from the American Military Museum. It’s difficult to get access to it and it’s only available in limited quantities, but I love it.
If you were going to have someone play you in a movie who would it be? I think Ryan Gosling would be good.
What kind of movie would it be? It would somehow be a fusion of science, technology, and art.
What’s next? Ultimately . . . I want to build a community that’s a curated group of the best, most talented artists, designers, filmmakers, engineers, doctors, and scientists all working as a team to develop products that haven’t been made before.