So many new brands appear every season. You click the links and scroll through the look books, the collections, the shop buys. Sure, some of it’s cool. But often you find yourself thinking, “Do we really need more of this shit?” More buttondowns and chinos and hoodies and jeans and whatever else? Probably not. Then you come across a brand that’s actually worth a second look. Topo Designs is one of those brands.
If you haven’t heard of them yet, you’ll almost certainly be hearing a lot about them soon. The Colorado-based brand is currently offering a small collection of bags, four styles, that combine the smart functionality of outdoors equipment, with fresh, retro-inspired designs. We caught up with Mark Hansen one of Topo’s three partners, to hear where they’re coming from. Read on and click the images above for our exclusive look, Inside the Design Studio: Mark Hansen of Topo Design.
Tell me about some of your professional or personal experience that led you and your partners into this venture.
We grew up along the mountains in Colorado and Wyoming and I spent quite a while in Northern California and Oregon. We have pretty varied backgrounds in our careers prior to this but they've revolved around product design and operations. So it's a pretty natural fit to turn that toward bags - and we really love being in the process all the way to a finished product.
How long have you been working on Topo? What’s it been like to get the brand started and out there?
We could say we've been working on it all our lives and it wouldn't be much of a stretch, we just didn't know it until about four years ago. That's when the idea sharing, the endless talking, instant messaging, really started to happen. It wasn't until two years after that, after a particularly amazing powder day at Winter Park that we really decided to get serious about it.
That meant buying sewing machines, prototyping, sourcing, learning the whole way through. We've been really excited and humbled—everyone says humbled, screw that, flattered! by the response we've had so far as we've worked to get the brand out there. There's a great community out there in the internets that really seem to get what we're trying to do and it's great how supportive a virtual community like that can be.
Why did you decide to focus on bags?
We settled on bags pretty quickly because we all have a serious bag fetish, so it's just a natural way to live that out. I think most people find the more "into" something they get, the more they get to a spot where they want to customize that thing, you get where you can't find exactly what you want, so we turned to making it.
Where did the name come from?
The name is based on topographic maps—that logo makes more sense now, right? We really want to embody that outdoor western spirit - and the idea of grabbing a topographic map, compass and heading into the wild is something that not only appeals to us, but that we've spent a fair amount of time doing. Topo maps are near and dear to us so it seemed a good fit.
What are some of your influences for design and how do you incorporate them into your process?
Definitely inspired by vintage outdoors. We were all fortunate to have family and friends willing to get us out in the wild at an early age so our formative memories of their gear, the simple nylon packs, worsted wool hats, lug soled leather hiking boots all stick in our minds. Our influences range all over the map, mountain culture, roof racks, hacky sacks, old Subaru's with stickers plastered all over their back windows—the mountainous west.
What interests you about modern design and trends? And how do you respond to what you see out there in the market today?
We really want to avoid the trap of making things that are so retro or simple that they don't learn from all the amazing innovations that have come along the way, so we definitely pay attention to what's happening in modern outdoor gear. We also really love how the Japanese respond to Americana and put their own twist on it. In many ways, we’re reflecting a lot of that back into our designs—they tend to really get wild on details and it's both fun and inspiring.
Streetwear is always a great melting pot of culture, style, youth and function so it can be a great place to look for influence and what's on the radar. It also has a great tension being serious as a heart attack and totally self-deprecating at the same time.
What are some specific details or design elements that most excite you in Topo bags? What’s most important to you in designing a piece?
We all agree that the bag really has to work, not just look good. That's really easy to say, but a lot harder to do, especially when trying to keep a product as simple as possible. We have a nice tension of design, function, and reality that keeps us focus during the design process. As a small company we're fairly limited to what hardware, fabrics, etc. we can buy. Larger companies can have basically anything custom made. We actually enjoy the challenge of finding great design solutions from off-the-shelf fabrics and hardware.
Looking forward, what do you see in the future for Topo?
Keep an eye out for our ventures into outerwear and apparel as well as finalizing more bags for next season. We do plan to expand when it makes sense. We have a pretty firm vision of where we'd like to go and the kind of impact we feel we can make and what we can add to the many great outdoor products out there - so the four bags you see now, won't be all you'll see from us. Stay tuned.