In Conversation with Emily Sugihara, founder and CEO of Baggu

In 2007 Emily Sugihara, a recent Parsons grad, started a business with her mom, Joan. They began with a simple Ripstop nylon tote based on the constuction of a plastic grocery bag. Ten years later, Emily and her team have moved BAGGU from Brooklyn to San Francisco, grown the company to 40 people across two coasts, collaborated with heavyweights such as Outdoor Voices and J. Crew, and expanded the line to include canvas and leather totes, purses, travel bags and accessories. Known for their clean designs, pop colors and cheeky prints, the bags have garnered a cult following and we’ve been obsessed since day one. We recently caught up with Emily over the phone to talk about all things BAGGU, style and being a new mom.

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BAGGU founder Emily Sugihara with her son, Ko.
BAGGU founder Emily Sugihara with her son, Ko.

 

GARMENTORY: So I wanted to start off just by finding out a little bit more about your day to day. Can you tell me where you are right now and what you’re doing?

EMILY: Yeah, I am in our office in San Francisco in the Dog Patch. I’m working on our target sales for the second half of 2017.

G: Oh cool, spreadsheets?

E: Yeah, I spend a lot of time doing spreadsheets. I really enjoy them. Not sarcastic, this is like one of my favorite parts of my job.

G: Do you mind if I ask you what you’re wearing?

E: Yeah, it’s like absolutely freezing in San Francisco today. Let me look up what the temperature actually is. I lived in New York for almost 10 years and then moved here a few years ago so my ideas about weather are very confused.

G: I bet. It doesn’t take long to kind of acclimatize back to the west coast, though.

E: Oh yeah, totally. Yeah I grew up in San Diego so after leaving San Diego, pretty much everywhere is like a step down in weather…. That’s funny. It’s a low of 41 today and everyone here is losing their shit about how cold it is.

G: Isn’t it usually pretty much the same all year there?

E: Yeah, it’s usually like 60s in the winter so 40s is like…

G: Nobody has clothes for that.

E: We have a high of 54 today. Yeah, well I do because I lived in New York before this, but a lot of people don’t. So, I have shearling clog boots and vintage Levi’s. A size large baggy sweater from Steven Alan and a Lauren Manoogian crazy coat thing.

G: That sounds cozy. Are those boots No. 6 by any chance?

E: They are.

G: The best. So warm.

E: Yeah. I could probably also wear this outfit in much colder weather and still be comfortable, haha.

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G: Is that a daily kind of outfit for you or do you switch it up?

E: I actually think I have more variety in my wardrobe this year than before. Sometimes I go through real uniform phases but I’ve been switching it up a little bit more. I wear Kamm pants a lot. I’m very into the Ilana Kohn denim wide-leg jumpsuits. I have a really good pair of vintage white overalls from The General Store that I’ve been wearing a lot. This summer I was very into culottes but now my ankles are too cold.

G: I hope it gets a little bit warmer. That’s supposed to be a benefit of living in California.

E: Yeah, you’re going to print something about someone in California complaining about it being in the 50s and having to wear shearling boots and the rest of the country’s going to laugh, haha.

G: So I’ve seen pictures of your offices over there and they look so rad. Must be a nice space to work in. (Editor’s note – Click over here to see said space.)

E: Yeah, it’s really pleasant. We have a really great view of downtown. We can see just the tip of both bridges.

G: Oh cool. How many people do you have in that office with you now?

E: I’m counting…. 12.

G: And still in Brooklyn, too?

E: Yeah, in Brooklyn, there’s also three retail stores. I think there are about, with everybody, it’s about 40 people.

G: So tell me about being a CEO. To go from a small startup to a much larger operation, what are you loving about that?

E: The cool thing about getting bigger everyone can kind of specialize more. When we started, it was just my mom and I and then my friend Ellen [van der Laan] who’s our Creative Director, was doing freelance work basically. I was doing kind of the whole business operations side of things. It was like I had everybody’s job. Then, as we grew it was like, oh okay, one other person can help. They can take the half of my job that I feel like I’m worst at and I can hire someone for a skill set that will be good at that.

Then everybody’s job kind of splits and splits and then you end up with a bigger team and these really specialized jobs where you can have production people that are just amazing at doing production. Sales people that are really good at sales. Product designers who are just doing product design, that’s their thing. It’s been cool because you get a higher quality of work out of more focused expertise. I mean, it was a much simpler machine in the early days, haha.

G: It was just one tote, right?

E: Yeah, it was just the standard Baggu in eight colors. Eight skus, one style.

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G: What was it about that first tote that made you guys stand out?

E: We were the only people… there weren’t very many reusable bags at all at that time. This was like 2007 so everyone’s interest and pop culture was just picking up environmental awareness. We were the only company doing something that was both aesthetic and functional and affordable. You could either get not cool reusable bags that were cheap but kind of junky or you could get, like Hermés had a reusable bag, or there were some cool foreign companies making them. But even those were like $30 or $40, which if you need to buy five of them that’s kind of a big investment. I really wanted to do something that was great looking and really affordable.

G: You kind of hit a sweet spot.

E: Yeah. That’s always been part of what we try to bring to our customer. We’re not trying to be the least expensive, but we’re trying to provide you with the best value for your dollar.

G: It sounds like you’ve had that ethos with every product that you launch as well, getting into all the different types of bags, and even leather now.

E: Our leather’s nice. Every year it gets nicer as we get even better at doing it. With leather, it’s just like you pick up both more materials and more expertise. Also, you learn from mistakes.

G: Any stories to share about that?

E: In the beginning we were using these really nude leathers, which are so beautiful but they get dirty really easily. It’s not a bag that will last very long or look good for very long with a normal person carrying it, unless you’re like crazy fussy. They just stain too easily, so we found what we think is a good compromise between hand feel and durability. Now when we do light colored leather, it has a coating on it. You can get it wet and it won’t stain.

G: Tell me about your design process.

E: In the early years it was just like you have and idea and make it and there was no schedule, which was lovely. I felt really strongly that our product line grew in tandem with our customer base. We weren’t in a hurry to release a million products. It’s kind of like you’re doing something and you have an idea of oh, I think I could make this better. Or oh, I want to make this version of this thing we’re making. Once we had a design that we felt really good about, we put it into production. I think now everything’s much more organized. We work in season, sort of. We’re a bigger design team and we’re doing more newness in the line every season. Refreshing prints more often, introducing new body styles.

G: Who do you think about when you think about your customer?

E: That’s something that we talk about a lot. Overall, I think we’re always designing for ourselves. I think you can design the best stuff for yourself because you really deeply understand what it is that you want. We’ve always been a team that is within 34 to 20-something. We’re all on the younger side but not nearly as young as we were when we started. We want to design for ourselves and then we also felt like, how would our moms interpret this product? I think that’s a good check on: is this some weird trend thing that we think is cool and we’re going to be over really fast or is this a good, simple basic thing that’s going to feel relevant for a long time? That’s the kind of thing we’re actually trying to make.

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G: You started the company originally with your mom. Do you get her feedback still?

E: She stepped out of any active involvement about five years ago. She still definitely emails me with ideas. I still love making things with her. I’m not sure she ever expected this to turn into the kind of level of business that it did. In the beginning, when everything was kind of crazy and all hands on deck and whatever, it was the two of us packing boxes late at night. As things got more like there are offices and business hours and you check your email every day, I think that was just like not what she wanted.

G: Was it something that you hoped that it was going to turn into?

E: I think I hoped it was going to turn into that. I don’t know, I was embarrassed to say that out loud because it seemed so outlandish. The idea of actually having a team and an office just seemed like bat crazy.

G: Was there a moment where that clicked for you?

E: No, in a way it’s happened quickly, but it’s also happened really slowly. We’re about to have our 10 year anniversary next year. We’ve been incrementally growing for many, many years. I think the company grows in tandem with me and the core leadership team here, learning how to manage a bigger project. If someone was like – “Here’s a bunch of money. Double the size of the company” – next year, we wouldn’t do it. You have to figure out how all of these pieces fit together in a way that’s efficient and works for everybody. That just takes time.

G: You’ve done some really amazing collaborations.

E: I think collaborations are a fun way for us to try out different design aesthetics and introduce ourselves to a new customer base. The first one we did was No. 6, way back in the day. They actually cold emailed us and I didn’t know who they were. I was like, “What is this?” Ellen was like, “Oh my god. That’s really cool. I can’t believe you don’t know what that is. Make this happen.” They’ve become really good friends. They wanted to do shopping bags in some of their prints. We worked with them to pick a good lineup of prints, which Ellen, she does all of our prints, kind jujjed for them.

G: Do you have any more coming down the pipe?

E: We did a collaboration with lululemon lab that just launched, that are reflective BAGGUs. They wanted us to do the standard BAGGU out of a reflective material. We’ve been working on it for a long time. It took us a while to source the right material. They’re so cool. It looks like just a regular grey bag from up close and then from far away it’s reflective. They photograph amazing.

G: Are you doing anything for your 10-year anniversary?

E: We have all kinds of special stuff going on throughout the year. We did a really crazy 10-year edition of our standard BAGGU. There will be some parties, there will be some events.

G: That’s exciting. That’s such a milestone.

E: Makes me feel old.

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G: I feel like it’s just that time of life, too, where a lot happens.

E: Yeah, no it’s crazy. I have a 16-month old baby, Ko. He’s very much the organizing principal of my life right now.

G: That’s so fun. Lots of change! And with the recent move back to the west coast, truly bi-coastal.

E: I mean, we’re definitely all over. I think our strongest holds are definitely in urban, coastal areas. The blue states buy more reusable bags than the red states, we find. We have a pretty good international business, too. Japan is a really big market for us. Korea, Australia, Hong Kong. That has been a component for us since really early on.

G: Which market is your favorite to visit?

E: I’m very partial to Japan. We lived there when I was a little kid and I have some family there. (Editor’s note – Fun fact: BAGGU is Japanese for bag.) My husband also loves Japan. Although, we haven’t been since the baby was born, but we used to go every year. I feel like we missed our window of non-opinionated baby who’s easy to travel with. Now he has a lot of thoughts about a lot of things he would like to be doing. He’s a busy guy.

G: The toddler tyrant. That’s fun.

E: Yeah, he’s a benevolent dictator. He’s good to us.

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