San Francisco Designer Connects Bikes and Fashion With Utility Bags

bike_bag_woman.jpgPhoto: Noah Berger for the New York Times
San Francisco designer Lisa Marie Grillos has been on an unexpected journey since she lost her job as a production manager at Williams Sonoma this January, one which took her from frustration and dismay scouring Craigslist and other job sites to having her face splashed across the business page of the New York Times.

The article in the Times Saturday highlights Grillos' journey as an example of what it calls "accidental entrepreneurs," or entrepreneurs that have turned to their current vocation as a result of losing their jobs or their incomes because of the "Great Recession." Grillos' entrepreneurial spark? Connecting fashion with a simple bicycle amenity, the frame-mounted utility bag.

Frame-mounted bags tend to be black canvas and forgettable, something even bike thieves rarely steal. They are usually utilitarian and simple, an extra pocket to keep bike tools and a spare tube, hardly something to look at once, let alone give a double-take.

Now Grillos is trying to change the profile and at a cost that is approximate to the less-fashionable counterparts.

"I think if anybody told you that parts of bicycling isn't about fashion, they'd be lying," said Grillos. "People love to trick out their bicycles."

Grillos and her brother, Hernan Berangan, who lives in Santa Monica, started Hambone Designs after Hernan proposed the idea. The family had a tradition of crafting and gifting only hand-made presents for the holidays, explained Grillos, so the jump to fabricating bags was not difficult. She had taken a sewing class at the now defunct Stitch Lounge, where she learned her way around a sewing machine.

Asked whether she had ever expected to call herself a "designer," Grillos laughed and exclaimed, "Never!"

While the bags come in a few sizes and colors, the concept is quite simple, with two variations on a theme. The bags snap over the down tube and the top tube of a bicycle, and are easy to remove for carrying around after locking up the bicycle. The Balzac, the women's version of the bag, comes with a small purse strap so that it can be worn as an accessory. The Velopocket doesn't have straps, but Grillos said the down tube loop can easily be snapped onto a belt and makes for a simple hanging pouch, not unlike a fanny pack.

Right now Grillos fabricates the cloth bags in a sewing studio in her home and Barangan makes the leather ones in his. Grillos said the spike in publicity has exhausted their stock and has them considering larger-scale manufacturing. She says they don't want to source to another country and would prefer to stay local to California, if the price point is right. While they currently sell their wares on Etsy.com and at craft fairs, she has spoken with some larger bag makers about subcontracting, but still with no takers. She is also considering approaching local bike shops for distribution.

A long-time member of the SFBC, Grillos intends to donate several bags for the annual Winterfest fundraiser and party. She wasn't certain what the future would hold, but she was confident that the market for her bags was solid and growing.

"I think bicycles are really hot right now," said Grillos. "People are realizing with global warming and the price of gas, bicycles are just cool."