It starts with photographs. They're set in a storybook West — mostly in the back country of Colorado and Wyoming, but Mount Rushmore pops up as well. They're populated by little girls in pigtails whose noses are scrunched either because of the sun hitting their eyes, or their little brothers poking them. The trophies are sparkling fish. The men sport un-ironic lumberjack beards. There's even a tipi. The photos have that combination of saturated color with a washed-out background that comes from real film; some of them even have the cream-colored, quilted edge of a Polaroid. This is the stuff Instagram aspires to be.
Those are family photos posted to MenandWomenofIndustry.com, the blog that friends Jedd Rose, Erik Gore and Mark Hansen created in 2004 as a catch-all for their love of$200 convertible shorts-to-pants, $300 winter coats made from recyclable materials and $13,000 pop-up camping trailers. "We have early memories of camping as kids and our parents' gear," co-founder Hansen says. "We were really nostalgic for that really simple gear."
And so in 2008, the friends created Topo Designs, a Louisville-based outdoor brand that makes bags that don't have iPhone holders on the side or slits up top for a Camelbak Reservoir.
While they were initially going for simplicity and not necessarily a retro look, what they ended up with were six bags that look a lot like what their parents would have grabbed for a weekend in the woods. There are leather lash tabs, matte cloth exteriors and simple zippers. Most of them are available in black, olive, gray, khaki or camo.
Not that they're entirely lacking in technology. The backpacks, priced from $29 to $139, are fully lined and water-resistant, and the lining is brightly colored so it's easy to find things — even without those fifteen or so dedicated side pockets. And the Louisville facility where six full-time workers create the bags is an LEED-certified building.
Hansen describes himself as someone who loves the wilderness but also works in the city on weekdays. And first and foremost, the designs have to work for the partners. "Sometimes you want a bag you can use in town and on a day hike," Hansen says.
He compares Topo's bags to an Apple computer — without all the bell and whistles, but with all the essentials and sleek to look at. People are living in smaller houses and realizing they don't need as much, he points out: "Why can't we have something that's simpler and look good and just work?"
And the industry has responded: The company has gotten mentions in the New York Times's T Magazine, Complex and Conde Nast's Concierge.com. Topo Design's bags are sold at I Heart Denver and will be in Fancy Tiger come early November.
"We like to think of it as realistic outdoors," Hansen says.