WHO: Alex Schultz and George Keeler
WHAT: The two Wayland 20-somethings, who grew up playing soccer together, are now producing high-end canvas backpacks with their company George Guest. The backpacks, which sell for $265, are constructed of waxed canvas with leather details. They’re available locally in stores such as Drinkwater’s Cambridge. More recently, their bags have been picked up by stores in Italy and Australia.
Q. How did this all start? Why high-end backpacks?
George: We went to school together in Wayland. Alex went to Vanderbilt. I went to Lehigh. Definitely I’m an inventor. I love to make things and design things. I started out always knowing that I wanted to be in the business field, and then I minored in product design. I actually came up with the idea for the backpack the summer of my sophomore year. I entered a business contest. I wrote up a five-page business plan. I had a physical sample of the backpack at that point, and won the business contest with a $5,000 grant to get me started. We started the company after I graduated in 2009.
Q. Did you have a background in sewing?
George: The first few backpacks were made out of canvas from a cheapo fabric store and duct tape. Once I realized there was an idea there, I borrowed a neighbor’s sewing machine and taught myself how to sew. I’d rip the sample apart and start over until I figured out what I was doing.
Q. It seems backpacks might be an oversaturated market. There are a lot of them out there.
George: Up until recently, the products that we designed have been based on my need for something that wasn’t on the market. I just wanted a different kind of backpack. I couldn’t find what I was looking for, so I designed it because I thought it would be something great for myself to wear around. In time, a lot of people really liked the design. I thought: Hey, there really might be something here.
Q. So you were having a tough time finding a backpack that didn’t look like it was just for kids or hikers?
George: Everything was all nylon. We had just graduated college. We didn’t want this kiddie, sporty backpack, so I thought: Let’s add canvas. Then we added a little leather, so we were transitioning from this high school/college look to this young career look. It’s a shape that you’re familiar with, but it doesn’t look like the others.
Alex: It’s when you don’t want the high school/college stuff, and you’re not quite ready for a briefcase or this $700 Louis Vuitton messenger bag.
Q. With the leather and the canvas, the bags have a very classic, heritage feel about them. Are you worried that the heritage revival trend is a bit too ubiquitous now?
Alex: All these brands are reproducing their old-school designs with a slightly newer twist on them. We don’t see ourselves as heritage. We’re a newer company, and I think our products have this contemporary twist to them.
George: All our products have something different about them. This bag [grabs a bag from his side] converts from a standard briefcase. You can leave the mouth open and it becomes a tote bag.
‘I just wanted a different kind of backpack. I couldn’t find what I was looking for, so I designed it.’George Keeler (right, with Alex Schultz)
Q. Who do you see as the target customer?
Alex: I think it’s people pretty similar to ourselves. People just out of school who are in their 20s and early 30s. Definitely the professional who wants to look good in their day-to-day life, but doesn’t want to sacrifice functionality. A bag might look beautiful and stand out to the crowd, but if you can only fit one thing in there, or if you have to fiddle with all the straps, it doesn’t make sense.
Q. Since the two of you grew up in New England, is there a strong New England influence in the design? Was the canvas inspired by boating?
Alex: [laughing] Well, I wear boat shoes.
George: I love the outdoors. That was a huge inspiration. I’ve been going to Martha’s Vineyard since I was born. You can’t live here and not be inspired by the Cape and Islands.Christopher Muther can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.