Before Marie Thompson graduated from Massachusetts College of Art and Design in 2015, the 25-year-old Bath, Maine native, who began sewing totes at age 9, learned of a business opportunity from a faculty member who was renting studio space in a Charlestown factory called Textile Buff & Wheel LLC. The factory, founded by the Wise family, had been making canvas tool bags for telecommunications utility workers since 1928, along with industrial wiping cloths and buffing wheels.
After endless requests to produce a canvas bag for the retail market, Jerry Wise and his son Andy, decided to take the plunge, aware they already had the equipment and staff needed to produce it. At the faculty member’s suggestion, they met and eventually hired Thompson, who, as lead product designer and project manager, came up with the Boston Bag Co. name, logo, and snazzy line of totes and weekenders suited to the modern Bostonian.
Amidst rolls of canvas and sewing machines on the factory’s fourth floor, Thompson tells us how she brought the brand to life and where she would love to travel with her bag. (This interview has been edited and condensed.)
Q. What kinds of bags do you make?
A. Under the Boston Bag Co. brand, we have two types of bags. The first is simply a dressed up version of the original telephone bag, basically a plain canvas tote. [Sells for $75 on the website.] Then there is the Revival Series, which is based on one design for the ivory body but with trimmings in three colors: Maple Whiskey (a warm brown bottom with pale brown side pocket); Bunker Hill Brick (a tawny-brown bottom with darker brown side pocket); and Field Grass (a dark green bottom with darker brown side pocket). The bags can expand from 10-inches high to 14-inches high, have a hand-stitched leather grip, an adjustable leather shoulder strap with a swivel hook, a leather closure tab and antique brass rivets. The cow’s leather is from Maine and the brass rivets come from “The Buckle Guy” in Charlestown. [They start at $205 on the website.]
Q. What inspired the Revival Series design?
A. When Andy [Wise] and I talked about the essence of the bag, he wanted it to be like your grandfather’s tool bag in terms of the ruggedness, longevity, and timelessness of style. So this first line emotes the feel and heritage of the company — the late ’20s and early ’30s, natural undyed canvas and muted colors, and having a classic American feel.
Q. Typical client?
A. In industrial design we do this thing called an Inspirational User, which is not the person we really sell to, but the imaginary person people want to be when they see the brand. So for us, it’s someone who is either male or female, in their 30s, going on lots of adventures, who wants a beautiful, no-nonsense product with a classic, simple style.
Q. A good bag should have . . .
A. Stories. It should tell how it’s been worn and not be something that is trendy or made in China. Clients say these bags are like their sidekick. They use it for work, the gym, and as a weekender bag.
Q. Favorite travel spot?
A. There is nothing like the rocky coast of Maine — the trees, the quiet, the ocean. I grew up on a sailboat essentially, and Maine is like going home.
Q. Dream destination?
A. Europe, specifically Vienna. My boyfriend went to high school there and I’ve heard a lot about it. I love cities that have a lot of history and old architecture — that’s why I love Boston.
Q. Who would you love to carry your bags?
A. J. Crew! Their aesthetic is right on point with ours.
Q. Where are the bags available?
A. We sell them on our website and in seven stores around New England and one in Indiana. We’re expanding to the northwest and have several distributors in Japan. The whole Americana concept is huge in Japan.
Q. Future plans for the Revival Series?
A. We want to do different color palettes, like light oranges, blues, greens, although we’ll never go very vibrant. I also want to do a smaller bag, more in line with a purse or a shoulder bag. I have little zippered pouch in the works — a fun little add-on that you can put in your bag or use to organize things in the inside.
Q. Biggest challenge you’re facing?
A. I am trying to create more designs so people have something new to look at but also pour my time into marketing and PR, since I do everything myself.
Q. Best advice you’ve ever received?
A. “Everything happens for a reason.” It’s the idea that even if something feels bad in the moment, it’s navigating you down the right path.
Q. Who said that?
A. My mom.