Today, Larson approaches the design process by talking with messengers in other cities, whom he reaches via social media and traditional word-of-mouth advertising. They request custom color options and original art—everything from Homer Simpson to Darth Vader—and they describe their unique needs, helping Larson dream up modifications that may lighten their loads. Rarely doing so much as even sketching a design, Larson relies on his imagination and experience to determine how to cut and shape the fabric, and where to place pockets, straps, fasteners, and other features. “It’s a challenge,” he says, “to work purely mentally, to picture how the finished, three-dimensional product will look when it’s first laid out flat.”
Though this process was difficult in the beginning, Larson now knows to some extent what works. “I start with what it needs to hold, and basically design around that.”
When he decided to build the Monster, for example—an 8,000-cubic-inch bag meant for transporting food—Larson gathered some pizza boxes and catering trays so he could build the bag around objects of those sizes. He reinforced the bag with a corrugated plastic shell and separate compartments for multiple orders, allowing messengers to carry more without crushing their customers’ sandwiches and donuts. “You still can’t e-mail food to people, or fax it,” Larson says, “so presentation really matters, especially when you’re working for tips.”
Like the design process, over the years sewing has also become less tiresome for Larson. “There wasn’t any eureka moment one day,” he says, “but you make those incremental improvements over time.” He appreciates the craft more now, too. “Sewing leads to a deeper appreciation of clothes and how things are made, which you can’t un-appreciate. You look at an object and start thinking about what went into making it; that sometimes can be a blessing and a curse.”
Larson and his team now offer a variety of designs, all of them informed by a desire to better serve the user and their cargo. A clever marketer, Larson gives the bags playful names like Dumpster, Landfill, Garbage Fire, and Trash Compactor. “Initially it was just a joke,” he says of his naming convention, “because messenger bags were meant for hauling your junk around.” Now, however, he appreciates the irony. “We make things that are long-lived, durable, and not throw-away items, so why not call them ‘trash’?” Turning serious, he adds, “I mean, what’s a good garbage reference that, at some point, doesn’t remind you to be socially conscious?”
Though he’s no longer making deliveries, Larson appreciates the cycling community’s pro-environment streak. For starters, he rides to work most days on a Bridgestone bike he freed from a snowbank in 2005, and he drives an old 1990 Toyota Camry wagon, which belonged to his grandmother, only when necessary. Additionally, he travels annually to support the Cycle Messenger World Championships.
The championships draw up to 300 participants and feature events like bike polo, sprints, and a closed-course contest in which messengers race to successfully complete up to 100 pickups and drop-offs. Having competed and placed among the top finishers in previous years, Larson will attend this year’s championships in Paris as a sponsor. In fact, Trash Messenger Bags will be among the prizes awarded to winning riders.
Looking to the future, Larson says he has no plans to make Trash Messenger Bags a giant company. “I get e-mailed by Chinese factories offering to make my bags for me, but I don’t want to do that,” he says. He would prefer instead to maintain his brand’s integrity and keep managing the business himself, learning as he goes and responding to the needs of his customers as they come up.
To that end, Larson grabs a handful of bright orange material—trimmed from a road sign someone brought into his shop—and starts in on a set of phone holsters for a courier in Finland. He works quickly without a tape measure and begins sewing up some Velcro straps and belt loops, his hands following a pattern they know by heart.
“If you’re stubborn enough,” he says, “you can learn how to do almost anything.”
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