KILLSPENCER: Designing Bags “Proudly Handcrafted in Los Angeles”

Written by

KILLSPENCER is a Silver Lake-based leather goods company. DnA spoke to the founder, Spencer Nikosey, about starting his company from scratch.

Spencer Nikosey is the founder of KILLSPENCER, a Silver Lake-based leather goods company that designs, manufactures and ships an array of handmade products including backpacks, weekender bags, hats, camera straps— and most recently basketball hoops—all in a leather workshop located in the back of his store. Founded shortly after Spencer graduated from Art Center College of Design in 2008, the company’s initial mission was to create “the perfect sustainable and waterproof backpack.” Now he says his mission is to expand into other areas of interest which include architecture, music and sports. “I want to be able to create a complete a lifestyle where I don’t want anyone telling me no when it comes to being creative,” he said.

DnA’s Carren Jao, drawn to what she saw as a “special aesthetic” in Nikosey’s designs, spoke with him about how his quest for the perfect backpack made him learn to sew, where the name came from and why it’s so important to him to produce his line locally. 

DnA: What kind of products do you guys sell and what makes them so special?

Spencer Nikosey: We sell a range of travel products, bags and cases and things that are related to carrying goods. We have backpacks, messenger bags, weekender bags, iPhone cases—everything leather accessory related. We have a factory here in the store, we have sewing machines, a laser cutter, heat presses, all types of kick presses and lots of hand-sewing tools that allow us to make the product from start to finish.

Photo by Dunja Dumansk (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

DnA: Could you describe what your products look like or what you would like people to kind of see in your product?

SN: Most of our products that we make now are made out of leather and canvas. So it’s something that’s very simple and basic-looking, but when you look at it, there’s a lot of detail that goes into all of the design features: the way in which the bags open and close, the pockets on the inside are very controlled—not too many pockets but just enough to make your travel experience easy.

DnA: How did you come up with the name KILLSPENCER?

SN: I was a student at Art Center college and our department chair said to our whole class, “What’s that?” Everyone turned around and it said “KILLSPENCER” written in big, red letters all-caps like on the back concrete wall. I was like, “What the hell?” So I didn’t know who did it at the time. I didn’t know if  it was a friend of mine messing with me or an ex-girlfriend, but it was a very powerful sentiment and it had so much power that it hit me and I always wanted to start a company and up ’til that moment could never figure out a name. So I bought the domain, and then I trademarked it internationally and domestically, and so now we own the name.

DnA: You also have a memorable launch story. Tell us about that. 

SN: So I studied industrial design in college, and typically, when you finish and graduate, the school wants you to showcase the work that you’ve done throughout your entire education, and I did a lot of projects, and I was unhappy with the quality of my work because it was always getting better. Your most recent project is always your best. So instead of showing any of my old work, I decided to launch a collection of bags at my senior show and prior to this that really hadn’t been done before. We made a film and did a whole photoshoot. I made an entire collection of products, made business cards, the whole thing. As soon as that came out, literally a month later when we launched the website, we just got a ton of sales and it just took off.

DnA: What was going through your head when you did this? Did you ever think: “Wow, this is a crazy idea. It’s bound to fail?” 

SN: Of course, I remember the department chair at the time. He wasn’t super supportive of the idea of me just focusing on one thing, so one of the other department chairs, Nik Hafermaas from the graphic design department told me, “You gotta go for it.” He gave me help with resources and connections with different people to encourage me to take a risk. I invested all the money that I had saved up into it,  and I thought, “Alright. I’ve got nothing to lose. I can either do this or go work for a company.” And I wanted to do my own thing, I always have.

Photo by Dunja Dumansk (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

DnA: Why did you decide to focus first on bags? What was the impetus for that first product?

SN: I wanted to carry my laptop, and I wanted to carry my laptop in a waterproof and sustainable backpack that was minimal and simple, and at the time I couldn’t find anything on the market that I would be proud to wear. So I got in touch with the owner of a company called Incase, and said, “Hey, I want to make a backpack. What do I do?” And this guy Bobby Chang, he was the coolest… he was like my first mentor, the first person that really took an hour and a half once a month and just helped me and gave me ideas and ways to think about things that were different.

Bobby basically said, “Buy a sewing machine.” I was like, “Nahhh… I’m a designer, I don’t want to sew. I’m just going to design it and give it to someone else and have them do all of the work.” “Well I’m not going to teach you unless you buy a sewing machine and do it yourself and figure it out,” he said. So I said “Okay,” and I went out and spent like $1,500 on bought a Juki industrial walking foot sewing machine, and it came to my house, and I had never sewn once in my life. I didn’t even know how to thread the thread through the bob or anything so at that point I was like “Oh God I really gotta figure this out.” I opened the manual, opened the online tutorials and two-days later I made my first backpack. Myself.

Fast forward maybe a year and a half later, when I had all the products finished in my grad show, everything, when I first launched, was designed perfectly to my needs, functionally, and also to my aesthetic needs. And it was cool because we were using materials that had been used in combat like repurposed military truck tarp that I got from a military museum up in Rosemead. And I was getting vintage military canvases from military surplus connections that had made through the museum. And I was able to source amazing buckles and hardware from patented buckles from Austria that are used for airplane harnesses and waterproof zippers from Switzerland. I was basically getting into getting the best parts and pieces from across the world, and not really worrying about price. I was just making the best product that I possibly could.

Screen Shot 2014-11-13 at 9.57.37 AM

DnA: Do you still use those military type of materials even in your products today? How does that filter down to what we can see in the retail workshop today?

SN: Yeah, we still use these buckles that are patented and used for jumping out of airplanes essentially. We reuse zippers, which are made in Switzerland. They’re basically the highest quality zipper that you can get on the market. We use a lot of waterproof zippers that are used in the military, a lot of military-spec webbing, stuff that’s like 4,000-pound test or 1500-pound test… stuff that doesn’t look super strong but it’s very robust. So it’s like trying to find the right assortment of things, minimalistic, that are classy, that have kind-of-like a military functional aesthetic built into it with subtle details.

DnA: You said that you had always wanted to start your own business. When did you realize that you were a born entrepreneur?

S: I think my first company was a skateboard company in middle school. I screwed webbing onto my skateboard, and I was able to skateboard down the street like how you’d be connected to a snowboard. And I sold those to my friends for like $35, and I was able to do things with a skateboard that you couldn’t do without that product. I was always making things and inventing things like building skateboard ramps and painting on skateboards. I played music so when I was in bands in high school, I was the one who was making the t-shirts, and doing the album artwork, and booking the shows, and making the posters. And then when I got into college, I went to college originally in San Francisco for graphic design, and when I discovered the model shop, I learned how to actually make something 3-D. I learned how to weld, and make stuff out of metal. So the first thing that I did was design a skateboard brake, cause I had to carry all my stuff with me from my dorm in Oakland, on the BART, and then skateboard on those crazy streets in San Francisco with all of my art supplies, so I invented a brake and made it so that I could go straight down the hill as fast as possible and then push this brake, and then I could just slow down without having to power slide or do anything to stop properly. And it was at that point, I was like, “Aw man, I love the idea of making something.” Especially something that solves a problem, cause it’s a real challenge of material… of being able to bring certain pieces together to solve a problem that’s bigger than what you can do than just what’s on the market.

Photo by Dunja Dumansk (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

DnA: So being a designer and being a businessman are two separate things normally. What was the biggest challenge of combining these two roles?

SN: It still is a challenge. I’m basically setting up a platform which will allow me to design all day long. Right now, I have to focus a lot of my energy designing. And then focus a lot of my energy in continually building our factory… making our factory better, buying the best machines, the best tools, the best material, and basically educating the people that work here. These amazing craftsmen and artists and people who love to make things with their hands, I’m basically teaching them how to make what it is that I want to make.  So as a team, it’s a powerful experience, being able to take an idea and make it, and then have someone else take it and make it better than what you can originally do with your own ideas.

DnA: Everything, from start to finish, is done in Los Angeles. How important is that to you?

SN: I’ve been able to be very dedicated to a very specific vision for a long period of time. I haven’t strayed. I just want to make the best bags that we can possibly make. I want to make them here, in our own facility, and control the process from start to finish. I’ve been to factories all over the world. I’ve been to factories all over Los Angeles, and I was able to see that most of these factories are not good enough. A lot of them did not have computers, a lot of them weren’t clean, they didn’t have air conditioning, they were toxic… So now, we have a facility here that has a lot of natural light. It’s a beautiful place to work. I even built a punching bag in the front, so now all of our guys are boxing during their breaks, and getting a release. And now that we’re in Silver Lake, there are all these amazing restaurants, there are these two lakes within a mile from here. So on break, you can ride your bike to the lake or run around the lake. And it’s just the lifestyle associated with our workshop is different. It’s not a factory. It’s like an advanced production facility that’s focused on craft and craftsmanship.

130825 killspencer0007

DnA: I don’t know if I saw it correctly, but does every bag have a tag that says who made it?

SN: Yeah, we have the people who work on each product sign a card that says “Your product is proudly handcrafted in Los Angeles by” the team of guys who made it. Or girls.

DnA: You talked a little about KILLSPENCER’s aesthetic. Can you contextualize that with some of the products that you have?

SN: The first thing that came to mind is, we make a card carrier for your iPhone. I don’t like to carry a lot of stuff in my pocket. I don’t like to carry a wallet. So I was able to figure out a way to make the most minimal structure possible to carry all my credit cards on my phone. And it doesn’t sound like that big of a deal, but it really has changed my way of traveling. When I go out, I don’t need to carry anything with me. So I can go running or wear basketball shorts and basically have everything I need when I go out. It’s very thin. It holds like four cards, and I’m like an iPhone minimalist, so I like to have the phone exposed and the glass exposed because to have anything around, to me, just isn’t cool. And so this product in particular is something that we have registered for two patents on. Just the way it’s built, it’s very smart.

Screen Shot 2014-11-13 at 9.55.04 AM
Photos by James Law (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

DnA: How do you come up with the new products that KILLSPENCER will make?

SN: Because we don’t have to sell to stores, and because we don’t have to sell to trade shows, we’re not really on a clock like everyone else. The way that we do it is we develop a product for as long as it takes to develop it and make it perfect. I’m fascinated by development and being able to make something that hasn’t been done before, to do a process that no one has done, invent something that is atypical or nontraditional. We worked on our new camera bag now for like two and a half years to make it the best product for that item that we could possibly think of.  We launched it as a collaboration with Leica for their Leica-T Launch in April and are now are selling Modular Bags for a discerning collector. And we’ve just launched a high-end indoor mini basketball collection where we make the rim, backboard, leather net, and leather mini basketball from scratch here in LA. Its amazing! Truly my fav project to date.

DnA: You mentioned a vision for KILLSPENCER. What is it?

SN: We’re in phase two now. We built a factory, and we have a store. Now I can make something and sell it, literally within the same day. Or I can come up with an idea, make it, photograph it, and launch it online to the world within the day. It’s a pretty amazing thing. So now, we have this and we’re getting better at it and we’re fine tuning it. We’re going to be here for a while doing this. The whole idea is to be able to apply the same idea to every other part of my life. So I’m into music. I’m into sports. I’m into architecture. I want to get healthier with the way I cook. I want to be able to create a complete a lifestyle where I don’t want anyone telling me no… ever when it comes to being creative. I play the drums. I cannot play the drums where I live right now because the place isn’t sound proof enough. I just need a facility that supports anything that I want to do creatively because sometimes the most amazing, creative ideas come in the most inopportune times. And if you don’t have something that supports that, then you miss the opportunity to have the idea taken fully into its fullest potential.

DnA: What do you think is the most exciting thing about being a maker in Los Angeles now?

SN: There are so many creative people here, it’s amazing. In every realm of creativity. I have friends in studios all over LA that I can just go visit and hang out with. I’m inspired and I’m stimulated. And I’m a part of this community of people who are doing things that are awesome. If you live as an artist and you’re able to take an idea and make it, that’s the hands-down most gratifying… one of the most gratifying feelings or things that you can experience. And to be surrounded by people who are doing that, like… life is good. As long as you’re healthy, you got your family, you got love in your life, you’re not burned out or bogged down by your work… then there’s so much potential.

Find out more about KILLSPENCER here. On December 4-31 the company will host pop-up in a 6,000 square foot space in West LA on 10545 West Pico Blvd. You can purchase KILLSPENCER products online or in his storefront.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.