Beautiful things are really great, but if they don’t function well, the whole promise is lost.
It wasn’t even the point of the exercise. In fact, it was beside the point. But women kept asking Tracy Dyer the same thing again and again: why don’t big retailers have decent laptop bags?
Dyer was working for an electronics retail giant, conducting focus groups with women about how they would feel having tech installers in their homes. Instead, she was gaining valuable insight about something else entirely. As a member of the company’s innovation group, she took the request to suppliers. “I kept asking them to make better bags for women that were fashionable and functional. They kept coming back with modified diaper bags. They were really into ballistic nylon. They would tell me ‘this bag can withstand a bullet being shot at close range.’ My response was, ‘if you’re getting shot at by a bullet in close range, then you have bigger issues than your laptop.’ So I decided to go about figuring out how to do it, how to make a line of laptop bags on my own.”
Dyer spent time in Italy learning about leather manufacturing and designed her first line. But, it was too expensive — “the laptop bags started costing more than the laptops” — especially when the economy cratered. More importantly, she was turned off by the toxicity of the leather-making process. “I started thinking that there must be a way to make a fabric that looks good, but is sustainable and is doing things the right way. I started researching eco-friendly and found that there is really fantastic fabric can be made out of recycled water bottles.” She started sketching designs on paper and, using contacts recommended to her, found partners who could engineer and manufacture the bags.
“It was a little bit scary to take the leap,” Dyer says, but she planned carefully and had the feeling she could always go back to the corporate world. The bags have struck such a chord that she doesn’t have to.
Photos by Shaul Schwarz & Christina Clusiau
Tracy shares a glass of wine with a customer at her pop-up boutique at Made In Minnesota. " We’re always looking for new opportunities. Bigger retail opportunities. Better ways to get our word out there."
"I literally started sketching my first designs on 8.5 x 11 pieces of paper and sending them to factories and asking 'can you make it look like this?'"
After eschewing leather for the recycled plastic fabric, she zoned in even further. "I started researching the metal parts that went on the bags and how to do them without nickel, lead and cadmium -- things that are toxic to children."
"We try to balance the need for advancing technology and mobility with our strong belief that doing things that are kind to our planet is good for everyone."
"As a corporate traveler, I often experienced my own frustrations in having to carry a purse, a work bag, and of course, a carry-on to transport my clothing. In coming up with my first designs, I created bags that would combine at the very least, my first two needs in one."
Tracy launched her company when the suppliers for the electronics retail giant where she was working failed to deliver functional, fashionable bags, time after time.
Urban Junket employees love what they do. " I like managing the people, " Tracy says. "If I won the lottery tomorrow and had an endless amount of money, I would probably continue to run Urban Junket."
They would tell me “this bag can withstand a bullet being shot at close range.” My response was, “if you’re getting shot at by a bullet in close range, then you have bigger issues than your laptop.”
"Once you start to believe that you don’t have to have all of the answers, that you can reach out or ask for help as you go along, you just tend to approach it with more confidence. I might not know the answers to all of the questions, I might not even know all of the questions, but I’m a good problem solver. I’ll figure it out."
Her process utilizes an eco-friendly coating to create the glossy look of a handbag.
Tracy Dyer sits amongst some of her unique laptop bags, made from recycled water bottles. "Arm candy with a conscience," she says. "That's our statement."
Q & A
We chatted with Tracy while she prepared to shoot a new product.
What is your biggest challenge?
We’re trying to re-shore our production back to the United States. Eight years ago it wasn’t possible to get things made here, but now it’s starting to become possible. We couldn’t get the recycled fabric and now we can get the recycled fabric. We have one more hurdle to overcome, which is the eco-friendly coating that goes one our bags. That isn’t readily available in the United States yet because PVC hasn’t been banned yet. They banned PVC in Europe 13 years ago, so we’re really far behind in terms of “green” but that’s starting to become a conversation that people are having. If we can get our fabric coated here, which I think we can do within the next 18 months, then we can actually start sewing right here in Minneapolis, which would be amazing. That’s a big focus right now. And growth. We’re always looking for new opportunities. Bigger retail opportunities. Better ways to get our word out there.
You mentioned a plastic island in the sea. Tell us about that.
There is an island of plastic the size of Texas floating around in the Pacific. One in the Atlantic has been identified, too. Like finds like in the ocean. Plastic finds plastic. Combined with the sun and the salt and everything, the plastic is actually melting together. It’s going to take 10,000 years for that plastic to biodegrade. Whales are getting caught underneath it because it’s clear and they are not realizing that they can’t get up above it. They are drowning. They can’t hold their breath the entire length of Texas. They are dying. Sea life that can live under the plastic island is trying to eat it and the plastic is killing the fish from the inside. There are people who are trying to chip away at the plastic island, but something the size of Texas can’t just be lifted out of the ocean and moved. The easiest thing we can do is to not contribute to it anymore. Our water bottle fabric is made from tons of cubic linear plastic that eventually will biodegrade. So, at least I feel like we’re not contributing to the problem.
What’s your secret sauce? How do you keep customers and clients coming back?
We give our customers great products that we have designed with a conscience and with serious thought toward usability. Beautiful things are really great, but if they don’t function well, the whole promise is lost. We also consistently wow our customers with hand-written notes. We create these 50-page notepads, which we write a hand written note on and send out with every order. We hear about how much people love that personal touch every day
What’s your end goal? What’s the dream?
People ask me, are you setting it up to sell? No. I really like managing the company. I like managing the people. If I won the lottery tomorrow and had an endless amount of money, I would probably continue to run Urban Junket as a bit of an incubator to help other people start businesses, because that is what I like to do. I actually really like when people call me and ask me to meet with them. It’s so fun to help other people start companies and to hear all the cool ideas out there.