The following article is through Field Magazine. The article was written by Graham Heimstra about Topo Designs, a company in Colorado. Topo Designs started just making backpacks but has branched out making apparel for men and women – mostly outdoor wear, and other accessories, all made in the USA.
What do you do when you’re a bag fanatic and lifelong outdoorsman, but all your favorite gear looks great but is too old to work well, and the well-working gear is too technical to take anywhere other than the trail? Well, if you’re Mark Hansen and Jedd Rose the answer is start your own company. And they did. And Topo Designs is it. Over the past handful of years the independent operation has grown from a modest collection of versatile backpacks to an increasingly wide range of bags, packs and now—much to our own excitement—apparel for both men and women. And it’s all made right here in the good old US of A.
We’ve long been a fan of the brand, drawn in by the vintage-inspired aesthetic and kept by the rugged quality and highly-considered functionality. At the core of the company, Topo exists to serve outdoor enthusiasts looking for gear and apparel that fits in with their daily lives, capable of making the transition from a hike in the morning to the office in the afternoon and a bike ride home at night.
We recently caught up with co-founder Jedd Rose to talk more about the Colorado-based brand’s ethos, where he sees the outdoor industry headed, and how their many well-received collaborations came to be. Keep reading to hear it from the horse’s mouth.
We’re firm believers that you don’t need to venture to some far flung, extreme destination to experience the outdoors. And correct us if we’re wrong, but we feel Topo is right there with us.
Yeah, absolutely, I agree 100%. I think that translates to how we build our stuff, too. I think very often people feel like their gear has to be at that level too. But all the super technical things that I own end up sitting in my closet and I end up using the fairly basic, utilitarian things the vast majority of the time. There’s definitely a place for all those technical pieces, but we decided to build our stuff so you can run over to the park, or run over to the trail just out in the foothills of town and do a hike. And then you can walk back down, jump in your car or jump on your bike, and go out and have a beer after.
With Topo [we make products] that are well-made and are very multipurpose and utilitarian, and can work in 90% of the environments that you’re in—products that are gonna be able to translate to wherever you are.
What about the “all or nothing” mentality that seems so prevalent in the more hardcore outdoor community?
We definitely are a huge proponent of the idea that not everything needs to be this extreme thing in order to do it. My family is from the Midwest and what I always enjoyed about going to Michigan to hang out is that the outdoors feels really integrated into a lot of people’s lives in a very unassuming way. They can just jump in their car—not a four-wheel drive, giant jacked up Jeep or anything, but just like a Buick—and drive out on a dirt road, and hop out and go fishing, or deer hunting or whatever. Then get back in the car, drive home and go to work after that. And it’s not this huge process.
Definitely in the Rockies it’s more often this massive ordeal where you have to have the most cutting-edge equipment to even open your door and step outside.[In the Midwest] the doing part is really the biggest side of it.
You know, one of my favorite things has been to take my 6-year-old son out and go fishing in some of the ponds that are right here in town, when we have an hour on the weekend. We can jump on our bikes, ride over to the pond, fish for 45 minutes and then ride home. And we got out and did something that day. If we had to go up to the mountains or we had to go to some remote destination, we probably wouldn’t be able to do it that day because we just don’t have enough time to do that.
It’s just so much better to do something than not do anything at all.
We do that too, but a lot more often we’ll do things in town because we can get out and do it easily. And that’s so much better than not doing it because it’s not this quintessential, ultimate extreme activity. It’s just so much better to do something than not do anything at all.
I think what’s also really important to realize is that you can also be, you know, as “extreme” about those little things as you want to be. You can do them very well to have a great experience. If I’m catching very small fish in a pond, I can do that very well and it can be very challenging and very fulfilling.
Do you feel the current generation views the outdoors differently than say, previous generations?
I think so, and I think it’s actually probably more similar to my parents’ generation than necessarily like someone like me, who’s you know, late 30s, and has been in the gear world forever—very often people my age don’t see outside of that and for them it’s all about the newest stuff.
The newer generation of kids, they’re definitely way more interested in the outdoors than a lot of generations before, which I think is great. But it’s a way more integrated, kind of a “trail and town” mentality where there’s a lot of bike riding and a lot of things around town, as well as traveling and camping and getting outdoors. It’s definitely more of an equal opportunity outdoor experience crowd, which is nice to see.
How do you approach designing products that will fit both in the city and in the outdoors?
Whether you’re in town or out of town, you kind of have the same needs in both environments. If you’re going to work, you need to take your laptop with you. If you’re going out hiking, you need to take some food, and water and basic stuff to be outdoors with. In both scenarios you’re very often carrying about the same amount of stuff, regardless of where you are.
Well, obviously, if you’re gonna be backpacking for multiple days, then you’ll need a definite set of gear. But for day trips and car camping, and doing things where you have a home base all the time, a little bit bigger bag or a little bit smaller bag should work in a lot of environments.
Has branching into apparel offered a way to break the mold of being known primarily as the guys who make colorful backpacks?
Yeah, absolutely, I mean it’s definitely a big new learning process for us, and it’s been really exciting. But it’s totally a real trick making it here in the US. We’ll go and talk to a bigger company about maybe using some fabrics and they’ll just kind of turn their head sideways like, “yeah, well, good luck with that.”
We definitely have a bunch of restrictions on the clothing side, but that actually helps mold the products, I think, in a cool way. I’d say the vast majority of fabrics are not even shipped to the US from overseas. So we end up using fabrics that are fairly basic—like really simple nylons that have been around a long time—which is great for us. They fit our aesthetic. So it actually turns out we actually don’t have the opportunity to get sucked into what everybody else is doing because we very often just can’t do it.
Do you guys plan on going into women’s apparel?
Yeah, we’re working on a women’s line right now that we’ll have out this spring. We have a ton of requests from women that they just want what we do, but in a women’s fit. So that’s what we’re trying to do.
I think very often women—at least the women that are interested in Topo—are a little bit frustrated by [women’s gear] always being a silly version of men’s. They want things that are really classic and cool and outdoorsy looking, but don’t have that kind of women’s frill that I think has left a bad taste in the mouth of many.
You’ve done some great collaborations in the past with Woolrich, Stüssy General Living, Giro, etc. How do these collaborations usually come about?
Most likely it starts when we are personally interested in a company because we really like that company and the product, and the possibility of adding our little flavor to somebody else’s thing that they crafted is exciting. So I think that’s number one for us.
Number two is that you know, for whatever reason, they’re just received so well for us and for all the brands we work with. So it’s a really fun thing to do because people are so excited when they come out. People tend to love it when two complementary brands come together. There’s just some sort of cool product magic that happens in the middle that I definitely can’t put my finger on, but it’s really fun.
You know, it’s really exciting for us to be able to make a fly rod that I really like or to make a bag with some amazing wool that has been around for generations. It’s just kind of a nice way to breathe life into our products, and their products, and talk about them in a different way.
And working with a really big company like Woolrich is a really stellar learning experience for us too—learning how they do things and how their sales work, how their production works, and kind of their global reach on things. And very often the larger companies that we work with too are looking to us to see how we do things, like in the new school marketing world of using Instagram and working with ambassadors to help spread the word. And how we do what we do on a limited budget. So it’s great to learn from a business side too.
Do you have any more collaborations in the works that you can share with us?
We’re probably going to be doing more with British streetwear brand TSPTR. They have the Snoopy license, so we’ll be doing some more Snoopy stuff, which I am pretty excited about. I love the aesthetic of that.
And then probably do some more things with our kind of general partners again, like Woolrich and Howler Brothers. And then we’re talking to a bunch of other people, so not sure which of those are going to go through, but there’ll be some.
So the answer could go on forever.
Yeah, exactly. But I love those projects, they’re really fun. Production may say otherwise, but I think they’re really cool.
Well, you’re the boss, so you win.
all images courtesy of Topo Designs