Can artful making be an antidote to disposability? For some people, it’s an opportunity to cherish craft and process while countering the obsolescence that’s so common in our modern world. One of those people is Phil Schade, founder and design director of the Chicago bag and accessories maker 1733. We spoke with Phil ahead of our second Early Majority x 1733 collaboration about building his brand, working among Chicago’s small-business community and making things that are meant to last.
Joy: How did 1733 get started?
Phil: It started as a side project to keep my hands busy while I was working in IT consulting. I got a sewing machine and just started learning in my dining room, making little home-good kinds of things. Trivets and pillows, mostly stuff that was flat. I got into researching materials and dyeing and branding. I launched a website that was a gallery collection of the stuff I had worked on. And slowly but surely, with the help of my brother and learning how to properly use an industrial sewing machine — and just getting better at sewing in general — it developed into me getting into the bag lane. I figured out that I liked the interesting sculptural things I could do, and the trends and materials are exciting.
Joy: What was the trigger for you to get your first studio? How did you make that move?
Phil: My girlfriend, who became my wife, moved into our apartment, which was one big room basically. Eventually, I found a pretty good 400-square-foot studio space not too far away, and that really opened things up for me mentally: not having to see my work at the end of the day when I was done with it. I was still doing this part-time at the time. But the fact that when I go to the studio, I’m working on 1733 stuff, I'm not doing my other job — that separation really made me much more productive.
Joy: When people discover a brand, it feels new and fully formed, but you've been at this craft for almost a decade.
Phil: It’s funny when I have studio visits and people are like, “who are your customers?” There are people who have been there a long time and know me, and other people who came in later. The entry point for people was always very different. But I am trying to write about where every product is made, and we do open houses. So if people do care enough to read a little bit deeper or come out, they can still access the lore of the brand and make a deeper attachment to it beyond the website. I think that's valuable. I still always go back to “the product has to be good.” If the product is not good, no one's coming back for anything else. But our products are expensive. You can justify a little bit of that jump in price if you're like, “This is made in a small batch by three people, not far from where I live.”
Joy: I 100% agree with that. There's such a deluge of shit in the world, so much product everywhere, that it almost becomes like a commodity unless you can start to see more about where it came from and how it was made. I think people are hungry to participate in something like that.
Phil: Being conscious of where your products come from is so valuable, right? Who's making them? Why they’re making them.I can justify the cost of high-end material, because I know my customer is going to do it.
Joy: It feels like your business is continually growing in a very organic way and true to your vision. Tell me more about the scene you're a part of in Chicago.
Phil: Chicago is still an industrial city. Most of our sewing machines are bought and used from other factories. There's a uniform sewing shop on the first floor of our building that makes security and hotel uniforms, stuff that needs to be made to measure and produced quickly, which you wouldn’t really think would still exist in Chicago.
Joy: Do you ever think about getting yourself a uniform down there?
Phil: We have hoodies with our names embroidered on them! But the more important point I’m trying to make is that there's talent here. There's the School of the Art Institute Chicago which produces a lot of talented designers and artists. So that's an excellent pool for collaboration-type work. Alexa, one of my employees, went there and is a very talented seamstress and designer. David, my other sewer, is a very talented sewer and had his own bag brand in Mexico, so he understands all these things I'm trying to balance while doing it. They're a great team, and we've added a part-time person to do some studio tasks as well.
Joy: What about other small businesses in Chicago? Were there others that came before you that were an inspiration?
Phil: My brother went to the School of the Art Institute Chicago, and he's very important to the graphic design of the brand, the website and our logo work. There are small clothing and accessory brands here. When I first started selling my homewares, a friend created retail spaces for their friends who were making cool things in college. That was a very cool way to meet other people who are trying to sell things and make things on a small scale. As I've grown and gotten closer to the community, I've met people like Emily Winter at the Weaving Mill, an industrial mill in Chicago making beautiful textiles for home goods and clothing. There's Whim Golf, which has a very interesting perspective on golf. Knowing other people running and starting small businesses was huge — it was nice to meet people going through the same things as me. I love being in Chicago; I think it's been very crucial to creating content and maintaining 1733.
Joy: I can see it come through. There's also obviously an incredible food and music scene where people started things from scratch and made them into these really influential institutions. So it's cool for you to be in that stream.
Phil: We love having people out to see the studio and to be like, here's what we're doing in Chicago; here’s how we can keep making high-quality things in a place where manufacturing is slowly trickling away.
Joy: Well, hopefully, it's coming back and you're at the forefront. I think a big part of why people love 1733 is because they can see who made it and how it was made. That's kind of a dream for people to be able to do stuff like that with their hands. Speaking of dreams, let’s talk about our 4-Way Bag.
Phil: They’re done except for the attachment straps. We're waiting for the hardware to put those on. But yeah, they're all here.
Joy: The little hardware pieces that allow you to switch it to being a tote bag — it can be a crossbody bag, it can be a backpack, a shoulder bag.
Phil: It can be a vertical tote or a horizontal tote. Unfortunately [the attachment hardware] is made in Korea, and no one has them in stock in the U.S. right now.
Joy: They’re so elegant. They're a little bit confusing to figure out in the beginning. And then, as soon as you figure out how it actually works, you're like, oh, that's so simple.
Phil: And it has a nice little satisfying click when it comes into place. They're fun. This round of bags went very well — we made some changes to the shoulder straps’ shape, and then also to add some durability to the lightweight materials. So we double-layered the base with the same sort of lining material. We also added a few bits of reinforcement behind some of the webbing attachments for grip. We simplified the shoulder straps. There's less going on. I think that that phone pocket idea was nice, but just a little clunky and specific to a certain type of body type. We added a different sternum strap this time as well. Putting some reflective on the front of the bag I thought was a nice addition as well. It’s just a bit more straightforward and minimal, with less moving parts.
Joy: I've noticed there's a couple unbeatable combinations. One of them, we tried to beat with this bag, but we didn't succeed: wearing a fanny pack and backpack. I see a lot of women doing this, especially when they're hiking. I don't think we'd ever beat the combination because I’d always have one extra thing that wouldn’t go in this front pocket, and everything could go in the fanny pack. I think it's good that we tried it and realized sometimes less is more.
Phil: Yeah, you see those pockets a lot. Specifically, on running vests where people don't have time to stop, right? So they want their water and their gel right there. But this bag is a little more casual than that. You can use it hiking and it'll perform very well. But you wouldn't want loose, floppy elastic water bottle pockets when you're walking through the airport with a running vest. Finding that right balance of features and functionality is so important, and I'm glad that we got to really test it — it wasn't just one sample that got out there. We made a whole run of them. One of the things that I'm always trying to design around is versatility. Specialization is a luxury on top of these already luxurious products. Do we really need a bag for skiing and a bag for hiking and a bag for travel? Or can we have one thing that can do all these things okay?
Joy: We have a very aligned philosophy in that respect. The bag has really changed some of my behavior using it; I'm probably going to still stick to the 1.0 for a long time. But the breakthrough for me is that there's two bottle holders in it. I have one holder for my water, and one for my coffee, which I always struggled with as a cyclist. And they're both just exactly the right size.
Phil: I'm glad to hear that. I was pretty satisfied with that interior bottle pocket situation. I always get nervous if I have exterior bottle pockets, and I have to bend over to tie my shoe. Is my bottle going to slide out and hit me in the back of the head? It's a nifty feature that I'm glad we figured out.
Joy: The other thing is being able to put big bulky things on the outside when you have more stuff than can fit in the inside, or put wet things on the outside. I hang my swimsuit on the outside after swimming, or maybe stuff my nasty Crocs there or something.
Phil: Yeah, keeping your nasty things away from your nice things is actually pretty crucial.
Joy: What does the future hold for you?
Phil: I want to keep filling out this space efficiency-wise. My next personal project is to improve our e-commerce photography. I'm going to try and figure out if I can create more consistent images. I think that's very important as an online-only brand selling a technical product, to give as much information as you can, visually, because that's mostly what people are going to be looking at.
Joy: I've enjoyed chatting with you; I really appreciate the time. Thank you for making these beautiful bags. We can't wait to get our hands on them.