Story by James S. Kim.
Men and Their Baggage
Designer Jee Kim, founder of Peasants & Travelers, creates stylish and functional bags for men, who were actually quite the bag innovators a few centuries ago.
It doesn’t take a fashionista to understand the relationship between women and bags. Synonymous, symbiotic, or both—it just takes a quick walk down the street of any downtown urban center to spot these two going hand in hand, or perhaps, on the shoulder or across the chest. Purses, totes, carryalls and clutch bags and more make up the diverse world of women’s bags.
It’s hard to imagine now that men once dominated the bag scene. But that’s where Jee Kim, designer and founder of the San Francisco-based men’s bag company Peasants & Travelers finds inspiration for her work.
Jee Kim. Photo by Narith Ta.
“Back in the 18th century, it was the peasants who carried their owners’ belongings in makeshift satchels during travel. It was also the men who traveled long distances alone before women could, thus making them the first true carriers of ‘bags,’” she said.
Her company, as well as its name, pays homage to these early bag innovators.
Peasants & Travelers looks to bring together the oft-mutually exclusive qualities of fashionable and functional in men’s bags. Pay no heed to the jeers of “man purse” and the like. There’s something else for men besides the standard backpack or briefcase. Despite what many may think, there is a growing market for men’s bags, and Kim has built a solid footing for herself as a designer and businesswoman.
Kim, who grew up in Maryland, said she had high dreams of being in fashion and running her own business. After graduating from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York with a merchandising degree, she secured a job with Gucci, the first of several brands that she would eventually add to her resume.
For over 10 years, Kim worked at brands that included Neiman Marcus, Banana Republic and William Sonoma. Her work took her all over the world, but it was her travels in Asia, specifically Hong Kong, Japan and Korea, that kindled her artist’s spark.
“I’ve always had a fascination with bags [and] their function,” she said. “A good shoulder bag [for example] frees your hands for multitasking. I noticed that men [in Asia] utilized bags as a fashion statement. The bag was a prominent part of the outfit. They didn’t seem to peg the bag with a gender, but embraced it.
“It was only a matter of time before American men would follow and expect more stylish bag options.”
Kim acquired valuable operation and production experience during her years in the fashion industry. The concept of Peasants & Travelers came to fruition and felt conceivable, she said, with the experience she had gained.
The company officially launched in August 2008, and Kim found herself initially running nearly all aspects of the company. Tapping her former colleagues in China, she was able to find partners in product development and design, and she would travel there for two to three weeks at a time to pick out fabrics, trims, zippers and whatever materials she would need. After finalizing the products, she would take the samples back to the U.S. herself, then haul them along to trade shows to showcase them to retailers.
The first collection shipped in March 2009. The 12-piece collection, which featured various bags, totes and carryalls in three different color waves (olive, brown and navy with black accents), began garnering attention in fashion media, including Urban Daddy, Thrillist and the New York Times. Notable retailers such as Urban Outfitters began carrying Peasants & Travelers products.
None of them, however, gained as much acclaim and popularity as Kim’s reimagining of the classic doctor’s bag.
“It put us on the map,” she said. “It was versatile enough for work and/or for the gym. I [still] get emails requesting them.”
The bag takes after the classic doctor bag with the split-handle design on the top. However, Kim’s modernized interpretations are sure to draw glances with its unusual fabrics like cork, as well as the fine leather trim and the addition of shoulder straps.
“I think in the fabrics and the trim we use, it definitely updates the bag,” she said. “The strategy is modernizing a classic bag and making it comfortable for a guy who wouldn’t normally consider carrying a doctor’s bag, making them consider it and easing them into a style that is a bit more out there.”
Kim in her workshop. Photo courtesy of Jee Kim.
She noted that cork is a material often used for shoes, and people don’t expect to see it in a bag. “That’s an element of surprise,” she said.
Unfortunately for potential buyers, the doctor’s bag has been sold out for quite a while, but they can look forward to a revamped, sturdier version in the spring 2014 collection.
The collection continues Kim’s vision of “fashionable and functional,” led by the weekend/gym bag, which features a separate shoe compartment and enough space for a weekend trip.
“As a creative person, you always have a storage of things that you like in the back of your head,” Kim said. “You always kind of are looking at things in a visual way. I think one of the strategies going in was, when a guy is carrying a bag into work and he’s also travelling, what are some styles that are classic but haven’t yet been interpreted in a modern way?”
Men who may be hesitant about checking out bags because of any “man purse” label shouldn’t have to worry. Men have long used bags, and now, thanks to Kim, they have some stylishly functional options from which to choose.
This story was originally published in the October 2013 issue of KoreAm Journal.