“Small batch”, “limited run”, and “handmade” have become marketing buzz words that are used more than a light-up hacky sack at Coachella. Before the age of automation, this was simply how you made stuff, not a gimmick to peddle more, uhh — light-up hacky sacks. Nevertheless, some folks out there are still making things by hand simply because they care about the integrity of their business and the quality of their products.
The coolest thing about these small makers is that they had an idea, and learned the skills to manifest and execute that idea. They brought a product from their imagination into the real world, and that’s truly inspiring to see. Buying from these small businesses is more than just a way to cop rad gear; the buyer can clearly see their money at work. Each purchase makes an impact on the company they love. It’s easy to see the value in a handmade product, but choosing to spend money with companies like these has a second, slightly less tangible but equally high, value. These are the top five coolest small businesses (this week) making things that you should want to own.
“The consequences of staying safe are much more dangerous than being brave. That’s when it is time to defy.” That’s Chris Tag, the founder of DEFY. They’re an independent manufacturer out of Chicago. The company specializes in super-durable, heavy-duty backpacks and duffle bags as well as a small, but expanding accessories line. The VerBockel Rolltop pack is an example of what it is that DEFY came to do. This pack, as well as many others, is made of something called, “Ballistic Nylon”… yeah, I don’t exactly know what it means, but it feels like it ought to line an astronaut’s jockstrap. It was created during the Vietnam War to protect troops from fragmentation grenades. In an effort of simplicity, let’s just go ahead and call it everything-proof. The hardware comes from a military-grade buckle manufacturer, AustriAlpin. The quick-release buckle on this pack is the same one used by Austrian spec-ops. I have owned this bag for nearly two years and it has yet to show a single day’s use. It’s a ride-or-die piece of equipment from a ride-or-die type of company. If their gear wasn’t enough to sell you, be sure to check out their Instagram @defybags. Chris and the love of his work, his motorcycle, his city, his employees, and his dog should bring a smile to your face and loosen up the grip on that ol’ wallet.
2. Ship John
Mike Elias, the hipster king of small-batch manufacturing and captain of Ship John, needs no introduction from me, but I gotta show love. With a product lineup featuring names like Townes, Dolly, Wills, and Guthrie, Ship John is the company that started my love and fascination with hand-made, small-batch clothing makers. With a mission statement like “Stuff that holds up,” it’s easy to see why they made it on the list.
In the pretentious fashion desert, Ship John is a drink of cool water. Yes, Ship John has many of the earmarks of hipsterism: mustaches, lots of brown, vintage tools, a dog, Portland, blah, blah, blah. However, for what it’s worth, I believe Mike and his shipmates are making what they want to make, the way they want to make it. You can call that what you want, but to me, it sounds like they’re living the dream. Obviously the internet agrees because try as you might, you can’t get his cornerstone piece, the Wills Jacket. It’s the Tickle-Me Elmo of waxed canvas jackets. Go ahead, try and buy one — I’ll wait. Named for country music legend Bob Wills, the jacket is one of many items honoring a classic country music star. Ship John is a perfect example of what happens when you make something of quality with excellent taste and with an unrivaled passion for your craft.
NYC used to be a major hub of industry and manufacturing; musical instruments included. The oldest American-made guitars, C. F. Martin & Co., had their start in the West Village. Gretsch made guitars and drums in Brooklyn. Epiphone, D’Angelico, D’Aquisto, Oscar Schmidt (NJ), Stella (NJ), Danelectro (NJ), this list can continue for as long as my screen will last.
Jimmy Carbonetti, born and raised on Roosevelt Island, comes from the lineage of a city responsible for most of the greatest guitar builders of all time — and he fits in well. Jimmy builds strange and marvelous instruments inspired by the classics. He then takes those classics on an acid-washed, spaced-out, Rock and Roll, riptide trip. The result is a series of hand-built instant classics, champing at the bit to perform anything from the next great jazz standard to a Camaro-rattling rock anthem worthy of a single redneck tear (but only when no one’s looking). Carbonetti is more than a great guitar or bass though; they are dedicated to bringing a good vibe back to the guitar shop. The first time you step in, you feel like Jimmy is an old pal. This isn’t by accident. They make you feel welcome and that you being there is the best thing that has happened to them all day. It’s a special place run by a special guy making special instruments. They ain’t cheap, and neither should you be.
I have only recently discovered this small company out of Birmingham, AL. I honestly don’t know much about it other than I think I love it. Richardson Axeworks won runner-up for Garden and Gun’s “Made in the South” 2018 award. They appear to have a very dedicated client base. I get it. I haven’t even bought an ax yet, and I already feel dedicated. Richardson restores vintage, often unusable, axeheads. He makes new handles for each, ensuring every piece is unique. You can choose from hatchets, throwing axes, full-sized felling axes, double-headed axes, and, uh… those are the only axes I know, but I’m sure he can do any variety of axes. It’s useful, it’s cool, and it’s handmade. Buy an ax. Chop some wood.
Ready yourself for the coolest cat making stuff on the internet: Lehi Thundervoice Eagle Sanchez. Sanchez is a Navajo artist, maker, fashion icon, activist, and all-around man-crush material. His latest venture has been sourcing, reshaping, and decorating vintage wide-brimmed hats. Lehi says “My father always told me, ‘A man needs a hat to be recognized.’” Lehi’s Dad must have been right because his own hat became such a featured part of his style that people became obsessed with getting one of their own (myself included). So, he decided to give people the chance to try their best to look like Lehi. He made the choice to go with remaking vintage hats in an effort to work for a more sustainable future by using what already exists. He adds the Thundervoice Eagle flair with small bundles of sage, sweetgrass, palo santo, and quartz around the hatband. All of his work is made slowly and with intention. It doesn’t get more “American made” than this. Buy his stuff and support First Nations and Native People — as well as your own personal goal of looking fly.