Studio Visit: Joshu+Vela

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

STEPPING INTO Joshu+vela's studio is witnessing Noah Guy's meticulously crafted bags and accessories come to life... 

It's always fascinated me, discovering the actual process of ideas, collaboration, and artistry behind quality creations- the reality, in other words, of the hard work that goes into an independent business. 

What about Joshu+vela's products captured my attention? I think it was the leather clutch in nude and black that first won me over. Something in the elegant design, the lines and cut not unlike the quality of a Comme des Garçons convinced me. When I was home in San Francisco during spring break, I made sure to stop by their studio in the Mission District for a visit. Noah, owner and creative director of Joshu+vela kindly took me on a tour of the store, taking me beyond the beautiful wall of backpacks and totes, to the workspace in the back. I saw long strips of nude and caramel-hued leather material, the bright blue of equipment, brass and metal everywhere. And as I took photo after photo (no use resisting in a space like this) Noah told me a bit about himself, his inspirations and ambitions, how he got to where he is today.  

Read our conversation, below:  

Thanks again for having me in your studio, Noah! I loved getting to witness everything from the chosen materials, to the teamwork and overall process that goes into building your beautiful bags. 

What is a day in the studio typically like for your team? 

A usual day at the Tradeshop includes our sewers, Zhen and Ling, holding down the fort in the back of the shop. Taylor plans our production schedule and does all the riveting and leather cutting. Laura is our wholesale manager—she communicates with customers and makes sure everyone is happy. If I’m not running store operations, I’m probably designing a new bag or eating a burrito.

Growing up, were you surrounded by a creative family, or was creativity something you sought out yourself? 

I grew up in a pretty creative environment. My mom was always doing wood-fired pottery or oiled ceramics for fun. My dad was a director of cinematography for television commercials—he did the one in the late ‘80s for Cherry 7-Up with Matt LeBlanc in it. I didn’t really seek out a career in a creative field until a little later in my life, around my late twenties.

It sounds like your family has a great appreciation for the visual arts! Did you study something design-related in school? 

I didn’t go to school until I’d already designed and manufactured a bag while living and working in Thailand, which taught me that I basically knew nothing about design and business. At that time, the company was just called Joshu. After I came back to the States I studied apparel design in the formal sense.

Wow, I can only image that Thailand left you with a different perspective. How did the idea to make bags come about? 

I moved to Thailand in 2001 to begin manufacturing bags—there were a lot of resources for it there at the time. Honestly, I thought designing bags just seemed easier than designing clothes. At the onset, it wasn’t obvious it was the main thing I was going to do, but in the end it worked out.

What is your favorite part of the design process- and how do you turn an idea into reality? 

My favorite part is seeing all the various elements—from the design research to the materials sourcing to the patterning to the sewing—come together into a physical product. Ideas become real when you have the structure in place: you’re able to get your materials, own your own manufacturing tools and space, and you have an excellent team to help you get through the tough work. Time and patience are also crucial to working through manufacturing problems.

San Francisco is the base of your store- why did you choose the Mission District as the home of your store? Any favorite neighborhood places you visit in your off time? 

I chose the Mission because I think with the changes happening in San Francisco right now, this neighborhood is becoming the new center for the city. Outside of the Mission, I like going to Ocean Beach, Mount Tamalpais or Bolinas. If I have time, I’ll go camping in Point Reyes, Big Sur or Santa Cruz.

I’ve always deeply admired small businesses, and I know that owning your own independent store, especially in a city like San Francisco is no easy feat. Are there challenges of owning your own small business? How do you stay motivated and positive? 

The challenges are too many to name, and they come in all types. Right now the biggest challenge is making sure our new Tradeshop meets city building regulations, which comes with designing a space as custom as ours is. In terms of staying positive, part of that is in making sure I take care of myself: exercising, staying healthy and taking time off to regroup. 

Let’s talk about inspiration for moment- I love the collection of images on your tumblr. Where do you find inspiration? 

I love doing image research and I’m a big fan of photography and historical images. But the inspiration for products usually comes from what customers are asking for—useful products that speak to their actual needs.

We both share a love for printed material, and you mentioned that you’d love to carry independent publications in your store soon. Which books/ magazines would you put in your store? 

My friend Brian Kanagaki owns Perryman Press, and I’m working on carrying some books from his publishing company in the shop soon:

What are you most excited about for Joshu+Vela’s future? 

The opening of the Tradeshop is the most important thing. We’ve been working toward this goal for years and I’m really excited to say that it’s finally come together and we’re officially open. In fact, we’re having an opening party on May 29, so anyone reading this in San Francisco should come! You can RSVP by emailing us at

Any last words of advice for young entrepreneurs/artists? 

Be persistent in your search for originality.

Thanks again to Noah and the Joshu+vela team!  


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