For Wyckoff Designer, Bold Bags Embody Extension of Brave Career Shift
Nearly two years ago, Julio (RJ) Diaz took the first steps in a new career path. He wasn’t unhappy with his current job, he just saw Industry Portage as a new opportunity to branch out and flex his creative muscle.
But after years of development — designing and fine-tuning of the product line, stitching together its unique brand, and launching the endeavor via the homemade Industry Portage website in conjunction with a grassroots social media campaign — Diaz’s smart, nascent knack for metropolitan bags is just getting started.
Diaz, the VP of operations for NYC-based Integrity Contracting, began planning for his big move into men’s fashion in December 2010, and launched IndustryPortage.com the following October — on the date shared by both his wedding anniversary and daughter’s birthday.
The husband and father of two young children pushed his way into fashion after a decisive combination of identifying a need in the industry and finding the right inspiration at the right time.
“I used to buy a lot of bags… and then be annoyed that they didn’t do what I wanted them to do,” Diaz said. “Then I read the Four-Hour Work Week — now it’s like religion to me.” [Misquoted, but understandable. I had told Mr. Gerace that reading The Four-Hour Work gave me the confidence, as well as some GREAT resources and tons of ideas, that helped to launch Industry Portage. I also highly recommend Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup, Seth Godin’s Purple Cow, and Gary Vaynerchuck’s The Thank You Economy-RJD]
Diaz said Tim Ferriss’s ubiquitous book contained ideas and concepts that appealed to him — and it arrived at the same time as his frustration with the bags. The N.Y. Times best-selling self-help book showed Diaz how to distill his waking hours into pure productivity: using the internet to help optimize the manufacturing process freed up his time and allowed him to concentrate on design, Diaz explained.
“Tim Ferriss talks about the niche… super specific markets,” Diaz said. “I’m going to design bags for someone like me… someone with an architectural background, someone in construction.”
Diaz, who graduated Penn State in 1994 with a degree in architecture, said this high-speed train of thought traveling from Ferriss to niche to Industry Portage led to the inspiration for the initial and pervasive utilitarian aesthetic of his bags.
But before his designs could be slung over the shoulders of architects and fashionable males across the country, Diaz had to find a way to have his bags produced.
He decided to look for opportunities with certain restrictions in mind.
“I didn’t want to look for outside funding… I love what I do on the construction side, but I wanted to develop a sideline business,” Diaz said.
The initial struggle for Diaz was to find a manufacturer willing to produce small run products at a reasonable cost. He had no desire to invest in a large inventory before he knew how hungry the market would be for his product.
“A lot of companies wanted to make a minimum of 100 bags of each, but I like the idea of being limited production, bespoke, premium quality,” Diaz said. “You have to charge more for it, but I like that idea.”
Diaz connected with a Chinese manufacturer, and was able to save at least half the cost versus a small unit production run in the United States, he said.
Overseas manufacturing wasn’t ideal for Diaz philosophically, but his desire to keep inventory low — each initial production run is limited to 10 bags — forced his hand; American production couldn’t compete, at least not yet.
Diaz stands behind his desire to have more work done locally in the United States, but there are major financial hurdles to be overcome.
“I’m still researching it, there’s a company in Ohio that works with strictly canvas,” an Industry Portage mainstay, he said. “I’m hoping to work with them… to launch my “Custom Portage” label.”
Diaz described the Custom Portage label — still in its infancy — as a brand within a brand; an ultra premium product wherein he would consult with the consumer “to create a totally tailored bag.”
“I would ask, ‘What kind of bag do you need? What’s your lifestyle?’ The same approach as designing a building for them.”
Diaz finds joy in working with ideas and concepts he knows. The relationship with the materials and process imparts an authenticity on the brand — a principle crafted into portage in one recent design.
“I’ll occasionally work with steel installations… and you’ll have a welder that’s got this awesome thick suede jacket, but it’s got all these spark burns and all these oil stains and people are just getting rid of that stuff,” Diaz mused. “Wouldn’t it be cool to remake that into a bag?”
The idea sparked his first one-off, totally custom made design, the Milton Brief.
Its creation was streamlined, efficient, and refreshingly local: Diaz located a used welder’s jacket oneBay for $20 plus $5 shipping, drew up the design and sent it off to a local craftsman.
“It was made locally by Fidencia in Midland Park,” Diaz said. “I love the idea of going toward something that’s truly locally made… that’s my eventual goal, to be able to support that type of project.”
The industrial aesthetic of the welder has inspired 3 designs so far, the original Milton and a pair of similar bags made by Bill’s Shoe Repair in Midland Park.
Diaz delighted in “This part excites me because I get to design it, I get to create,” Diaz said, adding that the process for Industry Portage is process is similar to the process for architectural design. “I treat [bag design] like I do an architectural drawing; eventually I want to incorporate those drawings into the website.”
The fearless design of each bag is true to the character that Diaz embodies. From the commanding, crisp right angles of the Canvas Cargo Tote to the refreshing, effervescent, electric-blue pop of the interior lining in the Canvas Duffel, the Industry Portage label is shorthand for effortless, head-turning men’s fashion.
For Diaz the ultimate goal is simple: build Industry Portage into a profitable business and a coveted brand.
As Industry Portage begins to grow and take on a life of its own, Diaz is looking forward to an upcoming South American vacation with his wife Karen and their two children, Claire, 4, and Lucas, 3.
“I can’t say that I’m making money on the bags yet, but it’s mine, it’s my baby, and it’s out there.” Diaz said. “The brand isn’t just trying to produce something and be a commercial good that’s just out there; it represents me — if it doesn’t speak to anybody else then I’ve got to think of something else.”