PITTSBURGH CRUSH: MOOP

If there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that moving sucks. Now imagine moving from 1,800 sf/ft to 800 sq/ft. That’s what happened when Moop—the local label known for their wax canvas totes and backpacks—moved from the North Side to Lawrenceville earlier this fall. Also left behind: significant improvements in the building, beautiful high ceilings and lots of natural light. Sounds painful, right?

As it turns out, Moop owner and designer Wendy Downs couldn’t be happier. “We’ve become more efficient,” she told me. The new Moop studio is nestled among Lawrenceville’s row houses. Packed inside is every stage of the manufacturing process: bolts of fabric, cutting table, sewing machines and shelves with finished bags. A skylight cut in the roof above infuses the room with natural light, making it feel airy and spacious. This is important to Downs, who spends about 12 hours a day here—sometimes more. “Space affects me emotionally, creatively and intellectually,” she said. “I’m a firm believer in getting into the right space for your needs.”

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As I looked around the studio, it found it hard to believe that Downs is entirely self-taught. In fact, she was trained as an artist. Downs went to grad school in hopes of someday teaching art. But upon graduating, she couldn’t find a clear path forward. She increasingly felt that teaching wasn’t a great fit, but her education hadn’t prepared her for the tough reality of finding a job. She admits that Moop was born largely from practical need, even desperation.

Downs learned about bags by trial and error, exploring materials and construction with an artists’ attention to detail. Starting with simple designs and slowly graduating to more advanced looks, the brand now has a diverse offering for both men & women such as messenger bags, backpacks and more.  As her business grew, Downs discovered that making and selling can complement each other, if done right: “My background is in art, not business; and I run this business as an artist. But the more I learn about business, the more I can merge the two.” She continued, “There are so many ways of monetizing what you do without compromising what you do.”

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Of course this isn’t easy. There is a tension between Moop’s commitment to hand-made quality and growing pressures to scale. This isn’t something exclusive to Moop; it is a reality facing artisans and makers across the country. For better or worse our modern economy is not based on sustainable production that remains steady year after year; it is fundamentally organized around permanent growth, which raises questions about the future of companies like Moop.

For now, Downs remains small, with a team of three. Her dream is not to graduate from sewing machine to board room; instead, she hopes to find a balance, with the majority of her week dedicated to managing the business and exploring new designs, but ready to jump on the production line at crunch time. Moop recently introduced two new colors for their popular Porter bag (deep magenta and slate) and are trying to catch up on a new backpack, whose release was interrupted by the move. This will be Moop’s first backpack with top zippers, a feature long requested by customers.

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Even as Downs introduces new products, she keeps prices below $200 per unit, which she hopes consumers will treat as an investment. Moop products are built to last and age gracefully, as the waxed canvas acquires a patina much like leather and is fiercely water resistance.

Moop hopes to celebrate its move with holiday pop-ups in the space once all the dust has settled. In the mean time there are still bits and pieces falling into place, like exterior signage that needs to go up. But sign or no sign, Moop is here in Lawrenceville and looking forward to staying put. Because if there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that moving really sucks.