- Buyer's Guide
Chrome Industries :: HQ Visit
Out front of Chrome Industries’ global HQ, a road team busies between fluro-orange cones, laying fresh tar. Ahead, a small excavator drags its nose through tired bitumen, scraping and shovelling black rubble into its bucket with a metallic groan. The foreman, a no-nonsense brunette with a bob and clipboard, watches on; an all-black Chrome Citizen slung across her shoulder.
I’m deep in Chrome Town now, on the curb of 580 4th St, in San Francisco’s SoMa. A former warehouse district infamous for its auto shops, crime and drug-addled raves. Today, like a lot of inner-SF, it’s well on the way to gentrified, specked with office doors of cool-ish start-ups and restaurants; street art stretches across its car parks and side streets in caricatured vistas.
“I’ll be down in two minutes. [thumbs up] [alien head]” Matt Sharkey texts as I cross the road and leg it to Chrome’s front door; the Chrome Pegasus looming above atop a canopy, engulfed in signature Russian-star red. DAY BAGS emblazoned across the front window.
Inside, the smell of diesel and fresh tar lingers from the road work. Punk rock punches the air. A skateboarder carves curb on the TV screen nestled along the store’s right flank. Dangling messengers and backpacks, framed in scaffolds and halogens, hem the walls.
A screw conveyor tracks across the wall behind the counter; U-shaped, it grins a big bag-toothed smile.
In the center of the store, a balding guy in a beige suit fingers through knurled panniers; a sleeved dude behind the counter asks me if I’m cool?’
Minutes later, Matt Sharkey rolls down from the second floor with a relaxed swagger in green crops and white tee. Flame-like tatts peak out from beneath his sleeves; a fighter pilot smiles from his forearm. He runs his fingers through his tightly-trimmed beard and throws me a relaxed five and a smile. “Welcome, man. Thanks for coming down.”
A former skateboarder. Photographer. And now consultant for Chrome’s marketing division. There’s an air of cool around Matt Sharkey.
He cut his teeth with Chrome a few years back but left to start his own gig. Now he’s returned to the nest, back to guide The Winged-Horse into 2016 and beyond – and we jam a little on what’s new.
“A screw conveyor tracks across the wall behind the counter; U-shaped, it grins a big bag-toothed smile.“
And as of right now, there’s cargo-loads going down: forays into sneakers and apparel and carry that reaches beyond their salvaged seat-buckle messenger roots and into the realms of photography and the everyday commuter.
“We want to be able to be a solution for people who live in the city,” Matt tells me. “That’s one of our taglines and something that’s part of our ethos as we go forth and develop any products. The first 18 years of our existence was exclusive to bike and that’s all we were really thinking about. And now it’s like ‘No, there’s all kinds of ways that people need to live in the city and have the demands put on them for best in class footwear, apparel and carry solutions’. So we want to make sure that it’s on and off the bike moving forward.”
“…there’s cargo-loads going down: forays into sneakers and apparel and carry that reaches beyond their salvaged seat-buckle messenger roots and into the realms of photography and the everyday commuter.“
“Will that jade your loyal hordes of black-clad bikers?” I ask.
Matt laughs over the punk rock scrambling from the speakers. “We’re a scrappy brand that came from the streets. That’s kind of where we’ve forged our brand. And we won’t let go of that by any means.”
“But we do have products that can suit everybody’s needs. We’re not just trying to get the tattoo artist or the coffee barista or the guitarist coming in here to shop. We’re like, come on in everybody. We’ll find a solution for what you need.”
Colin Maginnis, Chrome’s Product Line Manager, slides up by Matt and we’re introduced. He’s a softly spoken and amiable dude with blonde short parted hair and a blue tee; he’s in charge of fine-tuning Chrome’s burgeoning output and a self-confessed “Detail Guy.”
He chimes in. “But at the same time our new products need to be proven on the bike just like anything else. And so that’s kind of the philosophy: still make things in our way that work for all of our most rigorous, most demanding users; still make sure things work on the bike because we want everything to kind of be around mobility and never having the bag be kind of the barrier.”
“We’re not just trying to get the tattoo artist or the coffee barista or the guitarist coming in here to shop. We’re like, come on in everybody. We’ll find a solution for what you need.“
As proof, the guys run me through the newness slung along the shelves (all named after Russian battles, which Matt admits are becoming “quite obscure”).
The 26L Rostov. Chrome’s first serious crack at a daypack.
The Kharkiv commuter bag.
And what Matt refers to as “Almost little slings…” AKA the Kadet.
“Sometimes you don’t need a big bag. Sometimes you need to carry some essentials, get out the door. In the past, I think you’d see the hipster culture trying to bring back the fanny pack in almost an ironic way. Because you could get obnoxious fluorescent colors or bold letters. Then you realize that it’s awesome for carrying a windbreaker, a camera, a wallet, keys, a snack.”
I dig the new direction – a hefty swing from Chrome Day Dot – and circle back on Chrome’s rich biking heritage. “How’s your history and core still being communicated? And are you still actively ‘bike?’”
“For sure. There are entire courier companies that we outfit like on a discounted rate. So those still exist across the country, and honestly in other parts of the world. They want to make sure that their riders have the highest quality possible because they don’t want any malfunctions causing a reason why they can’t get their package delivered on time. There’s very few, if any, that have the level of warranty that we do in terms of a lifetime warranty on all our US-made products.”
“Oh rad. Do they help test new product?” I ask.
“Yeah, absolutely,” Matt smiles. And brings up their Familia (or ambassador network if you don’t speak fluent Chrome). A team of musicians, artists, skaters and, of course, full-time professional bike messengers who are intimately involved with concepts and design direction.
“We work with them on doing kind of those inputs once or twice annually. If they get a light bulb over their head it’s just a text or an email to me and then I kind of will share that out with the design team if it’s based on footwear, apparel or bags. So we encourage it to be informal and frequent if they think of something.”
“A lot of those pro series bags were developed extremely hands-on,” Colin adds. He would roll from his work bench to one of the ambassadors’ houses, work with him for a few days, and go direct to the factory around the corner and make up a sample, and then repeat over and over, until it was nailed.
“And they live with their bag. They quite honestly have it on their back seven or eight hours a day. That’s the right kind of person to be giving you the input and feedback.”
I mention the digs (apparently a once den-like space that was a little “intimidating” now redesigned as a well-lit celebration of street-dom). Impressed by the office upstairs and retail downstairs setup.
“You know, it was always our intention,” Matt says. “It allows us to experiment with new product and how we lay things out – and we get immediate feedback. It’s so direct. We have customers simply walk from downstairs to upstairs and be like, ‘Here’s the issue that I’m having.’ And we can really explore and build on things.”
Matt points out their in-store sewer and leads me to the station kitted out with a Pegasus-plated sewing machine; fabrics and hardware lined across its bench. “Each city hub has a dedicated sewer. They’re expertly trained of course and can work with a Juki and work with really heavy gauge materials and thick needles and know all the ins and outs of our carry – especially our made in the USA product.”
“You can come in and look at a number of colors, swatches and pick your panels and essentially design your own Citizen bag. But that’s something that is very much in our DNA as a brand. We’ve always been very much about the ‘maker story’. So we wanted to bring that story into the experience and the retail environment and kind of continue our factory presence on a hyper-local level.”
“Our sewers make their own pieces, too,” Colin says. “We even had a sewer repurpose a bunch of old military uniforms.”
A lot of Chrome’s sewers even have their own Instagram accounts, where they showcase their latest creations. “And they do super-limited runs of like 30 special bags,” every now and then, Matt tells me.
That’s something that Chrome is digging more into. They’ve played with collabs and material experiments and limited edition stuff in the past, and Matt assures me there’s some cool stuff in the pipeline.
After a coffee from Chrome’s in-house barista we scoot upstairs to the global HQ’s engine room. A small crew of 15 or so powering away at computers; all beards and tee’s and black-rimmed specs. A tight-knit team who run recaps on Fridays with beers and pretzels and gig together ’til the early morning; if they’re not riding that is – a prerequisite at Chrome.
“Each city hub has a dedicated sewer.”
“We’re kind of the little engine that could. I think people think that from the outside looking in that our brand is probably a lot bigger than it is. When you walk through this door and see that it’s these 15 people that are working here. [Chuckle] We’re trying to do a lot of things as a small ship, for sure.”
A small ship that’s growing into a fleet. Since 2010, Chrome have opened up seven new storefronts across the US; their product range exploding at the same time.
The challenge now, as Matt sees it upon returning, is finding the right balance. Chrome are now slowing down on new silhouettes and really trying to boil down what works. Colin, of course, working away on the details: “the Micro-stuff”.
Granted, there’s another Russ Pope collab slated for release. An indestructible duffel (which I got a sneak peek at) being tinkered on. And all up, Matt thinks there’s about “10 irons in the fire right now,” but they’ll see which ones work, and release, say, two.
And for me, Chrome feels like a more in control (little) beast, that in the past few years enjoyed spreading its wings, but now is tucking them back in just a little for a moment of well-earned reverie.
I slurp back the remnants of my made-with-love Mocha and say Hasta la vista to the guys. Stepping out in the SF sun, churning the day’s hangout round in my head. There’s good feelings drifting up: Chrome’s a brand actively working to help more city folk with carry solutions. Whilst holding onto their heritage with a tight biker-grip. Driven all by a team living the no-BS-bike-all-day mantra. In a HQ hunkered down in SF: a testing ground as gritty and diversified as the brand itself.
A brand, for me, that still feels bomber, burly and poised, road-ready for future battles to come…and most likely, they’ll be named in Russian.