- Buyer's Guide
Whillas and Gunn Interview :: The Road Less Travelled
When a large part of your time is spent having round-the-world adventures, life’s pretty good. What’s even better is getting to travel with and expand your own collection of bags through these adventures. For Richard and Melissa Whillas, the brother and sister duo behind Whillas and Gunn, their workspace may be on a boat bobbing in stunning Thailand waters, charging forth into the desert on the back of a camel or taking in the sights, sounds and tastes of Shanghai’s bustling streets. Eager to find out more about the brand and bags that help facilitate this frankly awesome lifestyle, we waded into the wide world of Whillas and Gunn…
It turns out you come from a rich carry heritage (third generation, in fact), can you tell us about your connection with Kakadu, and how that’s led to Whillas and Gunn?
Rich: Dad started manufacturing outerwear in 1972 with our grandmother and uncle so we basically grew up playing in and around the factory during holidays. Kakadu is all about rugged outerwear like Australian oilskin drovers coats (which is essentially like a technical fabric only made of all-natural ingredients) and hardwearing canvases. I loved the fabrics and bags but wanted to make something more my style with a contemporary silhouette so I started brainstorming over breakfast everyday with dad, we came up with all these amazing ideas and Whillas & Gunn was born.
Melissa, you and your brother, Richy, seem like a pretty dynamic pair, but how does that dynamic work? What roles do each of you play?
M: We are both very different with some clear strengths and weaknesses so the roles were relatively easy to allocate. Richy is much more visual and design oriented so he handles the product development, imagery and website layout as well as being the adventurer in the images. I am more a behind-the-scenes person – I handle all the photography, any of the technical aspects of the website, customer service, admin and destination research.
You guys seem like you’re living the dream, travelling non-stop around the globe, adventuring, but what are the biggest challenges you face when running your business on the move?
M: There are definitely challenges! Because we do almost everything ourselves – from product development, production and sourcing, all the way to running an eCommerce website and photography we face logistic challenges all the time. Internet access and emails definitely help but sometimes we need to physically be somewhere, especially with production. The good thing about an online business is that I can handle customer service remotely if we are not in the office. We have someone handling the warehousing and shipping though – no solution to handling this while exploring other countries!
What are the key tools you use to drive WG whilst exploring? And why are they important? I’m guessing a printer/fax is out of the question?
M: On the contrary, I use a PDF printer all the time! Our office is pretty much virtual while we are on the road – tools like Dropbox and Google Drive have become indispensable, especially with all the pictures we take – losing a hard drive with a day’s/week’s/month’s/adventure’s worth of pictures would be devastating. Basically we have our computers, smartphones and a camera.
Is it hard to schedule downtime? And how do you break up your day?
M: We squeeze in downtime whenever we can because with all the different facets of our business we don’t keep normal traditional business hours. When we first started WG Trunk Co we were working almost 7 days a week and it was actually being counterproductive with no time off, especially since we live and work together.
We have an unspoken agreement that no work starts until after breakfast and coffee, no matter where we are in the world. Regardless of our location the morning is usually webpage admin like customer service and orders for me and Rich gets started on Instagram and social media. The rest of the day depends on whether we’re on the road or dealing with production.
I’m curious, how much time do you really spend on the road? Is it all year round or only in say four-month blocks? Do you ever get homesick?
Rich: It really depends on the time of the year. We try to travel six to eight months a year, broken down into about five trips plus as many short getaways as we can do. There are times of the year that we have to stay in the office to make sure that production is on schedule, to update the site with new products and all the other admin that goes into running a business. To keep us sane we also spend that time doing research on where to head to next.
We’ve both been abroad for a fair few years now so we don’t get too homesick, plus we work a lot with our father. We try to head back home at least once a year but with Skype and other messaging apps we have a lot of ways to stay connected to loved ones back home.
Your travel store is driven by the ‘belief that life shouldn’t be played from behind a desk,’ and you both obviously live by this mantra. What inspired this thirst for exploring, wandering and experiencing? Was it a single moment? Or a loved one who passed this passion down? Or did you discover it yourselves over time?
M: Besides living in Shanghai for the last couple of years, we both travelled quite a bit before we started WG Trunk Co. Richy has lived in London, New York and Berlin plus a few other places in between. I spent a lot of time abroad when I was working with Kakadu and took a year off to go exploring solo so we’ve both had the travel bug for a while.
I love the idea of combining an online shop with a photo documentary of awesome travel adventures! It’s a totally refreshing approach, what inspired it? And how are crew responding?
Rich: I actually saw a collage of Tintin covers of his many adventures a few years ago – Tintin in the Congo, Tintin in Morocco, Tintin in Tibet and even Tintin on the Moon! I thought what a life… I too love travelling, especially to new places… It gives me a rush. I talked to Melissa who I was working with on Whillas & Gunn and she loved the idea too. Getting paid to do it was the trick which is how we came up with the idea to switch from wholesale to online. So far the response has been great and we are slowly building a loyal clientele who have an itch for adventure or we’re converting them!
You constantly test your products whilst on your adventures, what special elements are you looking for? What certain boxes have to be ticked?
Rich: Durability is what I check for first and foremost. I want to be able to bring my gear anywhere! Amazing adventures pop up out of the blue and I like to be ready without having to get ready. I am also a sucker for low maintenance. There is too much fun to be had out there to be worrying about dry cleaning or ironing, let alone a bag that breaks!
What single carry piece are you most proud of?
Our Trap Duffle is the fave of the family and basically sums up the ethos of Whillas & Gunn – simple yet rugged and functional.
What other carry brands, apart from WG, are doing rad things? Who inspires you? And who do you learn from?
Rich: Just discovered Bellroy wallets – no detail is forgotten on their products and the packaging is awesome!
As for inspiration, Ralph Lauren is always one of my favourites. They always manage to capture the romance and spirit of adventure.
M: I haven’t gotten my hands on one yet but I am keen to check out Langly bags. They specialise in bags for photography equipment that doesn’t look boxy or obvious yet still has enough space to pack in a couple of days’ worth of clothing which is perfect for me when we’re on the road.
Melissa, your photography is pretty damn amazing! What’s your go-to gear? Can we see a layout shot?
M: I would love to but *sniff* I am just in the middle of getting it replaced after it got stolen during our first trip to Cambodia. I use a Canon Mark 3 and a 24-105mm lens normally.
Can we see your most favourite photo from your adventures? It doesn’t have to be WG related. 😉
M: I love this pic. We were travelling with my father and a friend and she took this photo of dad taking a photo of me taking a photo of Rich in this random bus station on the way to Khao Sok National Park in Thailand.
Any tips or tricks for keeping your gear safe?
M: Camera-wise I would definitely recommend a scratchproof UV lens cover so that you can keep your lens cap off and be ready to snap without risk of scratching the lens, plus a water-resistant bag just in case the weather turns.
And I imagine, between you two, there’s been some serious travel time clocked and some hard-earned knowledge gained. Any tips on how to make travel easier or more awesome?
M: Plan to make no plans. We usually only book the first one or two nights of big trips then go from there.
Eat first, ask questions later (use smell and common sense to guide you).
Take the unorthodox route in at least one direction.
Bring packable bags in case of carry-on restrictions.
Hit me with one amazing story from your travels? What one moment is etched in your mind?
M: Many years ago we did an epic road trip with our uncle and father and a few other friends – seven of us in total – from Prague to Calabria to Brugge then back to Prague. We were looking for a place to rest for a few hours in Antwerp and almost everywhere was full. A couple of the boys were running in and out of the car at every hotel or pensione we saw until we finally found a place that could accommodate us all. The reception asked us a few kind of odd questions that we just took for something lost in translation but we were exhausted so just went to our rooms and crashed. In the morning we realised one of the beds had plastic sheets and that even though there was no toilet in the room there was a bathtub in the corner. It turned out we spent the night in a love hotel.
Favourite destination and why?
M: The Mongolian countryside – it is still mostly untouched by modernity and they still continue to practice their age-old traditions. It’s changing now but thankfully not too fast.
What’s one place you haven’t been, but would love to go to?
M: So hard to choose just one! Continent-wise we’d love to head to South America since neither of us have been, especially Cuba before it opens up too much more. There are a ton of other places though…Madagascar, the Galapagos Islands, Myanmar, Nepal, Turkey, the Dead Sea… It’s a pretty long list.
If you could go back in time and speak to Melissa and Richy 15 years ago, what would you tell them?
M: Explore more, take chances and keep a diary so that we can look back and remember all the mischief and adventure we were actually getting up to 15 years ago.
What’s next for WG?
Rich: Travel-wise we are just getting ready for a jaunt through Cambodia before we do a quick trip to the Bahamas for a friend’s wedding – which will also mean an excellent opportunity to have a little WG Trunk Co adventure!
For the brand, we are just finalising the designs for a range of new bags and a range of travel-ready pants – the best part is we get to test it all out soon!