After living in the Bay Area for 12 years, in San Francisco for the last 6, and working in the Mission District for the last two years, I thought I knew the neighborhood pretty well. I must have walked up the 16th St. block between Valencia St. and Guerrero St. at least a thousand times and yet when Noah told me where his new Joshu + Vela location was, I could not picture where the store was.
I definitely knew where Taqueria Coyotes was (I’ve devoured my share of California burritos there), but even with that knowledge I ended up walking past the store once or twice before I realized where it was exactly. Tucked between a local grocery market and a non-profit aimed to help local students achieve the goal of attending college, there Joshu+Vela was with its nondescript storefront that is easy to miss (although at the time of writing this, they’ve since added in sign and some large plants to spruce up the vibe when the doors are opened).
They had quietly moved in early 2015 onto a block that is particularly interesting especially given what’s been going on in San Francisco the last decade or so. It’s likely familiar news that San Francisco has been going through a massive sweep of gentrification alongside the influx of tech companies moving to the city. Regardless of your stance on gentrification and the tech industry’s role in it, there’s no denying that it is a reality in San Francisco. Just take a walk down 16th St. from Mission St. to Valencia St. and you’ll quickly notice the dramatic shift in the people, businesses, and overall atmosphere of the block.
Joshu + Vela is smack in the middle of this block. While their clientele consists of many who work in the tech industry and their higher price points (which are on par with anything that is made in house with the kinds of materials they use) do reflect the trend of higher priced stores and brands that have appeared in historically lower income neighborhoods; Joshu + Vela is rather basic in their use of modern technology and instead rely on old techniques and machines that have remained unchanged for almost a century and still used by many artisans and craftsman today. Outside of a few computers used to maintain and update their website, process orders, and edit photos, most of the machines in their compact space are quite “untech-y” and quite vintage.
Noah as a designer stands somewhere in between modern and old school. His designs are simple and with the heaviness of his materials, it’s easy to see that his focus is on durability. Outside of a few design choices that are specific to Noah’s style, the bags are designed in a utilitarian way that most customers will find familiar.
However, in talking with him, it’s also clear that the simple aesthetic is not for lack of resources and skills (in fact his workshop is set up to do almost anything) and rather a result of his approach to watching the market, understanding what people actually need in the long term, and creating and testing a lot of prototypes.
During our quick style tour of the workshop, I was surprised to see the amount of different pieces, snaps, buckles, straps, and prototypes hanging around. Many of them were prequels of prequels of products that were aimed for a specific purpose (Except for the Dad Jean Backpack which serves no real purpose besides to say “because I can”).
Take for example a camera case. With cameras of all calibers so readily accessible, there has been a growing demand for more aesthetically pleasing cases but Joshu + Vela has not yet released a dedicated camera case. When asked about why he hasn’t made one yet, he says, “it’s not that I am opposed to making one and doing more modern designs and features, it’s a matter of doing them in a way that actually works in a smart way.”
In other words, when it comes to bags that are designed for specific functions, it’s not enough just to make a simple bag that only kind of serves a function and call it a day. He’s been drafting ideas and testing different types of clasps, snaps and storage ideas order to keep the clean look he wants but not at the expense of the bag being inferior to other options in the market.
Kind of Vintage
These days you’ll most likely find Noah dressed in a white t-shirt and white Levi’s 501. Apparently, it’s been his uniform for at least the last half year and while he does wash his jeans often, there is a certain patina on the white fabric that is now more off white with darker areas where oils, dirt and dye have rubbed off.
It’s a nice contrast to see the wear marks on the white jeans compared to the indigo fades we’ve grown used to. As we discuss his current all white choice, he pulls out a bag (a prototype indigo dyed Joshu Vela weekender) filled with his jeans and jackets he’s worn over the years.
Noah has a soft spot for vintage Levis and Wranglers and as I look through the clothing he’s worn over the years, I assumed that much of the wear had been done prior to him buying it but turns out that most of the fading and wear marks are a result of his years of travel and work in the shop. While he prefers buying vintage, he looks for relatively unworn vintage clothing that’s closer to deadstock. There is something about finding a jean from a few decades ago that fits just right and has the beginnings of someone else’s wear marks that he can continue.
His clothing and style is reminiscent of his brand that he’s built for the last five years. Instead of getting caught up in the San Francisco world of “disrupting the space” with completely new products, he’s building upon what has been tried and true by using very familiar materials and trying to create a balance of simplicity, functionality, and creativity. It’s no secret that there are many brands who are doing similar products as Joshu + Vela, but like in the denim world, it’s the small details and how the products look years down the line that truly sets brands apart.
It’s easy to talk to Noah for a while. He’s mild mannered, has an easy going attitude, and finds humor in a lot of things but there’s a seriousness about him when he talks about Joshu + Vela and where it’s headed. He’s not one to readily offer up information without being asked but every question posed to him about his work, he’s already thought about it and has at least a partially formed idea. It’s this quality about him that should make the upcoming years worth paying attention to as many of those partially formed ideas become complete ideas that result in products that are useful and here to stay for a long time.
Joshu + Vela is located at 3042 16th St. in San Francisco, you can find out more on their website.
All photos by Taylor Reyes.