Taylor Welden, Senior Editor of the influential online publication Carryology recently spent an afternoon with INCASE Design Director Kenji Okada to get his take on a variety of topics including the growing impact of sustainability on product design and what it was like being on the team that guided the recently launched INCASE x BIONIC Collection from inspiration to execution.
Here’s what Kenji had to say :
CARRYOLOGY: I’m stoked to be interviewing you and to get to know you. Can you tell me a little about who you are? Where’d you grow up? Where else have you worked? What are some of your other passions and interests?
KO: I grew up in Orange County, California and went to school in Long Beach. Design was almost a second career. I worked at a golf shop for like ten years first, then did a little furniture design for a while. I’ve been with the Incipio Group now for seven years, with Incase exclusively for about four, so just long enough to feel rooted. Incase was like a dream job for me. I always collected bags and I was a fan of the brand. Coming in on day one I felt like I had already been there for a long, long time.
CARRYOLOGY: What kinds of themes or concepts have inspired your design work? Have they matured or gone a different direction?
KO: In school you’re trying to do the craziest things to stand out, so you’re constantly over-designing. As I got into the professional world, especially working in furniture, I followed a more sculptural, artistic kind of vibe. Like most designers I’ve always been drawn towards minimalism, but I also try to look beyond it and towards the evolution of it. Incase has been built around very Bauhaus*-rooted principles, but we also strive to come up with newer ways to solve problems. By looking at new ways to do things we can retain a basis that is still very function-driven but executed in a way that breathes new life through design. Whether respecting materials and the way that they naturally want to react, like in the fashion world with draping, or being able to manipulate and give structure to textiles. You can add a lot of texture and intrigue but, from a form language standpoint, still keep that minimalism vibe to it.
*The most basic tenet of the Bauhaus design movement is that form follows function.*
"By looking at new ways to do things we can retain a basis that is still very function-driven but executed in a way that breathes new life through design."
CARRYOLOGY: Has sustainability always been a primary focus of yours? Did it take joining Incase to really start exploring that idea?
KO: It was always a thought; I just didn’t know how to do it in an impactful way. I can put it on my Instagram or a website but there’s no follow-through. Now I’m in a position to have a little bit broader of an impact and take those conversations and bring them out to more of a mass market. Incase has been utilizing sustainable materials in our products since 2012, but always gone about it in their own way; a little more behind the scenes. For example, Incase has been utilizing great materials like Ecoya in our designs for years now but in a subtle way. These types of fabrics and their dyeing practices help conserve water without compromising the end result of the product. These types of practices and designing with more eco-friendly materials is what really opened me up to where we can take sustainability.
*Greenwashing, also called "green sheen", is a form of marketing spin in which green PR and green marketing are deceptively used to persuade the public that an organization's products, aims and policies are environmentally friendly and therefore “better.
"As sustainable materials are getting better and more accessible, how do we integrate those into our assortment and other parts of our process? We looked to our partnership with BIONIC this year as a natural evolution of that."
CARRYOLOGY: There’s a lot of cynicism in the sustainability space because of brands that are kind of greenwashing. * How can a brand go beyond greenwashing and what’s an actual sustainable strategy?
KO: We want to do it in a responsible way, with a full strategy in place. As sustainable materials are getting better and more accessible, how do we integrate those into our assortment and other parts of our process? We looked to our partnership with BIONIC this year as a natural evolution of that. Bringing them on as a partner to help create intentional products from ocean waste is just the beginning of the story. Their community outreach with the Waterkeeper Alliance engages in coastal communities in Costa Rica to recycle and sort plastic debris – a true activation. It’s that kind of holistic approach that takes things to the next level – there is an actual movement behind the product.
Making sure the material is right and that it’s going to last is also where I put a lot of focus, because for me sustainability also means simply throwing away less stuff, right? If we can make a bag that lasts five-plus years, I feel like that is also a form of sustainability. And maybe the original consumer sells it off to some other person and that’s going to last him or her another few years. It’s not as flashy and as attractive as other sustainable stories, but it’s actually having an impact.
CARRYOLOGY: Do you feel it’s possible for a massive brand to be successful with 100% products made from non-virgin, recycled, sustainable materials? Or do you think there’s always going to be a requirement for virgin materials?
KO: I think eventually we can get there. I’ve personally looked at companies like Patagonia and their approach to sustainability. They are proof that a responsible approach to product and business can work. It’s definitely a challenge, but consider exterior textiles and how much stronger and durable they are now, and what we can now achieve with them. We tested different materials a while back – the strength wasn’t there. But now, the quality of the product is similar to that of virgin materials at a price we can offer without a giant premium. So, I think there will come a point when we can get there. And the more educated the public becomes the more the demand will grow. It’s all about education and an uncompromised product that will last.
CARRYOLOGY: Why does Incase care about the earth? This is a costly venture. Why not ignore it?
KO: We work off design principles that we’ve built on for years, way before my time. One of our main pillars is “delivering a better experience through good design.” That has evolved. It’s very subjective, right? What is good design and what is a better experience? Our customers have evolved too. They’ve become more educated and aware of the impact that we have on the environment. And that awareness and responsibility are now embedded in our brand ethos. We understand that we have a responsibility to take these steps in an authentic way while not sacrificing the experience of the product. It’s pushing to make a sustainable solution that strives to be better than a non-sustainable version.
CARRYOLOGY: If there’s one driving force or idea behind the whole Bionic collection, what is it?
KO: For me it’s not just the sustainability aspect of creating products from recycled plastics, but the community activation surrounding BIONIC. They go about sustainability not only from a recycled textiles point of view, but also work with the Waterkeeper Alliance to set up a proper recycling infrastructure in developing territories. The end result is an actual purpose-driven call to action that helps these coastal communities. This mission is what we found most attractive about working with the Bionic team. As a collection, it’s the idea of encapsulating these great initiatives into products that are equally as great.
CARRYOLOGY: From the start to where you’re at now, how long did this project take to develop?
KO: Since the conversation started with BIONIC, we are right on two years. It’s been a long process mainly because we wanted to get it right, not force it, and to execute in an organic way. We worked closely with BIONIC and their different materials to find the textile that was suitable for our application. A lot went into just the material development before we got into designing the products. Once we aligned on the final weave development BIOINIC was able to dial in proper fibers that offered the perfect amount of strength and other key properties we wanted.
"We work off design principles that we’ve built on for years, way before my time. One of our main pillars is “delivering a better experience through good design.” That has evolved."
CARRYOLOGY: Did Bionic ever tell you that your ideas weren’t possible?
KO: Not BIONIC. They were always really open and willing to work with us, which was great. We had other mills that said, “No, we can’t do this,” or “We can and here’s the price.” Or the lead times were insane. BIONIC wanted to develop what was a true partnership through the entire process. In the beginning we researched different mills by looking for answers to simple questions. What’s their vision? Are we aligned? What kind of enthusiasm do they have? And again, it goes back to that holistic approach and BIONIC’s overall mission, which is “Stronger Thread, Greater Good.” They’re really doing things genuinely to make a difference by helping upcycle plastic pollution while helping different communities.
TW: Were there any failures throughout this process?
We failed early. We failed fast and we failed hard. We got through a lot of that early on and I think because we worked so hard at getting the material right from the beginning. After that it was more just trying to figure out what the assortment was going to look like and why these pieces. During the early days there were a bunch of different pieces that were kind of floating in and out of this collection that just didn’t make sense. What came from these trials was our final three-piece collection; a laptop sleeve, an accessory organizer and this classic tombstone bag. A collection that all worked together as a cohesive system created from traceable plastics recovered from our oceans.
"Buy meaningful things that last."
CARRYOLOGY: There’s only so much that you as a designer and Incase as a brand can do. In your opinion, what can the average person do to make an impact on their own?
KO: Read your labels and research your products. Learn about who the company is, what they make and how they make it. Remember it’s not always the companies making the loudest noise and the most commotion that are doing the most. Also, how you consume products and turn over or get rid of them has a huge impact. Buy meaningful things that last.