Acembly founders discuss innovating the backpack category through customization

It’s not often that true innovation happens, but sometimes it’s just a small adjustment or tweak that makes all the difference, breathing freshness into what was once a stale concept.

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Acembly was a response to what was happening in the marketplace with youth, who are no longer just looking to shop with one store or brand, the founders said.

Such is the case for Acembly, a new backpack brand started by industry vets who stumbled upon the idea during a group lunch. Most of the time ideas that are generated with peers get left just as that — great ideas that are never acted upon. But the vision for Acembly became a reality — and at an unusually accelerated pace.

“We realized that between all the partners, we had the experience and ability to actually make this happen,” said Co-founder Trent Valladares, who has a long history of helping launch brands. “And that’s what we did!”

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A whimsical approach to a traditionally serious category is what Acembly hopes will set them apart. Photo: Acembly

Alongside Brent Futugaki, who has 30 years in retail under his belt, Valladares worked with Dan Maravilla and Lyndon Cabellon, and within 24 hours the group had factories working on prototypes and were developing a pitch for sales channels.

July’s Agenda Long Beach marked the first collection the brand showed to buyers to pre-book, and we got a peek at exactly what Acembly’s DIY concept is all about. Each portion of the brand’s bags are fully customizable and interchangeable, from the body, to the front zip pouch, to the straps, and everything in between. The end result is a truly one-of-a-kind piece — a rare occurrence in the backpack category and something that speaks to a new generation of youth who are looking to stand out in a sea of sameness.

We sat down with Valladares and Futugaki to hear more behind how this brand came to life and where it’s headed.

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How was this concept an answer to what you were seeing happening in the market at this time?

TV: As we all know, there are challenges currently facing retail. We felt that many categories looked stale. The consumer is no longer motivated by just going to a mall and shopping at a favorite retailer. They really want to be personally involved in their style decisions.

We felt we could provide a brand that could fill that space and support them in exploring their own creativity. And through that, provide some freshness and consumer draw to our retail partners.

You both have pretty deep experience in the industry in different spaces. Can you talk about each of your backgrounds and how you’ve combined that knowledge to create Acembly?

TV: Being in the industry for 25 years lets me draw on experiences not only with many brands, but also from many “eras” in the industry. It helps me know what is possible on the production side, but also apply lessons where we have seen other brands succeed or fail.

Being intimately involved with so many brands either as a licensee or private label has allowed me to really see how various brands are run and bring that knowledge to Acembly.

BF: I have been in retail for over 30 years, and I understand the importance of customer experience, especially in today’s environment. We wanted to create a product that would allow the retailer to interact with the customer.

It’s a new concept for this category so it definitely invokes curiosity from the customer, which makes it easier for the sales associate to interact. We will also be developing exclusive drops with pouches and straps that will allow segmentation for retailers in different locations and regions, which is very important in today's retail climate.

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While Acembly is focused on a young audience, that will evolve as the brand continues to grow, with the addition of more sophisticated silhouettes. Photo: Acembly

Your key demo at the moment is youth — how do you see this evolving as the product evolves? What ideas are on the horizon for continuing to elevate the product?

TV: We really base our design direction on late teen/early adults. We feel it’s important for the brand to resonate with this demographic. If it is accepted within this demo, then it will naturally be accepted with younger ages. But as the brand moves forward, Acembly will bring great and compelling product to a variety of ages.

BF: We are working towards an elevated collection that will include brand collaborations and elevated fabrications as well as new silhouettes.

What are some of the ways you hope to partner with the community (schools, regional retailers, etc) to take bag customization to the next level?

TV: Right now we are working hard to make sure retailers are properly educated and understand how dynamic the brand is. We find that once people really understand the Acembly system, they become incredibly enthusiastic about the possibilities. It starts the wheels turning in every merchant’s head and they start to apply ideas that they could see as relevant to their local area.

Of course, we have many good relationships with artists that can allow for some pretty interesting customization options. Another major piece is the collecting/trading aspect of Acembly and that lends itself well to events and activations.

BF: Our goal is to help our retail stores bridge the gap with local schools and community. We are working with the DIY concept of custom design and will be hosting events at retailers with a “give back” component, and bring artists and students together for a night of fun.

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The options are endless with Acembly, as they continue growing color ways, patterns, and the overall offering. Photo: Acembly

As a case study into how the brand is being received, can you discuss how you have tested the concept at retailers like Nordstrom, Zumiez and online with CCS?

TV: So far we have been very selective about who we partner with at retail and how the brand is rolled out. Again, the key is proper education and presentation of the brand. We want to make sure that the consumer is presented with a full vision of the brand.

As we have been rolling this out, the acceptance has been incredible! We have analyzed and adjusted to continue to build the brand’s momentum. We also believe that being in the right retailers and not being scattered in our distribution helps both the brand and our retail partners as it makes our partnerships more important and the brand more of a draw and a focus in the places it is offered.

Talk about the initial production process – what were some of the immediate challenges, obstacles you had to overcome, and how have you found innovations / updates to streamline the process?

TV: As with any launch, it is always challenging to select the initial mix to produce, so that was a process. We also needed to work out some design details that are unique to Acembly due to its mix-and-match nature.

For example, we wanted to make sure it didn’t look like the pieces were obviously removable. There was also IP to deal with and filing patents. So it was a pretty involved process. But again, I think our experience helped us navigate this in an efficient and timely manner.

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Acembly continues to put emphasis on merchandising the collection and tap into an element of creativity that speaks to a wide range of age groups. Photo: Acembly

Backpacks are a category that could be considered a somewhat saturated one. Why (and specifically where) do you see room for growth in this category and what is Acembly’s six to 12 month strategy to gain market share?

TV: True newness is not something that is easy to achieve. However, we believe that delivering relevant fashion at an accessible price are two basic points Acembly has going for it. Then when you add the customization element, I think that’s where we really start to shine.

The line is well merchandised. And it taps into the DIY and customization concepts in a big way that are so often talked about, but rarely delivered well. Moving forward, we have some very cool products and packages coming that will really emphasize our strengths and should equate to some nice growth.

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