Bags the size of throw pillows have been slung over Americans' shoulders since Pony Express days. But they became a fashion statement during the early 1980s, when enterprising bike enthusiast Erik Zo created a messenger-specific pack similar to a telephone lineman's satchel made by New York's De Martini Globe Canvas Company. His now-rare 1980s and 1990s creations are key signifiers of local hipster fashion cred, selling secondhand for hundreds of dollars each. But the cottage industry he helped spawn is still around and growing, with at least half a dozen San Francisco companies now designing and making messenger bags. Producers see them as the best bags in the fashion industry: They don't have to change with the seasons, and they don't have to create separate lines for men and women. The local businesses mean buyers benefit from good prices and innovative designs.
580 Fourth St. (at Brannan), 820.5070
Stylewise, Chrome bags seem the most distinctive of the San Francisco-based offerings, featuring an airline-seat-style chrome-plated belt buckle on the shoulder strap, which means you don't have to lift the strap over your shoulder to set the bag down. The bags have become a fixture in hip cafes and bars citywide. The company got its start in Boulder during the mid-1990s, eventually moved to San Francisco, and then sold out to outdoor shoemakers Keen. Lest consumers fear that has resulted in any loss of street cred, Chrome rented a booth at the 2010 Interbike show in Las Vegas offering free logo tattoos. Built of Cordura nylon and lined with vinyl tarp, Chrome bags are tough, waterproof, and shaped to hug the body without encouraging items to shift and poke the back. They're pricey, with a top-of-the-line Berlin model costing $220. But if you belong to a social set whose peers expect you to have a shiny belt buckle on your chest, it's worth it.
40 Rondel (at 16th St.), 864-7225
Marrying for money doesn't always work out. And after staying on for a while after the Keen buyout, the former Chrome principals quit to form their own company across town in an alley behind the Esta Noche bar. Mission Workshop has adorned its bag straps with anodized aluminum buckles that resemble mountaineering gear. Mountaineering has more cachet than modern air travel. The company's $189 top-of-the-line bag features a roll-top cargo compartment — like the ones expedition kayakers use — and ambidextrous shoulder straps, so you can switch sides when your shoulder gets tired. Mission Workshop seems to have revamped both the function and style of the ordinary messenger bag.
506 Hayes (at Octavia), 252-9860
Two decades ago, San Francisco bicycle messenger Rob Honeycutt carried packages around the city in a Zo bag. He invested in some fabric and buckles and a sewing machine and began making and selling bags at the Freewheel Bike Shop. Things took off from there, with Timbuk2 eventually becoming a pioneer in a manufacturing process called "mass customization," where much of a bag is made ahead of time, and custom multicolored panels are added on later. Customization remains its stock-in-trade, with a website allowing you to choose colors for three exterior panels, binding, and logo stitching. Better yet, a basic large model costs $100, about half as much as the aforementioned blingy bags.
904 22nd St. (at Minnesota), 904-8368
As an apparent rule, San Francisco bagmakers tend not to bag out on the bag business. Soon after selling Timbuk2, Honeycutt partnered with a CEO who'd been hired there, and started a new company called Rickshaw Bagworks. Its hook? Right. Customization. The website allows you to choose the colors of your bag's exterior, interior, and binding, and even buy a special Moleskine notebook to go with it. Like the other bags, they're built to do the trick of riding around the city on your bike and retrieving gear or cargo now and again — they feature heavy nylon, waterproof lining, and functional straps and buckles. Best of all, the large messenger model is a relative steal at $80.