Spencer Nikosey was an industrial design student at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena when he decided to work on a sustainable, waterproof backpack. He reached out to one of the cofounders of Incase, Bobby Chang, who suggested that the best way for him to learn about design would be to make something himself.
"I wanted to pass the design to someone else to make, but he convinced me not to," says Nikosey.
Around that time, he paid a visit to the American Military Museum in South El Monte, California, where he noticed a tarp strewn atop a military Humvee. Nikosey talked the curator of the museum into providing him with access to a cache of used-in-combat truck tarps and vintage rolls of waxed canvas from the Korean and Vietnam wars – stuff that had been languishing in warehouses for some 60 years. In 2009, Nikosey started using the materials to make minimalist, modern bags under the label KILLSPENCER. He worked out of his girlfriend's living room and became an instant success. After selling on the Internet a surprisingly large number of bags, he opened up a small workshop in downtown Los Angeles.
It's four years later and Nikosey has just cut the ribbon on a new workshop, factory, and brick-and-mortar store in the city's hip Silver Lake neighborhood. All of KILLSPENCER's products are now designed and manufactured here by Nikosey and his staff of nine. The company has developed dozens of products, ranging from cases for cameras and portable speakers to bags for videographers and golfers. Much of the new bag collection is made from leather – at least in part because of the dwindling military surplus supply and soaring price of the repurposed materials he used early on. Still, Nikosey's goal hasn't changed: "Basically I want to only make the best shit, and I don't want to release it until it's the best," he tells 'Men's Journal.'
KILLSPENCER is big on branching out, and its newest target is sports. Nikosey developed a baseball bat and ball, as well as a football, soccer ball, and speed bag, all of which will be available soon. "We're not making products that are jokes; we're making real products that are legitimate," he says. The bats are rolled and sanded by hand; the balls, which look as though they've been plucked from the past, are constructed using extra scraps of leather that were too small to be used elsewhere and are hand-woven in a process that takes about three hours for each ball. His belief is that even major leaguers will gravitate toward the products.
"I think players want a different experience from the products that they're using," he says. "We're approaching what we do from a very specific frame, and I think a lot of players would gravitate to that."
Nikosey wants to make a baseball glove next, but not without first considering its utility from a fresh perspective. "Why is a glove shaped the way it is?" he asks. "Why does it use that same material? A lot of it is because of price and cost, but for us – because we're more of a higher-end, luxury type of brand – we're able to use materials that might not be used [elsewhere]. Maybe we can make a glove out of space-suit material?" Because of its small size, KILLSPENCER can also create custom designs, a service frequently requested by its high-end clientele.
Up on the company chalkboard are sketches of dogs and designs for various leashes. The owners of a (superb) taqueria up the street called Guisados are big customers, he explains, and they recently came by to ask Nikosey if he'd design them custom dog leashes for their three pups.
While we're talking, a couple of bearded thirtysomethings wander in for a look around. Nikosey strikes up a conversation; they mention that they're in a band, and the subject of guitar straps comes up. "We don't make guitar straps, but we can," he tells them, mentioning that he's actually made some for friends but never put them into production. After some excited talk about the possibilities, they exchange Instagram profiles and the bandmates go on their way. "Through exploring guitar straps, maybe that will make our [bag] shoulder straps better, or vice versa," Nikosey tells me after they leave. "I learn from everything, and I incorporate it. Everything is intertwined."
Nikosey cites the likes of Elon Musk and IdeaLab CEO Bill Gross as inspirations, and it's clear that he has big plans for the future. "I'm not in this just to be in the fashion world – I want to do things that are bigger, and take my talent far beyond this space," he says. "KILLSPENCER will be known for making the best bags possible . . . but as we go, that success will [fund] other personal projects and incubate other companies or projects that can, hopefully, go beyond just the bag focus." Human-powered flight is one of the fields he currently has an eye on and, accordingly, he's organized trips to visit NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Tesla's Palo Alto, California, headquarters.
"This has opened up so many doors, he says. "I could meet anyone I want to, I think. I want to go big with ideas."
[Weekend bags from $450; killspencer.com]