Vessel Workshop: Born and Raised in Riverwest

Jun. 29, 2016
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Bicycles have been used for delivery purposes dating as far back as the 1860s. Even after the invention of the automobile, bike couriers have remained heavily relied upon, especially in dense metropolitan areas, because of their ability to evade traffic jams and parking limitations, leading to faster delivery times.

Bike couriers rely on heavy-duty messenger bags and backpacks because of the cumbersome amount of weight they carry. Riverwest-based Vessel Workshop provides them with some of the highest quality bags on the market.

“Vessel Workshop started as a necessity to survive, basically,” Nick Costanzo, owner of Vessel says of his company’s meager beginnings. “I was broke. I had like $20 left to my name.”

Costanzo was born in Sienna, Italy and lived there until he was six years old. He has lived in Milwaukee ever since, with the exception of a study abroad program, which sent him back to Italy for a semester, and a brief stint in Denver. 

Aside from his exotic upbringing, he is the prototypical Riverwest resident. When I arrive to meet him he is wearing a black, backwards Fuel Café trucker hat and has multiple tattoos visible under his cut off Vessel Workshop tank top. My first impression is further driven home during the interview, when various passersby gravitate over to chat with him at our outdoor table.

Costanzo’s magnetic personality is reflected in the way he does business. In 2014, while Vessel was in its infancy, Costanzo took his first trip to New York City, where most of his bags are still sold due to the high number of bike messengers employed there. Though he knew no one personally before making the trip, undaunted, he went all over the city meeting with groups of bike messengers and shop owners to showcase his then robust line of 25 products.

“It’s a very hands-on process,” Costanzo says. “I’m the one answering every email, every phone call and shipping out every package. Where I’m from in Italy that’s how business is done. I would rather be the one going to shops and shaking hands with the owner. They get so many emails and care packages sent to them that it all gets lost. I prefer face to face interaction.”

Costanzo’s hands-on demeanor extends to design and manufacturing. Every detail of a bag is selected with quality and durability in mind. Vessel bags are made with waterproof, military-grade canvass and buckles that can hold over three thousand pounds. The bags are stitched together with German-imported, tex 90 bonded nylon thread that is designed for fireman’s clothing. Costanzo says the thread will cut your hand before you could break it and that, “the likelihood of a bag tearing at the seam is virtually nil.”

A concession to his almost 100% do-it-yourself approach is the recent partnership with a local sewing shop that now takes care of production. The shop employs expert tailors, whom Costanzo admits are currently paid more than he is. The combination of locality and expert craftsmanship he gets from his production partner allows him to focus on design without concern about a decrease in the quality of his product. Though he finds it hard to compete with the bigger bag makers who often use sweatshop styled methods to produce average quality products at dirt-cheap costs, he has no plans of sacrificing quality or his brand’s integrity.

“By staying local I’m able to maintain the level of quality that I want,” Costanzo says. “Everything is still stitched by hand on an old-school machine. These messengers out there are carrying insane amounts of weight all day long, all year long. These bags need to be made in a very particular way.”

The commercial response to Vessel has steadily gained velocity since Costanzo made his first bag. Revenue has grown from $14,000 in the first official year of production to over $100,000 last year. His business is being embraced by the local bike scene, which is serendipitously evidenced when Costanzo points out a cyclist riding by wearing a Vessel backpack in the middle of our chat at Fuel Café.

Costanzo is currently planning a business trip much like the one he took two years ago to New York City. This time it will be a three-month road trip to the West Coast where he will live out of his van and promote the Vessel brand in an area of the country that has been mostly uncharted territory for the business so far.

This time around, he boasts an increasing market acumen and solid financial footing, but he plans on attacking his West Coast venture with the same determination and grit that he exhibited in New York when the business was in its infancy, which is exactly how he has run every aspect of his business since.

Vessel Workshop bags can be found at Moda 3, Fyxation and Vulture Space as well as their website www.vesselworkshop.com

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