Designer Profile: NOMAD by Tess Johnson

Published: October 7, 2014.

With my recent post on the Timbuk2 Walker Laptop backpack and my ongoing obsessive search for my future backpack, it’s safe to say that backpacks have captured my attention as of late, which is why I was so excited when I got the opportunity to speak with Tess Johnson, the designer behind the NOMAD backpack.

Johnson, who has appeared on 24 Hour Catwalk and shown at New York Fashion week under her namesake women’s wear label, Tess Johnson, is now stepping into new territory. NOMAD is unlike any design experience she’s had (and she’s had a lot of them!). Below is a condensed version of the conversation we had on the design of NOMAD, her inspiration and styling tips for incorporating the bag into your wardrobe.

Where did you get the inspiration from to start NOMAD? Why backpacks as opposed to other fashion items?

A couple years ago I started my own women’s wear company and I was doing a lot of fashion shows. I did New York fashion week a few times and I was making, like, really custom made high-end women’s wear. It was a lot of fun but I was like, ‘I want to make something everyone can wear.’ I was in such a niche market, and I was doing awesome runway shows but then that was it. I really wanted to make something that was affordable for people, that everyone, men, women, all ages, all lifestyles, everyone could wear it. So I was kind of thinking, ‘what’s really accessible to everyone?’ I travel a lot for work and for fun, and I needed a backpack. I have a lot of purses but they didn’t carry what I needed, so it was born out of necessity.

What was the transition like going from your womens wear background and creating your own line, Tess Johnson, to designing backpacks?

I loved it. I loved working with something that didn’t have to change sizes (laughs), I didn’t have to do extra small, small, medium, large, which can be so much of a headache sometimes. But it was great, I do a lot of my own custom prints in my women’s wear so I took that same detail and I made a print for the backpack. I just take all the aspects of creating couture women’s wear and brought it to making a backpack.

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What is the process like for custom designing a print for the lining?

I love making prints, it’s one of my favorite things to do. With this print specifically I was inspired by maps because this collection is called “Nomad” and it’s for traveling and the wanderer.

So that’s where the name came from too then?

Yeah, I wanted it to be for everyone around the world, sort of a universal thing and it just seemed like the best way to connect it would be through traveling.  I really wanted to do something that could be accessible to everyone online and sort of encompasses the whole idea of being “universal.”

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What was the rest of the design process like? How did you decide on colors and other elements like that?

When I first started I just drew the backpack out and I made it out of paper to see the sizes that I wanted. Then after I made it out of paper I just made it out black fabric, just really basic, and I used it and I figured out where I wanted extra pockets and details. For me, I was really inspired by bright colors and pops of colors so I made the gray one with this pop of yellow and the black with a pop of pink and the blue with the pop of bright blue. I kind of just wanted to keep it really fun and exciting and then bring in the classics with the brown, purple and the all black one.

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When people are looking for backpacks they want something that looks good and is functional, but they also want something that feels good on their back. What was it like designing with this in mind?

With the NOMAD the straps are padded, the back is padded, there’s mesh in the back so you don’t get too hot, all the zippers are super smooth to open and close, they don’t get stuck, and all the nylon is super soft. I wanted straps that feel good on your shoulder. I mean, I carry so much stuff, and this backpack carries your laptop, your tablet, your wallet, shoes, a water bottle, it can hold so much stuff. If you’re carrying that much weight on your back you don’t want it digging into your shoulders.

NOMAD is currently on Kick Starter. Why did you decide to turn towards that to fund your collection?

I started my women’s wear company off of winning a TV show back in 2011. With the money that I won I put it towards my first runway show and I sold some pieces from that and did the next runway show, and it was just kind of a cycle but I wasn’t really making any money. Then I was like I want to actually make something that I can sell and that people can have, and that’s when I decided to do backpacks.

I’m not trying to sell my company to investors and I’m still trying to grow it, so Kick Starter has just been the best place for me to start. I wanted to make sure that people were on board and that they wanted the backpack and we’ve had such a great response with the Kick Starter, it’s been doing really, really well. It’s been such a good platform and I’m really excited that I was able to launch it on there.

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Based off your experience in design and fashion, how would you suggest someone incorporate NOMAD into their working wardrobe?

I was a student, I had internships, I’ve had jobs, I’ve been through all of it, and I live in New York where style is super important. So, for me, if I have to go to a meeting I’ll use the all black one and put my laptop, tablet, my metro card in there, and I’ll put my heels in there so I can run around in my sneakers (laughs), so that’s super convenient. Then I’ll wear, like, either really nice black pants and a button down, which I actually have a button-down from my last women’s wear collection that I love to wear, and I’ll throw my NOMAD on with that. If I go out at night with my friends and I have a really big dinner meeting before I’ll wear a really fun printed dress and pair it was a blue backpack to make a statement with the color. It’s really easy to pair it with anything.

Where do you see the future of NOMAD going for you?

Well, I have a ton more ideas. Right now we have a snap out water bottle pocket, but I want to make other pockets you can snap in and out. There’s also a pouch that you can attach to a clasp inside and I want to make different kinds of pouches you can attach there. I want to make a bigger backpack and a smaller backpack, a duffle bag, a laptop case. I want it to keep expanding and growing because I think that the market is really missing a good, fashion-forward, stylish backpack that is also functional. I really want to fill that void and make things that are useful, convenient and really cool looking.