The Brotherhood of Alex's Backpack
Written by: Petr Jansa Photos by: Tomáš Krist
To change an everyday fashion accessory into an iconic symbol is not a question of marketing. It is about an interplay of multiple factors that need to be in unison. There is a wide range of well-proven methods of achieving success. Eventually, you can have a perfect product but if you do not have that indefinite "something", it will never become iconic.
Czech designer Alex Monhart managed to succeed without planning anything. Maybe her designer backpacks are really that awesome or maybe it is her individuality. Whatever the reason, a micro community of loyal-to-the-bone customers has formed around Alexmonhart backpacks in a just a few years.
A Backpack as a Magnet
"The backpack is a magnet. It works as a communication channel for people who can even be complete strangers," marketing specialist Martin Štěpanovský describes his experience. He belongs among Alex Monhart's historically first customers. He bought her backpack 3 years ago for the original price of CZK 3,500. Since then, he has not taken it off his back. Today, the price of the same Primus model is twice as high – the workmanship of the backpack is more elaborate and it is made of more luxurious materials. Nevertheless, Martin is not thinking about buying a new one. "The new version is too perfect. I like mine more, we've been through so much together and it's still in great shape," he says.
He returned to Alex only once over the 3 years. "On my way from the railway station, I met a guy with the same backpack. We started chatting and he told me that Alex was replacing shoulder straps with more practical ones for free. So, I went to her shop at Letná. You can spend less than an hour with her and you feel as if you have known her for ages," Martin says and adds that Alex's backpack is one of the few things that he does not mind seeing on other people.
Student Martin Adámek who has been wearing his backpack for almost a year now has a similar view. "I had been looking for a minimalistic backpack for quite a long time. Then, I saw a backpack by Alex on Instagram and I knew that it was it. The price was high but I have no regrets. I'm happy that I was able to support a Czech designer," explains Martin who is wearing the basic Urbanus model for nearly CZK 4,000. "A lot of people like it and they know Alex and her work. That's not quite common among Czech designers," he says.
Up to Letná
The formation of a community around an ordinary backpack is a rather surprising phenomenon in the Czech environment. That is why I have decided to find out what is behind the magical vibes hovering around the black urban backpacks embellished with the silver Alex Monhart logo. I must admit that I have never been particularly fond of the Prague district of Letná where I am to meet up with Alex. Perhaps it is because I suckled the water from the Vinohrady waterworks on the other side of the river. Or perhaps it is the hipster aura levitating over Letná thanks to posh secondhand shops and cafés where you need a bitcoin account to order a cup of coffee. Letná simply is not a place where I would seek to go often. The strange tension that prompts me to give myself an air of a conceptual artist vanishes as soon as I enter Alex's Lab 24 showroom. She greets me with a warm smile and she seems rather shy. It is obvious at first sight that she has art and design in her blood.
Her grandmother, Květa Monhartová, is an acclaimed painter from Plzeň and her father, Libor Monhart, is an architect. "I studied French philology and film studies. The Film School in Olomouc is practically oriented and as students, we organized festivals and shot short films to which we wrote music and made costumes."
Alex Monhart sells her backpacks in her showroom at Letná, Prague.
It was namely the world of film and theatre costumes where Alex dropped anchor for a while. When she came to Prague, she got a job with Jakubisko film. As an assistant to costume designer Jan Růžička, she collected costume material for the planned Slovanská odysea project. Even though the film was not realized, Alex's efforts were more than compensated by preparing costumes for Filip Renč's Lída Baarová. "I already had my brand under which I was making bow ties then," she tells me and I realize that the colourful winged creations that I came across while googling information where no glitch in the matrix but her actual work.
Triple Front Somersault
There is not a trace of bow ties in the Lab 24 where Alex works with her colleague, Daniel Klíma. And nothing in the black and white interior with a historical tiled floor and an installation consisting of a black corrugated board with four hanging backpacks suggests that it should be otherwise.
How does it happen that a designer of wild bow ties transforms into a designer of minimalistic and precision-made backpacks? "I was interested in fashion and since I always give everything I do my best, I decided to study at the Prague Scholastica where I completed two semesters with Alice Klouzková from Sistersconspiracy. As a part of our semestral thesis, we were to look at a traditional thing from a new perspective. That was when I thought that all good things always come from a common human need. And I needed a backpack. An interesting and nice backpack that I couldn't find anywhere. And that's how it all began," Alex describes the moment when her successful brand was born. "The result was a picnic-style backpack consisting of a bag with a draw-string closure and a rattan cover that could be unfolded into a stool that you could sit on," she recollects.
Her semestral work earned Alex success not only at school but also in Europe. She enrolled her backpack in a contest held as a part of the Roots of the European Design Exhibition in Budapest where she was awarded second prize. "People told me that it was a great idea and that they wanted a backpack just like that. I began to think about it more seriously and I tried to rework it into a marketable form," she continues. "It wasn't easy because I wanted to make a leather backpack and I had no experience in leather processing. This forced me to come up with a technology for making a leather backpack without sewing," Alex describes. "Suddenly, all started fitting together and resulted in this," Alex points to her Primus backpack hanging on the wall.
Primus, Magnus, Urbanus
The Alex Monhart brand has been existence for four years and its foundation stone continues to be its Primus, Magnus, and Urbanus backpack line. "Last year, we sold several hundred backpacks and this year, we are expecting a growth in sales," Alex says. Interest from abroad should help the brand in this respect as it has been increasing thanks to the brand's participation at various international fairs, such as Seek Berlin.
"We tried contacting foreign shops that we liked, however, participation at fairs has proven as far more effective. Even though the costs are higher, you automatically meet people who are interested in your work," says Alex whose backpacks are sold by shops both at home and abroad. "Many buyers didn't trust us at first. But after participating at a fair for the third time, the situation changed – the buyers were no longer afraid that we would go bankrupt the next day," she laughs. "With new producers there's always a risk that a buyer submits an order for 3,000 pieces, you keenly accept it but after contacting production, you are told that they are able to make not more than 10 pieces. This is hard to explain and buyers who get burnt once, won't come to you the second time," Alex describes. For this reason, she has a production plan for the entire year so that she knows when and how many backpacks will be made and delivered to the warehouse.
I would like to find out whether she is speaking from her own experience. "Our first big order was from Korea. We were approached by a buyer who had five multibrand boutiques and was about to open another one with men's accessories. He ordered 15 pieces. It was a success and a feasible quantity so there was no faux pas. Unfortunately, Asian buyers have stopped coming to Europe recently and European brands are experiencing a lack of interest on their part," she adds.
On the other hand, Alex has nothing but praise for German collaboration and namely the shops in Berlin and Hamburg. For example, they regularly inform her about the customers interested in her backpacks and provide her with feedback about what they miss or like on the backpacks. "The Germans are more pedantic in this respect," she laughs and adds that they are sold out now.
In Czechia, Alex sells her backpacks in her e-shop, her showroom at Letná, and in Freshlabels and Basmatee boutiques in Prague or at the Rebelion Store in Brno. They are also newly available at the Footshop in Bratislava. "We were contacted by many people from Slovakia who were interested in our backpacks. Yet, before paying CZK 7,000, they naturally wanted to see them. I'm glad that they have this opportunity now," Alex says.
It is somewhat more difficult when it comes to customers from the other end of the world, although you can still find people who do not hesitate to shop online. "I've received orders from Hong Kong or Kuala Lumpur. Frankly, I rushed to my computer to google their address. And when I saw those high-rise buildings, I thought it was cool that somebody would wear my backpack there," she laughs. "The customer was a girl who was quite active on social networks so I got instant feedback from her and that was nice."
How are the social media important for a young brand? "It was great, for instance, when Adam Katz Sinding took a photo of one of the bloggers wearing our backpack at the Prague Fashion Week and posted it on his Instagram. Many people contacted us then. Nonetheless, it is hard to map whether our customers come to us thanks to gossip or thanks to finding us on the social networks," she says.
I have discovered Alex Monhart's backpacks through my friends who posted a photo with their backpack on Facebook. That is why I believe that the influence of social media is quite potent in this respect. "By the way, could you show me what makes your backpacks so interesting?" I challenge Alex. She describes every single pocket and demonstrates how to easily fold the backpack into a practical envelope.
Cool! Can you wrap it up for me?
"It looks cool! I think I'll take the smaller one. I don't like the idea of investing seven thousand crowns into you for the bigger one," I hear myself saying aloud. "I appreciate your frankness," Alex laughs. "We had to increase our prices but, at the same time, we are able to defend them. When customers see how the backpack looked before and how it looks now, they understand," Alex explains and she presently fetches one of the prototypes. It differs only in minor details, yet it obviously lacks the touch of luxury of its younger alter ego.
"We practically made this backpack ourselves by makeshift means at the studio. It's one of the phase-one versions. When I wanted to succeed abroad, I had to shift the material and workmanship standard to a completely new level. And I think it's visible," Alex says and I nod. While Alex is wrapping my new Urbanus in black silk paper and placing it into an elegant black box made by the Činčera Studio according to her design, I learn that I am her typical customer.
"Customers who buy our backpacks are mostly men in their early to mid thirties. In the morning, they leave their home with their backpack and head to their office. During the day, they take it with them to a meeting at a café. And in the evening, they take out their notebook, fold the backpack into an envelope and go out for dinner," she describes. "The other day, I had a customer who came here on his Vespa," she adds with a proud smile, and I realize how happy she is that her customers have style. "He parked it in front of the showroom. He was deciding between Primus and Urbanus and he eventually bought the smaller one," she concludes. While Urbanus is sold for CZK 4,000 and it is the least expensive, the best seller is Primus priced at CZK 7,550. The most expensive is Magnus, which is sold for almost CZK 10,000. It is also the biggest one with a reinforced back and an additional leather cross-shoulder strap. Alex also offers a backpack in a limited edition combining bottle green rubber-coated fabric with black patent leather. "There were four of them and we have one last left," she says.
"You know, I think I'll take the mid-sized one," I say decisively. "Are you planning to make any accessories to it?" Alex smiles and replaces Urbanus with Primus. "Now, we have photo belts that were created in cooperation with blogger Adéla Mazánková. It's a leather belt made from the same leather that's used on the backpack. The design is the same and thanks to the components, it can be used as a camera holder, clipped to a backpack, or worn as a wristband," she demonstrates. "We are currently working on smaller items, such as wallets and larger travel backpacks. It will take a while though," Alex says and I see that she is giving it her best again. Before she releases anything, she wants to be certain that it is bug-free.
That day, I walked into the showroom at Letná as a curious journalist and I walked out as a owner of a new backpack. I have no regrets. Only a few seconds after showing my new Primus on Instagram, I felt on my own skin the positive effect that it has on people. I became a member of the Brotherhood of Alex's Backpack.