Shop Talk with MAFIA Bags Vol. 6

02/03/2021

RBW

In this interview series, Shop Talk, we chat with Rich Brilliant Willing’s friends and collaborators on the ideas, discoveries, and inspirations that drive their design process.

Like RBW, the Buenos Aires-born, San Francisco-based upcycling company MAFIA is committed to socially and environmentally positive practices. Since 2012, co-founders and siblings Marcos and Paz Mafia have been designing and manufacturing versatile totes, backpacks and other sports-grade accessories from reclaimed sail cloths—resilient textiles that have finished their time at sea and would otherwise go to waste. In 2020, they crossed over into lighting design when RBW tapped their expertise; collaboratively, we co-produced AllSew, a robust homage to the paper lantern fortified with robust, upcycled sails.

Here in our latest Shop Talk interview, we talk to MAFIA co-founder Marcos Mafia and Director of Sustainable Operations Mika Endo about the highlights of their artist and designer collaborations, the challenges of operating sustainably, and how much their brand has been shaped by their surroundings.


When MAFIA was founded in 2012, you were a professional kite surfer. How did one career lead to another?

When MAFIA was founded in 2012, Marcos, you were a professional kite surfer based in Buenos Aires. How did one career lead to another?

Marcos: Well, back in the days, I spent most of my time in the ocean, in the rivers and lakes, and at the time, I had all these piles of sails. My mother came over and said, “Marcos, you need to do something with your old sails, otherwise I’ll throw them away,” and that was the first incentive to start making bags. So we started MAFIA with three general goals: We wanted to use upcycled materials, we wanted to have local manufacturing, and we wanted to have a lifetime warranty for everything that we were doing. We felt like with those values, we were going to do something that was significantly different.

Reclaimed sail cloth takes on a new form as an AllSew shade.

Once you went through your personal supply, how did you find more?

Since then, you’ve saved more than 16,000 yards of sails from the landfill, and opened stores across San Francisco and Tokyo. Once you went through your personal supply, how did you find more?

Mika: We never know what we're going to be getting every time we open up a sail—there's always a sense of wonder, and a new sense of discovery and challenge whenever we're receiving new materials. Most of the materials that we use come from individual donations, so people who find us online or through friends reach out to us either via email or through our website. A lot of the time these sails have a lot of sentimental value, so I think for them, being able to see the sail that they’ve had so many adventures turn into something new, that somebody else will then enjoy, is a really important part of the process.

From the point of donation onward, how does a sail become a duffel bag?

From the point of donation onward, how does a sail become a duffel bag? And given the unpredictable nature of upcycled materials, what kinds of advantages and disadvantages do you run into along the way?

Mika: A lot of love goes into each bag. The initial processing consists of cutting off all of the hardware parts that we can’t use and the really thick seams, sometimes separating by color. Each of the pieces of our bags are cut by hand individually, which is different from traditional manufacturing—normally they stack layers of new fabric and cut hundreds of pieces at once. When you're working with upcycled materials, you have to keep in mind, you're avoiding stains and rips and weak points in the fabric. So we have these clear acrylic shapes for each of our patterns, which we basically maneuver around on our cutting table.

We do a whole lot of labor just to make sure that every piece of material we use is up to our quality standards, but there are a lot of advantages to using upcycled materials. First and foremost, I think we draw a lot of inspiration from handling something that has been precious to somebody else, that's already lived another life. Another advantage that I really love is that we involve people in the story and the process of upcycling, and thinking about things more sustainably.

What interests you in collaborative projects, and how do your collaborators inspire you?

When RBW approached you for the AllSew project, it was your first time designing a lighting fixture, but you’ve done a variety of crossover projects in the past. What interests you in collaborative projects, and how do your collaborators inspire you?

Marcos: A lot of our work is in partnership with other artists or designers, through relationships that I feel are just very, very random. One day, the artist Tom Sachs spent like an hour and a half in our studio, just digging through materials and nerding out about what we could do together. A lot of our projects came from that one day, a lot of times for his friends, like our line of bags with Adam Savage. And there are a bunch of different things besides just bags. We made a big balloon for an artist in Berlin, Tomas Saraceno, out of Spinnaker sails, and we also did a big project for Airbnb, where we covered their headquarters with 1,000 square feet of sails. When working with RBW, I think we were both definitely inspired by the material itself. For us, it was a natural transition to do a lampshade, so we were very happy to jump into this new design. I think they looked to us because we have this kind of MAFIA style—splashes of color at different angles.

How does the character of the city influence MAFIA’s operations from day to day?

Several years ago, you relocated from Buenos Aires to San Francisco, previously in SOMA, followed by The Mission, and now in Outer Sunset. How does the character of the city influence MAFIA’s operations from day to day?

Mika: I love being close to the ocean. Marcos usually surfs in the mornings, and so I work from home until 10:30 or so. When I come in, we meet and talk about the projects, and it’s a very relaxed, nice kind of neighborhood vibe. We have Andytown, the coffee shop just across the street. They're part of SFMade, which we’re members of as well.

Marcos: When I first visited the U.S., I felt like San Francisco was a great place for us to set up MAFIA. The surf community that lives at Ocean Beach is made of the sort of people who love this stuff: They’re really interested in how things are made and good design. There's also these small businesses, like sewing shops and the people who wash our sails, that are our support. It’s a very nice sort of community of making.


Interviewer

Photographer

Director of Photography

Assistant Director of Photography

Video Production

More Stories

Shop Talk

Shop Talk with Atelier Ace Vol. 4

In this interview series, Shop Talk, we chat with friends and collaborators of Rich Brilliant Willing on the ideas, discoveries, and inspirations that drive their design process.

Read More

Shop Talk

10/30/2020

Shop Talk with Tom Hancocks Vol. 5

This year, we invited Hancocks to launch RBW’s visual artist residency, a new series of artist and designer collaborations aimed at creating unique visual experiences. As our first resident, Hancocks designed three immersive and stunningly detailed fictional environments—two workspaces and one resort—for RBW XR, our 360-degree, extended reality platform for viewing our products in situ. Here, Hancocks walks us through his subconscious approach to design, and describes the perks of cross-disciplinary collaboration.

Shop Talk

05/21/2020

Shop Talk with Atelier Ace Vol. 4

In this interview series, Shop Talk, we chat with friends and collaborators of Rich Brilliant Willing on the ideas, discoveries, and inspirations that drive their design process.

Shop Talk

11/21/2019

Shop Talk with Carissa Mylin Vol. 2

Carissa Mylin, a senior associate at SERA Architects, shares her thinking behind this extensive project and tells us why well-designed workspaces can make or break the creation of a great idea.