When your sister is Jessica Biel—Hollywood star and fashion plate (the word “icon” has been tossed her way more than a few times)—it would be almost criminal not to seek some familial advice when launching an accessories line. Justin Biel, 29, the actress’s blond and equally striking younger sibling (he’s like Ryan Gosling meets…well, Jessica Biel), had the wherewithal to tell his sister very early on about his and best friend Grason Ratowsky’s concept for an eco-conscious, socially responsible collection of bags made out of burlap coffee sacks. “I thought it was an amazing idea and I trust them and believe in them,” says Jessica, who swiftly offered up both her “creative influence”—bigger pockets, longer straps, more elegant hardware—and invested enough cash for a small production run of about 200 bags. These became the basis for BARE, the trio’s Denver-based company, launched in 2013.
Ratowsky, 28, a visual artist and self-taught web designer who serves as the brand’s creative director, was initially inspired by a sack his father had brought him back from Costa Rica. “It had a story; it had already lived a life, starting in India and traveling to Latin America, through jungles, through forests, across borders. It fascinated me so I thought, Why not make something new out of it and breathe in new life?” He searched YouTube for how-to-sew videos and made the first prototype (a duffle) on his girlfriend’s Singer machine. He showed Justin, who’d worked in marketing and copywriting for a handful of startup companies and quickly jumped on board. Justin showed Jessica, and that was that.
The brand still sells one-of-a-kind duffles and backpacks fashioned out of repurposed coffee sacks—sourced from Colorado coffee roasters, of course—through its e-commerce site,
baremade.com, but is moving into more fashion-forward territory, including limited-run artist collaborations (totes and wallets made out of painted recycled billboard vinyl). “I wanted the bags to be big and more elegant-feeling in terms of what kind of leather we were using, what kind of hardware we were using,” says Jessica. “Given the raw quality of the burlap, I wanted a nice element of luxury there.” But with a twist: Every single piece is slightly different from the last. “The thing that we all agree on is that each one of these bags should truly be a unique style, with a unique pattern. That's where we all give it up to the ‘art gods.’”
One thing you can’t leave to chance (or to a god): a business plan. “For us, the big challenge is moving from a small company making these one-of-a-kind products to figuring out how to transition into a real fashion brand,” Justin explains. “And how do we scale this company, remaining true to who we are?”
Maintaining socially responsible practices and sourcing sustainable materials still top the priority list. For Ratowsky, sustainability is “about a mix of eco materials—repurposing materials instead of them going into a landfill, and using canvases, vegetable-tanned leathers, and brass hardware from longstanding US brands.” Also, keeping manufacturing local to Denver, in a factory that recycles most all of its waste. “We’re a socially conscious fashion company,” Ratowsky continues. “It’s not impossible!”
"What's amazing about a BARE bag is that it evokes the life that it’s had before you, “ adds Jessica, who uses the carryalls for travel and the Oaxaca duffle as her “set bag.” “The repurposed materials, the prints, the stories—what does that mean for you? Where can you go with it?”
The answer, at least in the short term, is out of town. Right after these photos were snapped, the siblings hugged and parted ways, BARE bags in tow. Jessica was heading off with her better half, Mr. Timberlake (the other Justin in her life), on a quick rustic holiday; the younger Biel, perhaps a bit braver, was en route to the Burning Man festival in Nevada. “I’ll send you pictures!” he promised.
Photography Pamela Hanson
Styling Joe Zee
Hair Adir Abergel
Makeup Beau Nelson
Manicure Debbie Leavitt
Set Design Owl & Elephant
Production Portfolio One