Feminine, practical cycling style: meet Michaux Club

In Interviews, London by Claire

There is a line between fashion and practicality that women’s cycling gear often struggles to nail properly. Michaux Club is Rachel Bonney’s creation that manages to do get it spot on. Michaux straddles femininity and real practicality, with nods to NY-style messenger bags that influence the entire design. Think sly features: from waterproofed roll-top messenger bags to handbags with cross-chest load stabilisers to keep everything in place, all in styles that look a world away from regular cycling kit. They look rad.

Rachel designs her bags for city commutes and they are stunning. Rachel comes from a fashion background and has always designed and made her own bags. Ten years ago she was making them out of old carpets and leather jackets – things have changed a bit since. To begin with, the offbeat bags were just for her daily ride but a redundancy and a surprise feature in a national newspaper helped her get brave and start her own company, with barely time to pause for thought.

Claire: What kind of cyclist are you?

Rachel: “I was always the weird one of the house, talking about cycling. I got into cycling in 2008 or 2009. A boyfriend got me into it and it evolved from there. I’ve never had a massive group of cycling friends, it’s always just normally been me. And going about my daily business. I’ve never joined a cycling club or anything. I think I’m too spontaneous.”

How long did you cycle for before you started your company?

“I got my first bike maybe 2008. It was a massive terrible import that was too big and terrifying. I was bought it as part of the wild idea of getting me to cycle. So I traded that in really quickly and got another one but I just did a general cycle commute. Then traded it in for the quicker one and did up the new one. I’d bought it on eBay and wheeled it home – everything was broken or flat, but I did it up. By that point I’d start Michaux. I got made redundant in 2012 and at that point I was making my own bags to cycle with, just because I couldn’t find one I’d liked. I was making them out of old carpets and leather jackets and that sort of strange stuff. Work was quite slow, the recession was hitting and I had lots of time to daydream. Then I got made redundant and it was like “Okay, I’ll do it!” It was now or never, really.”

When did you think you’d like to make them for other people?

“I felt like there was a gap in the market. The natural progression was thinking: ‘if I’m wanting one, I can’t be the only one!’ Whether they like what I’m making is a different thing but it didn’t exist. I couldn’t find one. I’d ended up buying a courier bag in America because I liked the colour of it – a brilliant one that you could customise. But it was really expensive, it was a guy’s bag, and it was really stupid because I was carrying my handbag inside it.”

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So you were working in fashion and trying to ‘stash your cycling bag’ secretly when you got to work?

“Yep, and being a bit apologetic about it. I wasn’t really cycling that far – Kentish Town to Marylebone – so it was only 20 minutes. A short enough journey to wear your nice clothes and my [previous] bag was swinging forward. I’d seen my boyfriend’s courier bag and it had a nice strap on it to keep it still. So I factored that idea into my bag, so it wouldn’t swing forward. So I was still wearing my normal handbag with this extra strap and then I designed a new bag with the strap built in and played around with the shape of it. I was getting the vintage jackets and carpets and playing around with shapes and styles, ruining my sewing machine – completely ruining my sewing machine! I was just playing around. I’ve always made bags since I was really young. It kind of just evolved.”

How did it kick off?

“I’d been daydreaming about names for the company and I got made redundant, so I thought: I need to put my money where my mouth is now. After I got made redundant, I was doing my portfolio and didn’t want to actually get a job in what I was looking for. I was going through the motions but didn’t want to be doing that. I’d started the Michaux blog about the bags too, but I didn’t tell anyone about it. I did a mock photoshoot with the bags I’d made, and I’d been playing around with reflective materials – punching holes in bags and doing all these crazy patterns, putting reflective behind the holes. So I mocked up this photoshoot in the back road by our house. I was sort of pretending I had a brand but I hadn’t told anyone.

”I’ve never learned so much in my life. “
Then I decided to move home to save money and start my business. I’d packed up all my stuff. The day I was moving out, everything’s in the car and I got a call from my friend saying ‘You’re in the Guardian! Congratulations!’ I didn’t know what for, so I had to unpack my laptop from the car and go back into the kitchen. There was my bag on the ‘what to buy your cycling friends for Christmas!” I didn’t have anything to sell – I wondered where they’d found it all. I had five emails already and it was November.

I basically unpacked my box that had a file in with a list of London-based factories. I rung everyone on the list, got laughed at because it was November. One place, ten minutes down the road said “we’ve just finished a job early – come and show us what you’ve got.” I left the car where it was and cycled down to the factory on Holloway Road. The guy was really friendly. They could give me five days of their time and said “let’s see what we can do. Bring everything down cut out.” I was like ‘shit, okay.’I took down the waxed material I had cut, and I’d used some Liberty print material I’d found at Shepherd’s Bush, too, so I knew I could get that. The bags featured used reflective punched holes, so I knew I could do that too. Then I spent the rest of that day buying the stuff, spent all weekend cutting it. My Mum came up and helped. I think I hole-punched 2,000 holes that weekend! All my belongings were still sitting outside my house.

Monday came. I hopped on the bus with four bags of cut-out material and we spent the week making bags. It turned out the guy had been a lecturer at the London College of Fashion. I’ve never learned so much in my life. We got them out in time for the last day of Christmas post.

If I hadn’t have had that break, I’d have had months of worrying that the name wasn’t right and getting all perfectionist about it. Someone had said “if you can sell just one bag before Christmas, that’s a good sign.” I thought I’m going to be alright.

It got a bit more serious after that. The shapes have evolved since. It’s been a massive learning curve.”

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What’s changed design-wise?

“I’ve stopped ding the reflective cut-outs – partly because I felt I needed to move on from that styling and I wanted to stream-line them a bit. They have reflective piping on them now.

The zips were important to me. On the messenger bags I liked, they had little zips [for easy access]. When I started cycling I’d get lost all of the time and getting to my phone was really important to me, so I could use Google Maps. I wanted it to be practical.”

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”I’m always struggling with the boundary of practical and feminine.”
Do you take a lot of design features from the messenger bags you used to wear?

“Yeah. I really like the functions of guys’ messenger bags and camera bags. I think they’re functional and well-designed. I like things to be there for a reason. I’m quite minimalist and I like things to be ordered and make sense. With messenger bags and courier bags, they’ve evolved for that reason.

For example, the courier bag I bought from New York: I always wear my bag on one shoulder and wanted to change the bag across. When it’s custom, you can choose which shoulder it’s designed for because it sits higher depending on the shoulder you use, so it doesn’t obstruct your view. It was only when I wore it the other way round that I realised. Things you don’t normally think about. I like stuff like that.

I’ve never really been into techy sports bags, but when you start looking at them you suddenly open up a whole new world.”

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How do you define your personal style?

“I really struggle with it. I’m quite practical and I like things to work. I’d like to think I’m quite girly and I’m always struggling with the boundary of practical and feminine. I guess my style is minimal, comfortable and hopefully a balance of feminine and functional. I designed the rucksack because I never know what I’m doing – I’m spontaneous. So I made it so I can go and buy all my shopping on the way home, without carrying a massive bag all the time.”

Right. The rucksack really packs down.

“Exactly. You can wear it much smaller.”

Tell me about one of your favourite rides out of London.

“I cycled back to Kent for my parents’ house. You go over the Tilbury Ferry. Then you come into Gravesend and you go down a disused canal. There’s a track where the horse carts used to pull the boats down the side. Then you drop out down into the countryside. I’ve done it once and I’d like to do it again.

I had to take refuge in a golf course when it rained – I cowered in the little shop. I was following Google Maps and suddenly there was torrential rain. Google Maps had taken me down this really muddy path into a the course. “Am I going the right way?” I asked, and they said “No, we get people here all the time lost on Google Maps.” By that point it was tipping it down, so I took refuge in the shop.

The ferry’s really tiny. It’s a really small passenger one. It’s literally ten minutes to the other side but you have to wait half an hour. It’s quite good. It’s not quite a man with a stick, it’s a step up. The guy on the port side had a life jacket that was probably at one point yellow but it’s now this dull yellow that looks like it should have fish coming out of it.

I recommend it, it’s fun. It’d be nice to do some more cycling trips. It’s busy running a business.”

Michaux Club currently sell backpacks, messenger bags and saddle bags. Have a look.

ClaireFeminine, practical cycling style: meet Michaux Club