Moop shop in Downtown Pittsburgh. Photo courtesy of Wendy Downs.

The bags you’ll find for sale at Moop are constructed with care. Simple and beautiful, they’re designed with clean lines and made in small batches from durable fabrics — thoughtfully built to keep on functioning well for years to come.

After discovering her initial success almost by accident, the company’s founder, Wendy Downs, has constructed her business the same way.

Her first bag, made nearly 13 years ago, was actually meant to be a dress for Downs herself. When it came out all wrong, Downs turned it inside out and sewed up the sides. Once she began carrying it as a bag, people noticed.

A Moop backpack in a shade Downs calls midnight. All photos courtesy of Wendy Downs.

“I wasn’t setting out to start a business, or do it for anyone else,” she remembers. “But people started asking me where I had gotten it and where they could get one.”

Downs had just finished graduate school and was dealing with lots of uncertainty. Working at an unsatisfying job, she was raising a family and trying to figure out how to keep her artistic practice going. Trained as a sculptor and photographer, she taught herself to sew while working on that first piece.

A model poses with a Moop bag, one of seven tote styles the company offers.

She began selling the bag — a design called the Market Bag that’s still available today — on Etsy in 2007 with no grand business plan or venture-backed future mapped out.

Downs was living in western Massachusetts at the time, before relocating to Pittsburgh. She made more bags by hand, using a low-budget sewing machine and a lot of personal determination, and hired an assistant as demand grew.

Slowly — mirroring the simple, thoughtful construction of her product — she scaled up her business.

Today, Moop’s line includes a range of canvas tote bags, backpacks, weekend bags and messenger bags (along with other accessories), all with a similar utilitarian design that’s beautiful without any pretension. They’re bags you can imagine using for a decade, pairing them with different outfits even as styles and seasons change.

Moop products were sold online only sold up until 2016, when the company’s storefront opened in Downtown Pittsburgh. This headquarters serves as a manufacturing space and a retail store and gives customers a window into how Moop’s products are made.

“My whole philosophy behind that was to make the process of manufacturing visible. We are online-based, but it’s always been important to me that through that medium we are always showing the process, and our space, and the people,” Downs tells NEXTpittsburgh. “It’s really important to me that it’s a known fact that we produce our own product.”

Downs has always had a strong commitment to equity in the clothing and accessories industries, making sure that manufacturing workers are respected and paid a fair wage. Having studied labor history and politics, she’s sought out customers who care about the ethics of how clothing and accessories are made. She’s also made a point of collaborating with other small businesses and local initiatives.

Along with bags, Moop offers desk accessories and more.

Beginning this month, she’ll be sharing her creations and philosophy with an even wider audience: Moop is expanding to Seattle, where Downs is managing a pop-up shop throughout December and January inside a popular retail/restaurant complex called Chophouse Row.

Like Moop’s small batches of handmade bags, it’s a move that’s small in scale but potentially big in impact.

One key detail: Moop remains Pittsburgh-based and Downs tells us that isn’t changing. But this expansion, while “full of risk,” she says, is “full of excitement, too.”

Downs chose Seattle because Moop has seen strong online demand for their product from customers in the pacific northwest. So she’ll be living in Seattle for the time being, while scouting for a potential permanent retail space there for Moop.

Nothing is set in stone, Downs says, but a permanent spot out there is a possibility.

This two-month experiment is a logical next step after more than a decade of significant growth. Along the way, Downs has gone from operating the entire company herself to building what she describes as a really strong team of people.

She credits that team with Moop’s steady success and outreach thus far.

But the growth of any business, big or small, comes with certain challenges, Downs says, no matter your industry.

This Moop tote bag also comes in grapefruit, midnight and a warm golden shade called cereal.

“There is a huge organizational side of running a financially profitable business when you have overhead, and payroll, and inventory,” she says. “And to add to all that, we physically produce our own product.”

With so much to consider, Downs is approaching the expansion to Seattle in the same thoughtful way she expanded her product line.

“We are not a venture-backed company,” she explains. “Anything we make we are putting back into the business.”

Opening an outpost across the country is a big venture for any small business. So testing out that market with a two-month pop-up feels right, she tells us.

Amid the challenge, the same entrepreneurial spirit that led her to post the first Market Bag on Etsy is driving this next chapter.

“There’s a lot of potential,” she says. “You can’t really grow unless you try to make big changes.”

Meghan Bray

Meghan Bray is a Pittsburgh based writer active in the arts, culture, food, and beverage scene.