HMPL Shop Visit: Making Bags for People and Bikes in Vancouver

In the 20 years since his track-bike touring roots, Matt Churchill has established HMPL as a distinctive made-in-Vancouver bike-bag brand. But before you try to say “HMPL” five times fast, the name predates the disemvoweled brand-name trend and is actually an acronym. On a recent visit to HMPL HQ, Pat Valade gets to the bottom of those four letters and talks with Matt about his cycling background, views on the ‘Industry’ and why a neighborhood is only as thriving as the small makers in it. 

Meet Matt Churchill, the man behind HMPL, your friendly neighborhood bag makers. Originally from Red Deer, Alberta, Matt has been calling Vancouver home for the past 13 years. For him, life is all about striking the best possible balance between running a business, laying it out in two punk bands, and finding time to ride bikes with friends while sleeping in the woods.

The biggest question that I’ve set out to answer when visiting Matt at his East Vancouver studio, is what does HMPL stand for? If you happened to guess “Heavy Metal Parking Lot” you’re correct! Matt was happy to clear the air on this one. The moniker is inspired by an old short film that delved into parking lot culture at a Judas Priest show in the 1980s. The name came back to him one day when Matt and some pals rallied up to race the Red Bull Mini-Drome event—the parking lot was a wild spectacle featuring heavy metal, and bicycle shenanigans, and racing the mini-drome.

The origins of HMPL trace back to 2012 when Matt Churchill and Scott Schneider (who has since moved onto another project), embarked on a quest to create bags that could be easily mounted on their track bikes because they were sick of riding to the beach with backpacks on. At the time, the now-ubiquitous term “bikepacking” didn’t really exist and suitable bag options were scarce. Fueled by their love for touring on track bikes (including a trip down the Pacific Coast) their initial mission of getting their beach gear to the shore quickly expanded into the world of bike touring. The No.15 bag was their first commercial bag, inspired by vintage Carradice saddle bags but designed to be compatible with standard saddles lacking the Brooks bag loops. It was even featured on Prollyisnotprobably! The bag had its flaws but launched HMPL into a motivated phase of designing bike bags.

Over the years, HMPL ventured into various avenues, including batch production work for local companies and contract design and development. However, today, Matt is pouring his energy into developing and expanding the HMPL product line.

The philosophy behind HMPL is simple: Just be cool.

“An old co-worker of mine explained this to me once and it really stuck. On the surface, it sounds like a dumb simple comment, but I don’t mean cool like The Fonz. It means just be a good person, support your people, lift up your community, be kind, be aware, listen, don’t overcomplicate things, do your thing to the fullest as long as it isn’t harming others or their ability to do the same! I’m not a business person, I’m a community person. People over profit always. If all businesses operated on this mindset, we would all be thriving!”

Matt’s approach is pragmatic to bag design. He focuses on solving problems he encounters as a cyclist and ensures the designs align with the needs of his local cycling community. Every product is tested on his bike, his friends’ bikes, and the broader Vancouver cycling community before being made available to the world. This collaborative process ensures that his creations meet the real-world demands of cyclists.

Matt’s passion for bikes has been a lifelong affair. He grew up exploring on his bike, thanks to the encouragement of his parents. His dad took him touring on the back of a Burley tandem all through the Canadian Rockies when he was small; they had to strap wooden blocks to the pedals with toe clips just so he could reach, and spin. This led to mountain biking and racing cross-country at a young age, and the love for bikes has been a constant ever since.

Being part of the bike community for 15 years has been a mixed bag of emotions for Matt. He’s worked as a mechanic for 10 years, and even briefly owned a bike shop in Vancouver. He values the diversity and inclusivity within the cycling community, where different sub-genres can coexist under the umbrella of riding bikes. Two people can become friends because they’re simply interested in riding bikes, even if you’re a DH racer, or just ride a weird folding tall bike. They both have round wheels, and roll around.

However, he despises how the industry is often controlled by profit-driven entities with little regard for the core values of fun and community.

“To be honest I don’t even like using the word ‘industry.’ I reserve that word for the big-dog over-rulers that create and dictate with no fucks given other than profits. The bike COMMUNITY is amazing. I’ve met almost everyone I know through bikes. Every day a new independent designer/maker/creator is popping up and adding their two cents to one of the SO MANY categories within ‘cycling.’ I think I love how massive and broad it is.”

Identifying as being more in the bag industry than the bike industry now, Matt believes in the importance of accessibility and inclusivity in cycling and strives to promote these values through his work.

“You think the big ballin’ shareholders over at Trek give a shit about us? Nah. This obviously creates a lot of systematic issues within the industry that kind of make it icky. Lack of accessibility and inclusivity is a big one for me, and even we small-time makers/companies are guilty of contributing to this! Riding a bike is expensive, but it doesn’t HAVE to be. If someone is looking to get into mountain biking for the first time, they’re going to be told that it’ll cost $5000 plus, at the low end.

“Even bikepacking can be costly to get into, so many voices telling you that you NEED product A or product B in order to go bikepacking, it’s overwhelming. And yes, my bags are expensive, but if someone comes into my shop and says they want to get into the sport but can’t afford my bags, I’m going to tell them a hundred different ways to take what they already own and strap it to their bike and get out there having fun in the bush! On multiple occasions I’ve literally given someone the materials they need to go home and make their own bags. I promote my bags as an investment based on fulfilling needs to their fullest, not as a MUST-HAVE to go bikepacking. I think the majority of my clients have gone touring once or twice with borrowed or crafted gear before they decided to jump in on a new ‘forever bag.'” —Matt

Matt recently opened a new studio space, HMPL HQ, in Vancouver’s Chinatown/Downtown East Side neighborhood. It’s not just a studio but also a store where people can try out bags, get measured for custom designs, and engage with the local cycling community. Previously, HMPL was always tucked away into some hard-to-find corner of the city. The new space offers greater accessibility and visibility for HMPL, a game-changer for the brand.

Sewing became a significant part of Matt’s life through HMPL. He started with little interest in sewing but developed his skills alongside Scott, his former partner in the brand. He loves tinkering with tools and enjoys making with his hands, so sewing was a natural fit for him. His first sewing project was the same as mine: making PJs in Home Ec class in school.

One of the first things Matt remembers making for fun was adding cycling jersey-style pockets on the back of a T-shirt with the guidance of his friend Kristi Woo. It was inspired by Cadence and King Cog hoodies, which were hard to get in Canada at the time.

I asked Matt if he had a favorite bag he’s ever made, one of those annoying, impossible questions to someone who makes things. HMPL has collaborated with local legends Skull Skates on backpacks, and created bags for Arc’teryx, amongst other collabs.

One memorable project involved producing 300 backpacks for Red Bull Music Academy within a tight one-month deadline. It was a challenging experience, much like a bike tour, with both moments of enjoyment and wondering why you every agreed to it. Ultimately, it provided Matt with invaluable insights into sewing production, and tight timelines.

Supporting local businesses and makers is a cause close to HMPL’s heart. He believes that supporting local makers fosters a thriving cycling community. Small businesses contribute to the cycling scene by organizing events, mapping routes, and creating a sense of belonging. Direct connections with local makers make products feel more personal and human. Of course, running a small independent brand comes with its share of challenges.

“Affording to stay afloat is also a huge hurdle. As I type this I’m looking out my window at a retail space that’s been empty for as long as I can remember. Why? Because it’s too damn expensive for anyone running a small business to lease. Property owners would rather have their spaces sit empty than lease them out for reasonable rates just to protect the projected property value. The mayor and city officials say they’re cleaning up our neighborhood by sending more cops here, when in reality it would clean itself up if they just gave small businesses an opportunity to thrive in the neighborhood.

“A community is only as good as the people living, working, and creating within it. If people can’t afford to give it the ol’ college try in their neighborhood, then our communities will die off, local shops and businesses will close, and we’ll all be living in a wasteland of Tim Hortons and Starbucks perched next to empty derelict spaces, and these idiots will be scratching their heads wondering where all the foot traffic went and why there’s so much crime and vandalism in the neighborhood. You don’t need a degree in city planning to understand why we NEED small business.” – Matt

Matt wears many hats, from web designer to customer service representative, social media manager, and more. The workload can be overwhelming, and expectations from consumer demand shaped by larger companies can be a struggle to meet. The convenience culture and a lack of government support for local businesses make the path even more arduous.

Despite the hurdles, the best part about being a small independent brand is the ability to do what he loves every day. Matt finds satisfaction in achieving a good balance between enjoyable tasks and those he’d rather avoid. He looks forward to each day in the studio, and the sense of fulfillment that comes from working for himself is irreplaceable.

Looking ahead, HMPL plans to focus on the storefront, expanding hours, offering more in-stock bags, and introducing a range of oddities and items from other local makers. They aim to host more events, group rides, and gatherings, alongside exciting collaborations. Matt has a list of new bag designs set to launch in the upcoming winter and spring, promising bigger and better offerings for the cycling community. Keep an eye on it!