The old adage “They don’t make them like they used to” insinuates that modern products don’t stand up to the test of time like those of yesteryear. While this might be true for many manufactured items of the day, Michigan’s Mercy Supply is the opposite. Built for utility, the company’s line of leather and canvas bags and accessories has garnered a core following via Instagram. Founder Rusty Zylstra has built the company from the ground up on a few simple but time-tested values: work hard, stay inspired and build products that last—and when they break, fix them. We spoke with Zylstra (who was at his workshop in Grand Rapids) to learn more about the young, revered company.
How did you get to where you are today?
It’s a long story, but basically I started with a couple of tools and a sewing machine in 2009. I didn’t want to purchase bags or clothing, so I made what I needed. I sacrificed most of the comforts in life in order to be able to purchase the machines and materials I needed, even to just make one bag and one pair of pants for myself. People started noticing my designs and began asking if I could make them something, too. And, honestly, it’s just grown from there. Since 2009, this is what I wake up and do each day. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
And your creative process?
When I’m able to find time to sit down and design new products, I know it’s going to be a good day. I typically get an idea long before I’m able to create it. In a way, this is a good thing; it gives me time to think through it. The design process is one of my favorite parts of the business. Throughout next year I will be releasing some designs I have had in mind and in my sketchbook for a few years now.
The products look bomb-proof.
Our construction process varies from product to product, but one thing that stays the same is that they are usually overbuilt. I say overbuilt because compared to standard bags or goods, our products weigh a bit more and are built like a tank. I truly care about the longevity of each design so I build it tough. They are riveted where all weight or stress points are, therefore not relying just on thread to keep the product together.
What sets your products apart?
I always have a hard time answering this question from my point of view. I tend to use thick, waxed canvas, high-quality leathers, solid brass hardware and copper rivets and buttons. I don’t cut corners and I try to go the extra mile. If anything breaks for some reason, send it back and I’ll repair it—no charge. I want each and every person to love their product so we strive for great customer service, and quality products that are able to be repaired when necessary. These are all things I enjoy and look for from other companies when I purchase something.
How did you get connected with Civilware?
We became acquainted though Instagram and it kind of took off from there. They liked our product quality, and we enjoyed their bedroll design. We don’t do too many collaborations so I am glad we got to work together on something rad.
You’re based in Grand Rapids. What role do your surroundings play in your work?
Michigan is one of the most beautiful states, in my opinion. Its surroundings encourage me to make bags and other products that will hold up to our weather here. Michigan gets to experience all four seasons at their best. I try to make products that can stand up to the rain and snow. We have a lot of heritage in this town, especially in the auto and furniture industries. I think that inspires me to keep our trade alive and going. There’s a lot of manufacturing that used to be in this city that has now moved overseas.
What inspires you?
People who are passionate about life really get me going. There’s nothing better than meeting someone who enjoys what they are doing. That can be for anything, not just for work. Life is too short, so I try to find enjoyment in the little things and the large. I have a great community of people around me that are encouraging and willing to follow their own dreams no matter what.
Mercy Supply designs and produces all of their product in-house at their Grand Rapids Studio. Shop their current collection at their webstore.
Workshop image courtesy of Eric Tank, all others courtesy of Lance Nelson