Howard Harrison's accessory brand is blending technology, fashion and industrial design, creating pioneering products to organise our digital lives.
As the devices we use become ever-smarter, the bags, cases and organisers that we take to carry our smartphones, laptops and tablets around with us have remained firmly dumb.
Knomo is on a mission to change that.
The brainchild of South Africans Howard Harrison and Benoit Ruscoe, Knomo is a fashion accessories brand blending form and function in pursuit of “life organised”.
The walls of Knomo’s Great Portland Street office are lined with sleek and chic satchels, backpacks and bags, none of which would look out of place in a swanky Shoreditch cafe or Soho nightclub.
But beneath their leather and canvas covers, Knomo’s products hide a secret, one that has led some to label Knomo ‘the Apple of the fashion world’, and one of the best kept secrets in design.
Intricate pockets moulded to the shape of your smartphone or laptop, discreet power supplies to keep said devices chugging along throughout the day, and hidden magnets which quickly organise cables and chargers are all concealed within Knomo’s bags and purses.
I met Harrison at Knomo’s office to discover the secrets behind the business bringing innovation to accessories.
“Five years ago our business was all about laptop bags,” Harrison tells me. “Then around 2010 that started to change.”
Knomo was founded in 2004 and for the first six years it specialised in fashionable laptop bags and cases. The vast majority of its business going to Apple customers picking up an accessory for their new MacBook at the Apple Store (where Knomo was stocked).
Then the smartphone revolution begun and everything changed.
“We suddenly realised that there was an opportunity to sell a much broader range of products,” says Harrison.
“Back then our business was 80% or 90% laptop bags… we don’t even use that word in the business now.”
Around that time Knomo realised that while fashionable products were important, it was those products filled with well thought out and intricate pockets which people were really gravitating towards.
“We coined the concept of life organised,” says Harrison. A phase which would become the slogan for the business, encompassing Knomo’s products that blur the distinction between work and leisure, all while striving to enhance our interaction with technology.
And in Harrison’s pursuit of improving our relationship with the gadgets and devices in our lives, Knomo started to cross over and, at some point, become a technology business itself.
When I pose to Harrison that Knomo is now in the technology game, he’s quick to distance the idea.
“People want smart devices and they want smart accessories,” he says. “But we’re not just making smart bags just for the sake of it.”
Indeed all of Knomo’s innovations begin with the consumer and the pain points in our lives.
Early on Harrison realised there had to be a better, more high-tech solution for when people either lost or found a Knomo bag, certainly one of the most painful experiences.
The company quickly built the online equivalent of a lost property department, the Knomo ID Tracker, where customers could register a unique serial number printed on every Knomo product.
Now when a bag or purse is found anywhere in the world, the owner has a far better chance of being reunited with it.
Today there are other pain points on Harrison’s list, including one that is almost universally hated, the poor battery life on modern smartphones.
“Power is something we believe we can add a lot of value to,” he explains. “Bag companies haven’t innovated very effectively, while device makers have left a gap in the market for us to become a leader in that space.”
That’s why, in Knomo’s latest products, the company is integrating battery power packs so your smartphone has a better chance of lasting to the end of the day.
Next year Knomo will go even further with a new proprietary magnetic wireless charging solution that it’s planning to unveil in January at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
Harrison explains that in Knomo’s future products this means a smartphone or tablet can simply be dropped into a special pocket on the side of a bag and it will, as if by magic, begin charging.
Forget the hassle of cables, plugs and searching for a plug socket.
Knomo is planning other new technologies like RFID-shielded pockets for contactless bank cards, to protect them against criminals who might try to steal your bank card information just by brushing past your bag.
Or how about a GPS locator built into your purse? Suddenly a lost bag becomes a thing of the past (although Harrison says “the problem is you need a SIM card for it to work properly”, something Knomo is still in the early stages of experimenting with).
“The great thing is that we’re starting to build power sources into our products, so that really opens the door to all sorts of innovative things we might do with that power.”
But across all of these innovations Harrison says Knomo always strives to improve its customer’s lives, rather than innovation purely for innovation’s sake.
“Understanding how people are living today really informs the products we create.”
“Everyone used to work 9 to 5, now they’re leading this life which is, slightly romanticised, but where you can work wherever you want,” says Harrison.
“Suddenly you need to create products that work 24/7 and fit in with people’s lives. So a Knomo work bag for the office, that you’d also be comfortable in a cafe or on the beach with.”
There are two products that Harrison says perfectly sum up Knomo’s laser focus on fashion, industrial design and pioneering functionality today.
The Knomad Organiser (starting at £45) was praised by critics as “The Filofax for the iGeneration” and today Harrison calls it a “lighthouse product” for the company.
“This one single product helped reinforce for us exactly what our brand stood for, for years we made functional products but you could never see the inside of them,” he says.
A sleek, professional portable organiser, the Knomad has space for a 10in tablet, an integrated battery power pack, Knomo’s signature pockets and pouches, and a fold-out design which quickly opens it up for easy access in the office.
The Elektronista Digital Clutch (starting at £199), the second product that defines Knomo today, takes lots of design cues from the Knomad, but comes in the form of a leather day to night purse.
With the same integrated battery power pack and hidden pouches, the Elektronista also has a unique twin side zip design letting it open up in a similar fashion to the Knomad.
“You can carry it as a clutch or across the chest, but when you open it up at your desk you have everything you need. That really delivers on our promise of life organised,” says Harrison.
It’s a promise that Harrison and Knomo, which celebrated its tenth birthday in August this year, are laser-focused on keeping.
As I left the Great Portland Street office, which comes complete with pop-up Knomo retail store that Harrison says has become permanent due to customer demand, I asked him what’s next for his team of designers and which existing accessory might next befall his mantra of “life organised”.
“We are developing some straps around the Apple Watch, but I’m not really sure how much we can innovate in that space,” he says. “We’re just playing with the idea for now.”
I glanced worriedly at the leather Apple Watch strap on my wrist, fearful its days might soon be numbered.