Photo of Reclamation Dept owners and hard workers Heather (left) and Casey Filbey. Photos by Asia Morris.
Heather and Casey Filbey are the clever hands and creative minds behind Reclamation Dept, a Long Beach-based small business focused on “renewing gear from yesteryear.” Originally founded by local couple and upcycling aficionados Mychelle Wolley Fly and Ben Pitts, Casey went from apprenticing for the duo to taking over the brand when they split to tackle a very different task, traveling the world. Casey brought on her sister, Heather, who was already a skilled seamstress, and the rest just fell into place.
The two already had a convenient connection with a military surplus provider, which carried army gear in abundance that, to the crafty Filbeys, were only a few minor alterations away from being practical, fashionable bags suited for the present-day customer’s desires. So began Reclamation Dept’s first few steps in a new direction, away from the innovative, yet unfeasible, upcycled rubber pouches and purses of the founders, toward a business that the Filbey sisters are hoping to grow into a full time endeavor, once Heather graduates with her business degree.
“Military surplus is so abundant and it’s so durable and a lot of it is just collecting dust,” said Heather. “It’s fun to find creative ways to bring new life to these forgotten items. And I like the recycling aspect of it. It’s textiles but it’s not super polluting like a lot of the textiles you would be working with if you were just creating designs and then having them manufactured somewhere else.”
Now entering their fourth year of running Reclamation, the sisters have unified their product line to include sustainable handmade goods made using mostly vintage military stock and salvaged leather. They test newly fashioned one-offs on their consumers to get a feel for what works, then go from there. So far they have a variety of uniquely modified vintage panniers, messenger bags and hip pouches for sale online and in stores all over California, all the way to Arizona.
Heather and Casey are now in a lull after the hectic holiday rush, and gave the Post a few moments to glance back at how their sewing-centric endeavors first started, when the two of them were taught how to sew by their great grandmother, who lived in Belmont Shore at the time. During their early youth the Filbeys would work on sewing projects in the studio space above their great grandmother’s bedroom.
“She would teach us how to make little doll clothes…” said Heather.
“...pillows for our barbies,” Casey laughed.
“She would be making these quilts and these elaborate, beautiful things and we would just be making these little squares and putting stuffing in them,” Heather continued. “It was so much fun to just be making our own stuff and then she was stoked because we were occupied.”
When the girls grew out of making doll clothes, they began modifying their own apparel, with Casey turning her jeans into bell bottoms and Heather sewing eyelet lace to well, pretty much everything, including the edges of her hoods and a trend-setting pair of camouflage shorts that caught the attention of her high school peers.
“I had a lot of people hit me up,” Heather mused. “This is the late '90s and people were like, ‘I love those, where’d you get those?’ I had a couple people even copy me at my school. It was just funny because now we’re working with military stuff and there’s a military bag with lace on it over there. It’s been a long time coming, I guess.”
Two of the more ridiculous moments the sisters have experienced while running the business involve a run-in with history—a very intimate run-in, that is.
While the bags they pick up always serve as a unique lesson on the time period, such as the German Raindrop Camo grenade pouches the Filbeys are currently working on, there’s nothing quite like finding 50-year-old Swiss porn in an old satchel.
“It was black and white, this little book… We were like, ‘Woah!’ said Heather. “They were photographs. It was actually kind of awesome.”
“We didn’t understand any of the words, but the ladies were a lot thicker and hairier,” Casey chuckled. “I think I still have it.”
One time Casey found an earplug container in a bag dated back to WWII and lo and behold, there was bit of ear wax left on the historical sound hampering devices. She couldn’t bring herself to save the substance, but having been a long-time history buff herself, reveled in the possible stories behind the person who may have used the plugs.
“I know that’s a gross detail but it was like, ‘Wow this is a real relic,’” she said. “It just really brought it all into focus how these [bags] have a really interesting back story, each one.”
Not only is the discovery of long lost ear wax an inspiration to the sisters, but their grandpa on their mom’s side is a WWII veteran. The two grew up listening to his stories, while both their mom and aunt were history enthusiasts. The Filbeys naturally developed an appreciation for the days of a bygone era, an appreciation that clearly shows in the products they hand make out of a small garage and the clothes they wear, discovered from thrifting through their favorite vintage stores across Long Beach, including St. Vincent de Paul and Out of the Closet.
As born and bred Long Beachers (aside from a stint in Orange County), Heather and Casey are always working with local business owners. Upcoming collaborations include selling Reclamation’s growler pannier with a half-gallon jug of Salud Juice and adding their panniers to a Fine Feathers Kombucha photoshoot. And as a business major fully planning on managing Reclamation’s finances full-time, Heather noted how easy it’s been to reach out for advice within the community.
“I’ve been actively seeking mentors,” said Heather. “Steve Massis, the owner of The Attic, I sat down with him and I had some questions[...] He was really helpful in just a 20 minute conversation. We [realized we] were not really paying ourselves for a lot of the work we were doing. We were just paying our bills and if there was money left over we’d split it.”
“We were trying to price everything low enough to ensure the sale, but then you’re underbidding the time that goes into making them,” said Casey. “It gets tricky.”
And while it’s certainly been a learning experience taking Reclamation Dept from a passion project to a legitimized business, the sisters are discovering quickly how to make it work, while believing wholeheartedly in Long Beach as the place to do it. Heather would say the hardest part is just staying on the ball business-wise as a full-time student and with Casey as a proud new mom, but being able to work for yourself creating original and visionary products makes it all worth it.
“If I had to sum it up, I’d say the creative process we enjoy so much that it makes the difficult parts not as bad,” said Casey.
“It’s still really tiny,” said Heather about the company. “But, it’s slowly developed into what it is now.”
Reclamation Dept products can be purchased on their Etsy site here or at select Long Beach locations, including The Bicycle Stand (many of the bags are bike-attachable) and MADE in Long Beach. Long Beach Post readers can enter code “LBPOST” at checkout and receive free shipping.