Bailey Hikawa pours colored resin into a small wooden box, seals it, then places the whole contraption into a pressure pot. The pot teeters on discarded phone case molds, and as Hikawa begins the process of sealing it for an hours-long curing process, she tells me that if the pot were to tip over, it could explode. “They’re dangerous things,” she says.
Hikawa quit her job as a film and theater set designer last year to become a full-time phone case maker. She’s set up shop behind a friend’s home in Los Angeles in a shed the size of a one-car garage that now looks like a colorful laboratory, filled with plastic stains, lots of prototypes, and hung-up sketches. Hikawa is a trained oil painter, and she’s translated her art expertise into the design and creation of unconventional, high-end cases that are unlike anything else on the market.
“I would like the phone case to feel like a friend or like a new stuffed animal,” she tells me. “It’s important to have reverence for an object.”
Most people don’t revere their phone case. They’re usually cheap pieces of plastic that are available at every pharmacy and aggressively upsold alongside new phones. Still, cases generated more than a billion dollars in revenue in 2018 with more than 79 million cases sold, according to Steve Baker, vice president and industry adviser in technology and mobile for the NPD Group. The majority of these cases are relatively cheap, maxing out around $40, and they come from large brands that mass-produce them.
Given the already established market and consumers’ expectation for low-cost, sturdy cases — companies like Verizon have entire labs built for stress-testing them — it can be tough for a small phone case creator to make a living off the business. Phone cases are often bought in bulk orders at a wholesale price, which is difficult to pull off when you’re one woman making every case by hand.
Hikawa isn’t the only one trying. She’s one of multiple women who have taken up phone case making as a hobby and a business. Those I spoke to all have the same appreciation for cases as a form of functional personal expression, and they’ve also all faced significant hurdles in scaling their businesses, having to augment low-margin case sales with other products or limit what they sell due to the time-consuming work involved. Hikawa, with months of work already behind her, is still trying to perfect her process before bringing her cases to the masses and, hopefully, recouping the steep costs she’s already sunk in.
Hikawa’s most striking case design, named “Poki,” features six rounded pegs sticking out the back, kind of like a Plinko board. The pegs serve double duty as a phone stand and a PopSocket-like grip to hold on to. The pegs are long enough to be held but short enough that they don’t get in the way of the rear camera — a small but essential detail.
“That specific peg design is a reaction from people saying, ‘Oh my fingers don’t fit,’” she says. “I’m finally hitting that sweet spot [where I] put my hand in and am like, ‘This is the way.”
Hikawa soft launched her phone case company, Kame, in December 2018 with two models and a variety of colors, each selling for $100 to $120. One case can take nearly four hours to complete, a stark contrast to factory-made cases that can be churned out in minutes. But Hikawa, who views cases as an extension of our bodies, enjoys the process of making them, even though she now spends most of her time cooped up in her studio shed testing new materials and trying to optimize her designs for everyday use.
“I’ve sat in my studio, crying, being like, ‘This is never, ever going to work,’ and then the next day, it does work,” she says. “But only one works. [It’s about] being patient.”
For now, cases are made per order while Hikawa experiments with different materials and sizes, like how far up the phone the side bumpers should be. She’s also just beginning to find her customers; though her cases are available online, she’s done minimal marketing on social media, apart from posting on the brand’s relatively unknown Instagram account.
Tech and accessories companies have capitalized on phone cases over the past decade, and you’ll find them prominently displayed just about anywhere that sells phones. Stores stock enough cases in different styles to match most customers’ tastes, making cases an easy thing to sell people when they buy a new phone. Simple plastic cases yield mostly profit, too, because they’re cheap to make and easy to sell at high markups.
A phone case artist like Hikawa experiences nothing like the simple, easy profits these companies see. People aren’t used to paying a premium for an individual case, which makes it hard for artists to sell specialized designs. In addition to the creation process, these artists have to master marketing and distribution on their own. If they’re lucky enough to secure a large order, they face the challenge of actually producing their product at scale, which is something their processes usually aren’t set up to handle.
In the two years it took Hikawa to start her iPhone case business, she’s learned how to make molds from scratch, bought dummy phones in various sizes from Amazon to test case fits, created 100 possible designs that she whittled down to her favorites, continuously experimented with materials, and developed an entire creation process that can fit in her studio shed. She’s also had to set up an online store, figure out retail strategy and marketing, and refine minute details, like establishing the length of the pegs on her Poki case.
Even when she thinks she’s mastered the steps, like after she launched her store, challenges arise. Friends said their cases cracked, for instance, so she switched from a two-part resin to an elastomer, which is a more resilient material. That transition alone added more than three hours to her process; resin only needs 45 minutes to cure in the pressure pot, but elastomer requires between three and four hours. She’s also limited by the two pressure pots she owns, which means she only makes two phone cases every four hours or so.
When a case I had been using while writing this story got dirty, Hikawa made a note to test a new coating that would prevent dust from accumulating. (New York City dirt isn’t like LA dirt!) On top of troubleshooting existing cases, she doesn’t even know what devices might be released next. For now, she’s only selling cases for iPhones, but by the time she masters one model, she’ll likely have to update her process to accommodate a new device.
“You’re kind of getting a sculpture on your phone,” she says. “And I create a new mold every time Apple makes a new size. It’s labor-intensive.”
Companies sometimes work alongside Apple to release accessories that coincide with a new device announcement, or they have the infrastructure in place to rapidly create device-specific accessories days after an announcement. Hikawa has to wait for a phone’s release and then start from scratch and make molds specific to that device. She’s still working on making cases for the iPhone XS Max, which came out last September.
This constant struggle hasn’t deterred women from going up against the corporate phone case market, however. Two other artists, Emily Lai and Ines Marzat, specialize in decorating premade clear cases with elaborate designs and selling them online. Both have endeavored to sell enough cases to at least make some extra income, but they’ve also both come across different challenges that make it hard to dedicate themselves to making cases full-time.
“I was determined to find a hobby that I enjoyed doing that could make me a bit of cash on the side while I finished my degree, so I did a lot of thinking and a lot of research until I came across these YouTube tutorials to make decoden cases,” Lai says. “And I was so excited because I always really loved these cute, over-the-top cases [and making art], so the combination of hands-on art and cute things is perfect for me.”
Lai specializes in custom decoden cases, a Japanese term for elaborately embellished cases with bling and charms, that she customizes to give people an accessory that fits their interests. Lai’s work captured the attention of cutting-edge retailer Opening Ceremony this past year, and the store asked her to make 50 exclusive cases in a short period of time. To meet her deadline, she worked on 10 cases at once, which she normally doesn’t do.
“I make these things with my hands, so I’m not a factory. And yeah, it’s hard when people try to rush me to make cases,” she says.
She says she wouldn’t likely take on a project like that again. People bought the Opening Ceremony cases, which sold for $40, and gave her exposure to a broader market, but the labor time wasn’t worth it to Lai.
Without the buy-in of a larger business, convincing people that they should spend more than $20 on a case — particularly one that doesn’t promise the best protection or utility — can be a hard sell.
Marzat found this to be true when she began trying to sell her designs online. Her style resembles Lai’s; Marzat acquires charms and then glues them onto clear cases with hot glitter glue.
“I was very excited, so I made a couple of different cases and started an e-shop and sold maybe 10 in total, and then it was difficult to sell more,” she says. “People loved my phone case, but they wouldn’t buy it. I think it’s too big. It’s too weird. It’s a bit too much for them.” She’ll still make cases for friends when they ask, but that happens rarely, so she’s now concentrating on her other work as a 3D artist.
Lai, meanwhile, quit her part-time job as a nurse to concentrate on case making, but she has decided to stop taking custom orders so that she can make her own designs while also selling charm-making tools to other wannabe case creators. The cases alone weren’t enough to support her.
Back in Hikawa’s shed, she pulls out a storage box filled with prototype cases that haven’t made it onto her website yet. I love them all. They’re more sculptural and artistic and feel like they belong in an avant-garde Hood By Air fashion show. The reality is that Hikawa can’t start work on these new designs until she feels 100 percent confident about the two she’s selling now: the Poki and the Geta, a design that includes ridges along the back.
Hikawa saved nearly $10,000, but she had to borrow money to start building her business. “The most challenging part about this has been being patient with the process because every part of it has been so new,” she says.
Hikawa’s still taking things slow. She just sold her first orders to people outside her immediate social circle, and she is planning to eventually put together a lookbook that she’ll give to certain stores. One boutique in Chicago, Tusk, already sells her cases. She wants to sell more models eventually, too, but she’s establishing her initial versions first.
Taking her time with the cases is partially a function of the time-consuming process, but she also worries that putting all of her designs and processes out on the internet could leave her vulnerable to copycats. She’s copyrighted her work, but she knows a mass manufacturer could rip off her design at any time.
“Do I want [the cases] to be accessible?” she asks. “Of course. I also don’t want someone from China copying me right away and taking it and running.”
But, as Hikawa points out, there’s room for a low end and a high end in other fashion markets. “A lot of people make leather bags,” she says. “A lot of people make cellphone cases.”
Correction 4/4, 8:52 AM ET: This article previously stated that phone cases sales accounted for more than $3 billion in sales in 2018; the correct statistic is more than $1 billion.