It’s easy to fall in love with backpacking when the Italian Alps are in your backyard, as they were for siblings Niccolo and Stefania Bonfadini.
“And that’s how it all started!” Niccolo said of Bonfus, an international cottage brand specializing in ultralight packs and shelters. “I got more and more interested in nature photography, and in order to take nature pictures you have to be in nature,” he joked.
Shortly after, Niccolo moved to Norway to pursue a degree in engineering, as well as continue with his photography hobby. “But with time, it was less and less photography, and more and more backpacking.”
More time in the backcountry meant more need for quality, ultralight gear. This proved to be challenging in the European market. It just wasn’t widely available. So, Niccolo started sewing his own gear, and has been doing so now for nearly 10 years.
He made sleeping bags, quilts and clothing for himself. “And for my sister, and for my girlfriend,” he laughed. He’d find any excuse to justify making more and more gear.
“In the United States, you have a lot of ultralight gear brands,” Niccolo said. “But in Europe, there’s nothing. It was simply impossible to find down quilts or ultralight backpacks, and that was the incentive to do it myself.”
Both Niccolo and his sister Stefania, who has lived in Mexico for the last 10 years, are engineers by trade. But all that changed in 2017. “One day my sister got bored working for a company, fired herself, called me, and said why don’t we start an outdoor brand?”
“And I said ‘okay’. Just like that!”
Much to his delight, Niccolo now had an excuse to make even more gear! “Now I don’t have to find friends to take my stuff. Now maybe I can sell it!”
The duo started with down sleeping bags, quilts, and clothing simply because Niccolo had already perfected these prototypes, and had been using them himself for years.
But importing goose down to Mexico, where Stefania manages the production side of Bonfus, was next to impossible.
This insurmountable hurdle made them pause and pivot. “We couldn’t stop now just because of the bureaucracy in Mexico,” Niccolo explained. “But maybe it’s easier to import if there are no animal components involved.”
Turns out it was easier.
The ultralight tent market in Europe was practically “zero”, according to Niccolo. “It was a good opening for us.” After a full year of developing a tent prototype, Bonfus first launched in Norway in 2019, then the European Union in 2020.
Growing from a market of just 5 million people in Norway to 500 million people in the EU in just one year was intense. Production quickly took over Stefania’s bedroom.
“More and more roles of fabric came in, she hired our first sewer, who was also in her bedroom,” Niccolo laughed. “When she needed to separate the bedroom from the working area, she moved the bed to the living room, and kept the sleeping room for sewing!”
It was in 2021 when Bonfus moved into a more suitable workshop in Mexico City and since then has hired eight full-time employees.
Niccolo designs and develops the products in Norway, while Stefania manages materials, production, and logistics from Mexico; and family and friends assist with fulfilling shipments out of Italy.
“We are spread around the world, but we’ve made it work quite well.”
“Norway is an excellent place to test the gear,” Niccolo laughed. “We have bad weather year round, and it’s windy all the time."
“We use everything we make, and it has to be good or else I would not use it myself,” Niccolo said. “We put a lot of passion in it and we want our customers to be happy. We are bringing innovation into Europe, and the feedback has been great.”
As most makers can attest, supply chains can be puzzling. Dyneema Composite Fabric, for example, is exclusively made in the United States. Even with sharing a land border, getting it to Mexico for production is still challenging. Dealing with international governments and inconsistent rules and regulations at customs has been known to cause a headache or two. “I’m just trying to make tents!” Niccolo laughed.
Bonfus is very proud to offer employment to a handful of Mexican residents. “We’re very happy to pay them well. We are dealing with high price items, so we have room to give decent salaries. We’re so happy when they show us they can now build their own house or buy that land.”
Niccolo wishes there was a more romantic story behind the brand’s name. “It was very hard thinking of a name,” he laughed. “Every name we thought of was horrible!” Alas, using their last name Bonfadini as inspiration, Bonfus just stuck.
“There’s a lot of fulfillment when you get to own your own business. It’s fantastic to do your own thing, and nice to deal with everything from sourcing materials, development, customer service, logistics. You have to know a little bit about everything. But getting nice comments from our customers makes us very happy. We love what we’re doing, and without our customers we could not do this, we are so grateful!”
“And we really are gear nerds, especially me! My brain is constantly thinking about designs. If I didn’t do this I wouldn’t know what to do with myself!”