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
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
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.