Pocket Science

A South Carolina startup has built the slimmest, most practical wallet you’ll find.

Wally Wallet in action.

Courtesy of Distil Union

A man’s wallet is not a complex piece of technology. Fundamentally, it needs to do two things: fit in your pocket, and hold your cards and cash. Ideally it should hold them in such a way that they come out easily when you want them to and stay put when you don’t. And, given those parameters, it should be as slender as possible—especially at a time when our phones are gradually replacing our wallets’ contents.

There are, of course, wallets that do much more than this. Some have transparent sleeves so that you can flash your ID without removing it. Some have extra folds that flip out to reveal more cards. Some have hidden pockets for items you’d rather not reveal. Some even block radio frequency identification readers.

These are all, in theory, nice things for a wallet to do. But add-on features make a wallet fatter and bulkier without increasing its carrying capacity. In doing so, they sacrifice the wallet’s core virtue—what Plato would have called its arete. That core virtue is to carry things securely and compactly. Obesity, for a wallet, is a sin second only to incontinence.

If you think I’m taking wallets a little too seriously, you’re probably right. But! Consider what it means for a wallet to be fat. It means walking around all day with a bulge in your pocket. It means sitting with your butt cheeks misaligned. Over time, it means a wallet-shaped dent in your pants, and maybe in you, too. It can even cause sciatica.

So how does one remove bulk from a wallet without limiting its capacity, security, or accessibility? Search “minimal wallet” on a shopping site and you’ll find a motley assortment of bifolds and sleeves that forgo extraneous features like hidden pockets, zippers, or ID sleeves. Some go to spartan extremes, amounting to little more than a swatch of cloth and a rubber band. But you’ll rarely find one that rethinks the wallet’s basic storage mechanism—the interior pocket.

That’s what a Charleston, South Carolina–based design startup called Distil Union did with the Wally Bifold. At $60, it isn’t cheap. But it just might be the perfect men’s wallet for the digital age.

As you can see in the video above, the Wally Bifold strips the wallet to its essentials by dispensing with interior pockets altogether. The only thing inside is a lightweight money clasp, which makes it easy to flip through your bills without pulling them all out at once. So where do you keep your plastic? You stash it discreetly in the wallet’s side pockets, which work like twin card sleeves.

But it’s the way you get the cards out that’s ingenious: a pair of thin ribbons, one red and one black, that function as pull tabs. Tug on a tab, and the cards slide out just far enough for you to easily pick out the one you need. Push the card back in, and the tab retracts along with it.

You might think this would make your cards harder to get to than with a multipocket bifold. In fact, it puts four cards at easy reach—the front and back card in each sleeve—while requiring you to dig a bit for the others, as most wallets do. The Wally’s advantage is that you can reach the cards without opening the wallet itself. This means you’ll never face the humiliation of dumping your wallet’s entire contents on the floor just because you opened it upside down. Shake the Wally Bifold all you want—unless you’ve stretched the leather beyond redemption, nothing is going to fall out.

The best part: It’s so thin, even with a dozen cards and several bills stuffed inside, that you might forget you’re carrying it.

Nate Justiss, 34, and Lindsay Windham, 36, didn’t set out to make the perfect wallet, or any wallet, when they started a small design firm from a live-work loft in downtown Charleston.* The two had worked as designers for Digital Lifestyle Outfitters, makers of the first iPod case, before it was bought by Philips. When Philips closed its Charleston office in 2011, they and a third designer, Adam Printz, set out on their own, forming a startup called Distil Union. (Printz later left to rejoin Philips.)

Distil Union’s first product was a simple iPhone dock that emphasized the one crucial feature that was sacrificed when people began waking up to their phones instead of alarm clocks: the snooze button. Called “Snooze,” the project raised $57,000 on Kickstarter and earned a brief write-up in the New York Times.

The wallet idea came to Windham and Justiss as they perused the iPhone accessory wall at a local Apple Store. Two things jumped out at them: a slew of bulky “wallet cases,” and a stick-on leather backing for the iPhone that looked handsome but didn’t do anything. The union of those two concepts became the Wally Stick-On Wallet, which employed a nifty little pull-tab to make cards and cash accessible from a slim leather pouch attached to the back of the phone. From there, Distil Union backed into the idea of making a stand-alone wallet based on the same mechanism.

“I remember the exact moment when the idea for the bifold hit,” Justiss told me in a phone interview. “I saw another wallet that was extremely thin-construction, and I loved the form, but it was really difficult to get the cards out. It was kind of a cuticle-buster.” The pull-tab, he realized, could be as useful in a bifold wallet as it was in the iPhone stick-on version.

Again, the Wally is a little pricy. You could buy three halfway decent wallets for $60, and I wouldn’t blame you if you did. But if you are going to spend money on a wallet, you’d do well to spend it on one that lightens your daily load rather than adding to it. I’ve scoured Amazon and Lifehacker and grilled friends and co-workers on their favorite wallets, and I’ve found some good ones, including the thoughtfully designed Bellroy Slim Sleeve. (That one also employs a pull-tab, though only for its interior card pocket.) I still haven’t found one quite as slim or practical as the Wally.

Interestingly, Justiss told me he doesn’t use the Wally Bifold most days. He prefers an even more minimal option: the second-generation Wally Wallet Case, which doubles as a case for his iPhone. He walks around all day with his back pockets empty.

I tried that for a few days. But the wallet case holds only four or five cards before the leather strains, and I just couldn’t fit everything I needed into it. So how does Justiss do it? “I carry my ID, business card, and personal credit card,” he said. “I’ve digitized my insurance cards and pretty much everything else on my phone.”

A more realistic option, for a lot of people—women especially—might be what Windham does. She carries a relatively large wallet in her purse most days. But she switches to the Wally Wallet Case whenever she wants to dash out somewhere and leave her purse behind. “Most of my dresses have pockets, so I’ll just fold a $20 bill and a credit card in there with my phone and go.”

Someday the physical wallet may be obsolete. Until then, Distil Union is right that it should be as slim and practical as possible. Plato would approve.

*Correction, Feb. 19, 2015: This article originally misspelled Lindsay Windham’s first name. (Return.)