Brothers Markus and Daniel Freitag founded their company FREITAG with an eye for design and a head for innovation. What started as a means of keeping student art sketches dry during rainy bike rides to class in Zurich turned into a global company with a fanatic customer base. Two hallmarks of the FREITAG brand — recycled materials and customizable design — are among their many smart innovations. Customers who design their own bag online, with the optional label ‘Your fault’, later tell the story of their bag through images and videos posted on sites like Flickr and YouTube. With 40 bags for women and men and merchandise sold online and in over 300 shops, FREITAG is a leader in intelligent design, branding and business.
How did you first come up with the idea for FREITAG bags?
I [Daniel] was working as a commercial artist and Markus was a student at the Zurich Institute of Art and Design. Back in 1993, Markus was carrying sketches to class with him on his bike in the rain. He wanted some sort of messenger bag like the ones we’d seen in New York, but there were no such options in Zurich. So one evening we sat down together to come up with ideas for a bag that would keep the contents dry and protected. We thought about using recycled materials like seat belts for straps and bicycle inner tubes for the seams, but we didn’t know what to use for the bag itself. One day Markus looked out the kitchen window, which overlooked the Autobahn, and saw trucks zooming by that had heavy-duty tarpaulins with colorful logos and designs. Switzerland is a transit country. All the big harbors are in the north in Rotterdam and in Hamburg, and on their way to Italy they all run right through Zurich.
That was how the idea came about, and a few weeks later Markus rode to a truck depot and got about 30 square feet of discarded tarps. We had to soak the smelly, oily fabric in our bathtub to clean it up, and then borrowed a sewing machine to make a bag. I was in San Francisco at this time, so Markus mailed the bag to me, and I gave it to a bike messenger to try out. He loved it, and so did our friends. We kept making new bags, no two alike, and pretty soon turned our shared apartment into a sort of factory. We destroyed our mother’s sewing machine, so our first investment was an industrial sewing machine that we bought for about 1000 euros, and we started production in our flat. We gave bags to our flatmates to keep them from complaining too much about the mess, but then we found our first production space. We rented a warehouse to do our washing and manufacturing in, and we realized this was no longer a hobby.
We did everything at first — the cleaning, the cutting, the sewing, and we also did the testing. We started our business in the old way. We produced 10 bags and then sold them to friends. Then we produced another 20. So it was very slow growing, but very sustainable. Now we produce about 150,000 bags a year.
It seems to me that your success lies largely in how well you have executed on your idea and have given it such a strong personality and identity. As brothers launching this business together, how did you decide on the key aspects of the FREITAG brand?
You really have to ask yourself, do I know the values of the brand? I think this is really important. Every brand has values, and if you think of the brand as an organism, then the values could be like the DNA. So it’s not just the logo that makes the brand, but the values that stand behind it. In the beginning, we just made bags and didn’t think about the theoretical. Then we tried to do this with FREITAG, asking, ok, what is FREITAG? What values do we stand for? And we came up with some simple metrics. OK, we’re an urban company, we’re recontextualizing stuff, we care about functional design and the aesthetic, but we also want to be honest, a little bit rough, slightly fucked up maybe, a little bit nonconformist. And the whole ecological aspect we just call ‘intelligent’, because to be sustainable is just intelligent.
Also, part of the value design we think is your heritage — where is the brand coming from? We like to use the term terroir, which comes from the agricultural industry, often used in the wine industry. Bordeaux, for example — maybe the grape can travel and you can grow it somewhere else in the world, but probably Bordeaux will only really taste like Bordeaux when it’s grown in the region of Bordeaux. But we think this is also true of industrial products. Maybe the taste of FREITAG has something to do with our heritage.
In the case of FREITAG, there is a subconsious aspect, something about individuality. So do you buy a bag when you buy a FREITAG bag, or do you buy a little piece of individuality and maybe this might be the subconscious factor? Each bag is different, each person can find his own bag. And I think this maybe makes FREITAG more relevant than other bags because of this individualistic or unique aspect.
We talked about design relevance, and of course this is something you can’t know in the beginning. We’ve won quite a few design awards, sometimes for the product itself, sometimes for the communication, and also for the architecture. The product design must be relevant to possibly become a classic. Even 15 years later, the first bag we did is still in the collection and still selling very well, which is surprising us every day.
Were you always drawn to the more industrial aesthetic that your bags embrace?
We were inspired by the cheerfully colored trucks rumbling along the Zurich highway — the more colorful, the better. As graphic designers, they spoke to us. In terms of the industrial aesthetic, the truck tarps are very heavy, so you can’t do too many fancy things in the design, and our bags are quite simple. The most classic FREITAG bag is made from just five pieces. Good product design is indeed, under certain circumstances, an art form. Just as applied arts can be a good product.
How did you decide to let customers design or customize their own bags?
Sometimes you have to innovate the sales tool instead of just the product, creating a story around the product. If you go to our website and click on ‘design a bag’, there is a little application starting up, and here you are the designer. You find different tarps that you can choose from and different colors, and then we have the pieces of the FREITAG bag that you can drag and drop onto the tarp. And you have always a preview of what the bag will look like. So it’s like a little game where you can design a bag, but it’s not just a game. It’s really a store, so as soon as you click on the order button and you pay, we start producing the bag the way you designed it. So this is a way you can innovate the sales channel. It’s this kind of customization tool, and you can also choose from different labels. There is the classic FREITAG label you can have on the bag or you can have a label that says ‘Your Fault’ because you’re responsible for the design.
If you click on the gray cutout areas, you can also see how other people have designed their bags — oh, this bag is going to Chicago or this bag is going to Oxford — you can see what other people have designed before you from that tarp. It’s interesting, because the bags going to Japan are always very colorful.
The visual appeal is that no two bags are exactly the same — they are made according to the cutouts you choose from whatever six or seven tarps happen to be available on a given day. Sometimes things happen without you knowing it, so if you go to Flickr and search for ‘FREITAG bag’, there is a lot happening! The bag itself tells a story, but I think this is also an inspiration for people to tell stories about their bag or with their bags. So you find people in pictures wearing a FREITAG bag in Kazakhstan or in Antarctica.
Can customers also design their own bags in your FREITAG stores, or would they simply choose from among the bags you have in stock?
We do this online primarily, but we also do it live at an event we call the F-CUT. In Japan, it’s like the Holy Tarp, and they touch it!
You’ve received kudos for your part in the green movement for taking used materials and fashioning them into your FREITAG bags. Can you describe what goes into these efforts?
When we went to school, the forest was a big issue, and it did not look good for the future. But as adolescents, we have already given some thought, ‘what would happen to the world if this continues?’ When I think of our childhood, this farmhouse, which had a small shed, was actually filled to the rafters with materials, scrap metals, and old bicycles that could be used somehow. That was one of our great hobbies. The tinkering and seeing what we could make of it was already a bit of an attitude, a mentality for us.
Of course, we’re Swiss, and we like quality. And lifelong products are probably something we like culturally. But it must also not look bad, so style is important too.
I think it’s the job of the designers to create products that are intelligent. It really starts there. When you design a product, you really have to think ‘what is the end of the product?’ It’s a lot of challenge and a lot to do, because right now there are so many products that are just thrown out on the market, and they don’t care what happens after they’re used.
It’s all about cradle-to-cradle. We can also talk about recycling, upcycling and downcycling. There are organic cycles, there are technical cycles. And we think it’s important to consider these cycles, especially before you start to mix up these materials. So you pay attention and say, ‘ok, what are the materials I use?’ Is it a material that I can bring in the compost or throw in the backyard and something new grows out of it? Or do I choose a technical cycle? So thinking about those cycles is one of the environmental aspects, and I think the world needs solutions like this.
Taking this green question a step further, I understand you have done the same thing with the design of your flagship store in Zurich that is made from freight containers.
Going back to the freeway next to our flat in Zurich, we realized it’s not just truck tarpaulins going past our window, but also containers. So we came up with the idea of using used freight containers to build the shop in Zurich. In 2006, we went to Hamburg to buy recycled containers. There is a big market for second-hand containers, so you can choose different qualities and colors. So we shipped them to Zurich and started to take them apart. We cut out the walls and some floors, we welded in some stairways and some elements to make it stable again. It was a very short period building up the shop, I think only about 3 days. With the crane, it was a little bit like playing with big Lego bricks! The store is 26 meters high, and the whole project only took 6 months — 2 months of planning, 2 months for the permission, and 2 months of building. The containers are not welded together, they are screwed together — the same elements they would use in the shipping industry to fasten the containers on the ships. At 3:00 o’clock in the morning before the store opened, the door got delivered.
We have about 2000 bags displayed in 4 floors. The basement is a showroom, so we just show each bag once. The customer, once they know which bag they are interested in, is told which floor to go to to find a big amount of that bag shape. We won an architecture award for this store, not just because of how it looks but also because it tells the story of the FREITAG brand. We added a telescope on top of the store so you can do your own truckspotting and have the same experience and inspiration we had in 1993.
Maybe you could consider our flagship store in Zurich as a product, a shop made from 17 used freight containers, so the building and the architecture is a product itself.
You’ve also been innovators in your administration, marketing, sourcing and production. Tell me a bit about what you’ve done.
After the washing, we have staff that cut out pieces for the bags, trying to find the most beautiful pieces of the tarp and getting a good assortment. We need to have a good selection of cutouts in stock to have a good management of the colors, a good balance. We pay different prices depending on the color of the truck tarp. We have kind of a market: if we have a lot of yellow in stock, then the price of yellow tarps goes down, and we spend more money for, let’s say, brown. We send out price lists a couple of times a year to all the trucking companies in Europe, and then they can decide, ‘do I sell now my yellow truck tarp or shall I keep it in my warehouse?’
A designer has a much more holistic perspective than maybe a manager who is just trained in economics. Markus and I are not the business and finance managers anymore — we are board members but we are also designers for our own company, developing all the prototypes in-house. So we’re responsible for all the product design and for communication design. We’re the factory owners, but we have found our way back to the creative work. So I think it’s a nice step, being back in our old field of design. Since the business is growing, we can bring in specialists who can teach us. And maybe it’s also good that we have to convince people internally — we struggle sometimes trying to convince managers in our company of our vision — but that keeps us from struggling in the market and is mostly a good process, sort of this internal firewall.
We built our offices right into the factory space in our new building we moved to in 2003. Often there is the separation of office crew and the production crew, but we had the feeling it was better to have it all in one space. Those teams start to interact, and I think this is good for the whole social aspect of the company. We are over 70 people now, about half working manually doing the real work, and half the team is doing the office jobs organizing the production, responsible for sales, and so on.
Usually you hand over your product to the marketing department and they make a campaign, but we recommend also to business people to invest in the product design. If the product is good, then probably it sells itself by word of mouth. And you need to be honest — I think the new media world is quite fast and quick, and people will find out quite quickly if you’re not honest. You don’t have to be perfect, but at least you need to be honest. Be true with your consumer and get into a relationship. It’s not about ‘we do the product, and you buy it.’ It’s about ‘us.’ In that case, you can save a lot of marketing money if you’re honest and you tell the story behind the product, rather than just creating a beautiful campaign. Having a loyal customer is, in the end, much cheaper we think. We make our products to last, and hope that our customer comes back to buy another model they like while the old product is still in use. We don’t operate in a fashion lifecycle, so sometimes we do a line extension. In the fashion industry you reinvent the line maybe 4 times a year, and that takes a lot of resources, even for a small brand. That can be a problem.
It’s about people, it’s about planet, and it’s about profit. I think if those three elements come into balance, I think this is very helpful, and you can create a sustainable operation or a sustainable brand.
Since you started with unisex messenger bags, how has your customer base evolved over time?
Our customers range from the 7 year old girl to the 70 year old architect, so it’s a very wide range of age, but I think it’s always people that kind of care. Our customers are discriminating, engaged individuals of all ages, interested not just in the product but also in its quality and history. This is shown by the example of Italy, where FREITAG bags, with their used look, rub shoulders with brands like Gucci and Prada. Our most persuasive marketing tool is the product itself.
Now men can wear a handbag and you don’t need your girlfriend’s bag anymore. We did an update of our first messenger bag 13 years later, so that one is updated for comfort and functionality but it’s a little bit back to the roots.
FREITAG is sold worldwide. After Switzerland, the second biggest market is Japan, and then Italy and Germany, and then all other countries. In Japan, you have customers who are crazy and are collecting FREITAG. I think the nice thing about the Japanese market for a designer is that they pay attention to details. Sometimes we experience that they have more know-how about our products than we do! Maybe we are not the red carpet leading bag, but we are the bag of the creative professional, which I think we like to be.
What’s next on the horizon for FREITAG?
At the end it’s very simple. We take free materials from the streets and bring them back as bags on the streets. It’s truck tarpaulins, seat belts from cars, and intertubes from bicycles. And now we actually have a fourth material, which is airbags from cars.
Of course, we have concentrated on the bags, but now I think we are at a point where we could look at our values and say, ok, what other concepts can we do? But for now, there are markets where FREITAG is not yet available, and we can also do new shapes, so right now we are doing bags only. We do have many ideas, and FREITAG would have the potential to realize it. But a lot of designers make the mistake of drifting away from their original idea too fast. We look at this as a strength of FREITAG.
In 1993, we did not even have a business plan or any commercial interest. We would have never thought to get as far as we are today. It is a great feeling to look at our assortment of 40 products and know that everything started with one bag just over fifteen years ago.
For the full range of FREITAG products — everything from bags to iPhone cases, laptop bags, and more — visit the FREITAG site. FREITAG has flagship ‘F-Shops’ in Davos, Hamburg, Zurich, Berlin, and Köln (Cologne). Retail stores that carry FREITAG in the U.S. are located in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Chicago, New York, and several other East coast locations.
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