Freitag is a Swiss bag, accessory and – most recently – fashion brand. Its legend begins in 1993, when young brothers and design students Markus and Daniel Freitag looked out of their apartment window in the Zurich suburbs and into a drab, rainy landscape dominated by busy highways. How get those papers to school dry? They were in desperate need of sturdy and truly rain-proof bags for that wet bicycle commute. Then a light bulb went on as one of them watches one of those trucks speed by with its colourful tarp cover. They soon found themselves constructing bag prototypes from discarded truck tarp, with pieces of old seat belt as straps. Quite unintentionally, they landed a hit with fellow students who asked that they make some for them, then with bike messengers and, eventually, the individualistic and environmentally conscious at large. But if this is ‘history’, it is a vivid, lived and evolving one; one which expresses a deep vision and mission that is manifested anew through each of their unique bags, through the Freitag website and stores and – most visceral – through the way in which Freitag products are made, conceived, their materials sourced and commercialization managed.
I was fortunate to be granted a guided visit of the Freitag F-abric and offices on a trip through Zurich the other day. After having studied the brand in depth for our book, and exchanged many e-mails with friendly Lena Fisler at Freitag, I was anxious to see and experience for myself what I had read up about them. Would it really live up to be that ‘Ueber-Brand‘ Wolf and I thought it was once one gets to look behind the curtain? – Well, in short, I was relieved and loved what I experienced.
I took a few hasty snaps and felt compelled to share them with a few comments below. If you feel like you want to dive even deeper, then I encourage you to read the more in-depth case study that follows even further below. – Enjoy.
On my way. Zurich is a Freitag and a biker town – and I am not talking Harleys, as you can see. Do you spot the five Freitag bags in the pictures above? So I do as the locals do, don a helmet and swing myself on a bike and cycle up to the Noerd industrial estate.
Ground floor F-abric (factory): This is where the used truck tarps are received, graded and ‘butchered’ into large, square sheets before being stacked on pallets. ‘Tarp-Butcher’ is Freitag speak (they have a thing with ‘F-‘, too) and the folks clearly are proud of the label and their job. Look at this video they they made to showcase their work – and sense of humor.
Instruction sheets help to ID, grade, sort, stack tarps and their colors. Red seems to be hot (top row) and blue less so. More Coke trucks needed?
Metal loops, reflective tags and other non-tarp elements are cut away to be used for accessories like key chain pendants or go down the shoot to be re-recycled by others. Note design details like the use of bright the bright colors typical of factories, or the type face consistently used in internal and external communications.
We go to the Basement: This is where the tarp sheet are washed and the rain water stored – because that is what is fed into the giant, specially made machines. The first wash is very dirty, that’s why it is washed with re-recycled rainwater wash water. Freitag talks a lot about ‘cycles’ – more on that below. Take a look at their washing machine film:
And here are the colorful sheets all clean, air-dried and neatly rolled-up with bags in reference colors dangling above and tags showing possible prints on the sheets.
We go back up. I notice recycling bins and bikes, bikes and more bikes – everywhere. Employee bikes and also company-owned ones that employees can borrow as I can read on the tags.
Then a rack that features samples from the production. They are for employees to put to the test (and talk about) … and like everywhere, the process is neatly laid out and tracked via tags on the walls and on the bags.
We enter an atelier where finer motor skills are in demand next door. This is where the washed tarp squares are cut into actual bag and accessory pieces. Acrylic templates are used but the choice of where exactly to put it down and cut and thus create the unique patterns on each bag – whether it be prints or scuffs – is up to the cutter.
This is where the industrial mixes with the artistic. At a table to the left a cutting ‘robot’ with optical sensors optimizes the tarp being used more than a human consistently can. Man versus machine? “The patterns yielded this way are often not as beautiful,” Lena judges. Creativity is tough to program.
The sowing is done off-site, so I used the pictures below from our book. Plus it’s nice to see it all ‘come together from truck to bag’ in one row. So from the pattern cutting…
… we move on to the photo studio and e-store. Every bag is being photographed in the on-site studio. Every product line gets it own quirky stop motion film like the one below.
Freitag has a dozen own stores (I’ll visit to the Zurich flagship store later) and some 450 stores that carry the bags around the world (German speaking countries, Italy and Japan are key markets). But e-commerce is an enabling outlet for a niche brand like Freitag, particularly when the goods are relatively light and compact, not fragile and as valuable as theirs. And the story can be told and the product be presented in engaging ways as you can see. Its a low cost and high margin addition/alternative direct distribution presence.
On to quality control and packing. Notice the attention paid, not only to the strength of the seams but also to details like labels. The smaller tags are made of old, carefully folded newspaper pages.
The bigger ones unfold and … tell ‘F-Stories’. First and foremost how the bag was sourced and made … It’s a central theme, clearly.
On and up we go to enter the office section. I observe and Lena comments with an authentic mix of engagement and pride …
… more bikes, a ‘roaming celebration bar’ (complete with beer fridge on wheels), crates fruits and vegetables, Freitag Bros cut-outs in the corner of a conference room, a Lego project management board on the wall – complete with little worker figures. Those walls are made of meshed wire or bare concrete like the floors and (high) ceilings. Furniture, doors, desks are made of steel, untreated wood and glass. It’s all quite rough but also quite beautiful in its own frugal, functional way with those pinches of primary colors, humor and a seeming tension between process and creative chaos everywhere.
And then we come to another recycling station and a tarp-bound ‘bible’ on the wall. The little yellow book lays out the Why and How of re-cycling. Cycles, re-use, re-contextualizing are key words. Consistent with what I read on the site, on the labels and later in the stores. This brands truly ‘shines from the inside-out’, as we say.
We stop by the cafeteria for a drink. This also is a social project of sorts. Created together with other tenants of the industrial estate to serve organic foods partially grown on the roof and functioning as a social club, after hours. In fact, the chairs are being stacked up, as we speak. There will be a ping-pong tournament that evening.
It is clear from what I see and hear: Working for Freitag is more than a job. Working here is buying into an idea, living an ideology about how to make society work out for all of us and preserve the environment we live in. I’ll have my bike ride down to the flagship store to mull this over. So on goes the helmet…
Yes, the tower of freight containers stacked-up in the background there is the Freitag flagship store ‘for individually recycled freewaybags … since 2006’ as the plaque reads. It has become a pilgrimage site for brand fans and one of the icons of the Zurich cityscape. Creating customer traffic, the tower has also become a magnet for other cool venues like independent designer fashion shops, antique stores, bars and clubs, etc., transforming what used to be a rust belt around the town’s cargo train station. Some of the stores are located under the arcs of a railway bridge, others in old warehouses.
(Cool buffalo-horn sun glasses courtesy Smith & Norbu).
Inside we almost find ourselves in the F-abrik again, steel mesh, plywood floors, neon lighting and all. The vertical store provides interesting perspectives up and down the hollow core and to the street outside.
It is said that this is the bridge the bothers looked onto from next door when they had their Eureka moment – urban legend? Brand myth!
Wallets start at $90; the wide model is $120. Clearly, you are buying more than scruffy s and accessories bag with a funny smell at those prices. You are buying into something. In case you missed it, you are reminded to think in cycles. The pants go back into the compost (ex buttons which unscrew for re-use). The cushion inside the display reads: Cycle 1: puff up the bag to look nice. Cycle 2: help the the associate take a nap after the sale… Freitag missionary wit hard at work.
And, finally I find myself on the top of the tower – together with everyone else.
We contemplate the interesting vistas and equally intriguing orientation boards; listen to the trains, trucks and automobiles driving by and the people in the beer-garden below. A few more moments to take in, some more pictures and then we all proceed back down and back to our hotels – but not before taking a piece of this Freitagian F-antasy with us…
For more insights what drives the success of Ueber-Brands, like Freitag read our book “Rethinking Prestige Branding – Secrets of the Ueberbrands” and subscribe to this blog in the sidebar.
Here is a link to the Freitag website, and an a great video retrospective telling the brands story and that of its founders. And here is a more left-brained look by IMD professor Stuart Read. Note the differences in the story told. As with all ‘legends’, everyone contributes a bit to it, as they re-tell it.
Here Daniel Freitag explains the entire sourcing and production process (better than me) and documents it with pictures (also better than me). So why write this post? First because I wanted to share my own experience and second because some of you will want third party confirmation that this is ‘for real’. That’s how we are.
And here a case study on Freitag applying our Ueber-Branding framework, similar to the one you can find in our book:
What might Freitag, a 25-year old Swiss manufacturer which recycles industrial materials into accessories have in common with Hermès, the French icon of traditional, hand-crafted, luxury. No, it’s not watches – Freitag does not make any of those. Yes, both are famous for bags – what is the Birkin to Hermes is the F-Series Messenger bag to Freitag. But, more profoundly, what they both share and what makes them both Ueber-Brands In our book, is their unwavering commitment to a mission, the consistency with which they manifest this mission and the deep reach and attention to detail – all the way through the manufacturing process to the sourcing of the raw materials. In fact, it is at these early stages of making them that the mission is most powerfully coming to life and that the material of the product acquires meaning. Hermès furthers and celebrates the pride and joy of the artisan as they create their masterful objects. They firmly believe that their presence and joy is felt by the customer through the objects they created and provides ‘moments of pure lightness’ and lets them dream. And while the picture over at the Freitag ‘F-actory’ is altogether rougher, industrial and gritty and their mission less metaphysical but rather sociological in an outspoken way; both succeed in touching us with the objects and how they are created and create meaning through them that transcends their physicality or use and helps guide us.
And creating meaning appeals to us and pays out. Although ‘the Bros’ never sought growth drivers like outside financing or advertising, the brand has expanded to recycle some 400 metric tons of tarpaulin into over 400,000 bags and accessories in 2013 (the private company does not issues sales numbers). The mainstay shoulder bags retail for around US $250, but more sophisticated bags can reach multiples of that and are rather unlikely to grace the shoulders of a humble messenger.
Living the Dream – Manifesting the Mission
Freitag uses every opportunity to celebrate the ‘out of the bag’ beauty of recycling and ‘recontextualizing’ – which is also the title of a book and retrospective by the Zurich Design Museum. The brand teaches its art of giving products a second life through internships, lectures and professional workshops. It demonstrates green living by offering free bike sharing for employees and shoppers or by demonstrating urban underground gardening. On a more ideological level, Freitag has teamed up with the equally eco-conscious and non-conformist Swiss magazine Reportagen to fund documentaries and host discussions on the beauty and challenges of objective reporting.
Much of the above happens in or around the dozen Freitag stores. They are at the same time the end point of a unique and closely controlled supply chain and monument to the world according to Freitag. The Zurich flagship stands tall at the same interception of roads and railway that inspired the brothers. Just like their products, the store is made of repurposed material: 19 rusty steel shipping containers that were gutted and rigged to create a towering vertical brand gallery. Arriving on the rooftop, visitors can have their own Freitag moment. The landscape below is gritty and industrial and the passing trains and trucks are noisy. But a change of perspective can transform this scenery into a cacophonous and colourful urban art experience with the green hills in the background.
‘Re-contextualization is a joy to behold’ as it says on the Freitag website.
Consequently, store interiors are designed to ‘contextualize’ the rough beauty of the bags. Naked walls of industrial steel or concrete are lined with tightly stacked white cartons, making the few bags on display look like modern art. Once you approach the wall, things get more vivid and personal as each carton is labelled with a colour picture of its unique content, a ‘Recycled Individual Product’ (‘RIP’ in Freitag speak) with a tag that tells of its provenance and hang labels on some bags that are hand-folded from old newspaper pages.
Freitag creates these details to make us experience and feel its believes and mission through the product, packaging and store. But equally important is the the re-birthing process itself and the ultra-eco design of the factory where it takes place. We can discover it online or in person. It imbues the product authenticity and soul. On the Freitag social media pages one can follow ‘Heartcore Thomas’, the ‘23-year-young truck butcher’, dissect a tarp or ‘Dirt Buster Mustapha’ wash it in rainwater-fed machines. You can’t help but notice the rather unusual colourful ethnic, social and white/blue-collar mix in this workplace compared to a town dominated by investment banks and the jobs typically associated with this and related industries. It’s an ideological statement the brand invests in via higher manufacturing costs versus moving to the periphery where rents and wages are lower. The payout can be measured in the factory tours and flagship store pilgrimages, which have become must-experience stops for hip travellers from around the globe that make up the brand’s design target and an influencer audience that will add testimony to the unique fabric of the brand as well as spread the gospel.
The leadership of this peculiar neo-industrial organism is split between ‘the bros’, as everyone calls Markus and Daniel Freitag, and a board representing employees. The position of CEO has recently been abolished, not ‘feeling right’ for the enterprise. The bros are owners and creative leaders, but make a point of not paying themselves modest salaries and coming to work most days on their bikes, like everyone else. While they no longer wash tarps in their bathtub, they still still enjoy hanging out with their young employees and customers in the communal caféteria and social club they created with other business owners in the neighbourhood. Freitag has become more than a brand company to its employees, customers, neighbours. And it is amazing to see so many Freitag bags about town. Freitag has become a myth about sociological and ecological aspirations with a pinch of metaphysical magic. Because there is something almost alchemistic side to the process of taking worn parts of a truck and giving them an entirely new form and function. It adds to the identity-giving charisma. And that is priceless.
Un-selling, longing and belonging – the more you know
At Freitag, messengers, students and journalists are the design target and an important part of the image, even if some of them will have to graduate to more senior jobs before they can afford the more expensive items in the line.
In line with their unconventional image, there is no mass-media advertising or promotion at Freitag, just word of mouth. They produce quite laborious stop-motion movies for every Freitag product line. The mix of online videos ranges from the serious to the artful-quirky documentation of the recycling, design and re-contextualization process involved. The stores, the internet and the ‘F-abric’ (Freitag for factory) have been identified as appropriate and powerful media magnets and tools. They are often paired with the bike as a central element of the creation story, whether it is in the form of YouTube clips of crazy traffic scenes around the world shot from mounted cameras or sponsoring the Italian Cycle Messenger Championships or simply their omni-presence inside the plant and office. While the more cerebral events like the Reporter meet-ups are largely in (Swiss-) German, this visual storytelling speaks a universal language. The proof: local brand fans camped out in anticipation of the first Freitag store opening in Tokyo in 2012 with Japan one of the biggest single markets for the Swiss bag makers.
Behold! And grow with gravitas: principles over profit
Clearly, it would be cheaper for Freitag and its customers to make and buy a bag made from new synthetic materials. But then, the magic of ‘recontextualization’ would be lost along with the outcome of giving every bag its unique colour, graphic and wear pattern. Additionally, the fact that there is a finite and decreasing amount of used tarps in the world creates an element of natural rarity. In many ways, one is reminded of the rare skins and dedicated craftsmanship that go into a Hermès bag – except that Freitag is talking to people at the opposite end of the ideological spectrum. A premium ‘Reference’ line has been created to hunt certain seasonal colours to satisfy the more stylish avant-garde among its following and extend the brand up in price and ‘hipness’. There has even been the addition of a casual clothing line made of a compostable fabric the bros co-developed with suppliers and designers for some five years. But the introduction has been done softly, almost reluctantly, via select stores and a limited line of products. Clearly, the original ‘F-undamentals’ messenger bag is still the icon, foundation and strongest seller. The name was not randomly chosen. ‘F-words’ have a special place in Freitag’s unique language. Just as with Mini, Freitag’s e-mail to us stood out, telling us about a new ‘F-abric’ that will be made in the ‘F-abrik’ (plant). It’s another way to add to the ‘custom-madeiest, individualisticiest truck-tarp protection you can get’, as a Freitag Facebook post observes.
Such unique ways to develop, make and talk about your products are a key driver for the growth to be appropriately organic as well, determined by the rate at which the word of mouth spreads, the unique sourcing infrastructure, availability of materials and complex making process yields matching products and by the refusal of ‘the bros’ to discount their products or inject external ‘F-inancing’. So far, growing according to their own rules and speed seems to work, judging by annual growth that Freitag indicates as being in the 15–20 per cent range over the past 20 years. Asia is the current growth engine. A Korean TV star shouldering the bag made it sell out there in a heartbeat. ‘No bling’, ‘green living’ and a dose of visible influencer use are what create increasing demand for the brand in Asia – just like in German-speaking Europe 20 years ago.