visiting Freitag in Zurich

About thirty years ago, two brothers, Daniel and Markus Freitag, lived on a busy highway in Zurich. Every morning they took the bike to work, but couldn’t find a really good bag for the road. With the trucks they saw passing by every day from their apartment in mind, they designed their own bag made from the truck tarpaulins, suitable for cyclists, but also for the wider public. Today, on the same highway that the brothers overlooked in their early years, there is a high pile of colorful containers where Freitag bags and accessories are for sale. They are still made from old truck tarpaulins. The difference is that they are now worn worldwide.

Although the company’s factory used to be nearby, the brand initiated a project a few years ago to build a factory in northern Zurich that could be equipped down to the last detail according to the brand’s DNA. Apart from the sewing and parts of the carving, every production step of the bags and other accessories of the brand is carried out in this factory. The head office is also located under the same roof, and there is a Freitag store. In order to find out what kind of innovations and ways of working such a consciously designed factory looks like, FashionUnited paid a visit by invitation.

Family over the floor and washing with rainwater

The large factory and office building, called Nœrd, is reminiscent of a university campus. During the lunch hour when we arrive, a large group of employees eat fresh hot dishes from the company canteen together at tables, prepared with products from their own vegetable garden, as it turns out. The atmosphere is friendly and relaxed, something that is further enhanced by the sight of groups of children being led through the building by employees. Our visit appears to coincide with the ‘future day’, a Swiss concept in which children between the ages of roughly ten and fourteen are taken to work by family members or friends, in order to get a first impression of working life. Throughout the day, we continue to encounter children in various departments of the factory.

When the lunch room empties and everyone seems to have resumed their work, our tour through the production process begins. It starts in an adjoining large concrete factory hall with high walls (as much of the concrete as possible in the building has been recycled, but “in terms of supporting structure it is not possible to build with only recycled concrete”) where piles of truck tarpaulins in all kinds of colors are ready to be prepared for a wash. A labour-intensive process, according to the journalists present, who were also allowed to work to prepare a sail for washing. For example, pieces of metal, rope and tape are manually pulled off the sails and cut. But always only after checking whether the sails are safe for use and do not contain any toxic substances. The tarpaulin is then cut into smaller pieces to be put into the washing machine.

Truck tarpaulins in Freitag factory. Image: FashionUnited.

All sails come from Europe, explains Freitag’s PR lead, Elisabeth Isenegger. Although this is ecologically beneficial, it is also a practical choice: the sails that are suitable for making bags and other accessories are a European phenomenon, and you will not find them in Asia or America, for example. The Freitag brothers used to look for the sails themselves, simply by calling companies registered in the yellow pages, which they believed would have their own trucks. Nowadays companies often contact Freitag themselves. The sails are not a donation by the way. “We pay about three hundred euros for a large sail. The more colorful and distinct the colours, the more we pay for them,” explains Isenegger. “We also try to motivate our logistics partners to use special colours, but they often have their own ideas about what they want with this.” The fact that recycling is not always the cheaper option, despite the fact that the used material already ‘exists’, is also apparent here: “Producing new material in high volumes and the perfect colors would be cheaper.”

The sails are washed with rainwater that is collected in an underground basin next to the factory. A hatch next to the parking lot of the building provides access to a large room where rainwater seeps down and is pumped into the factory through pipes. Because the water makes its descent into the ground via gravel on the factory roof, which has a natural filtering effect, it no longer needs to be cleaned. The basin is a good example of how the complete self-furnishing of a factory space brought ecological opportunities for Freitag. However, some soap and a degreaser must be added before washing, Isenegger admits.

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The water basin where rainwater is collected. Image: FashionUnited.
Washing machine for truck tarpaulins. Image: FashionUnited.
Collection of truck tarpaulins after washing. Image: FashionUnited.

When every bag is different, design and distribution are slightly different

According to Isenegger, the Freitag design process consists of two rounds. First of all, there is the “classic” product designer, who designs the shapes of fixed models. After the sails have been washed, the bag designer determines by means of carving which colors are used for which parts of the bag. After all, every sail is different, and therefore every bag.

The cutting room is divided into a team doing hand carving on one side, and a large cutting machine on the other. Both have their own advantages (for example, the machines are good at calculating how material is possibly lost) and with both the cutter has control over the color selections.

Part of the cutting is done by external parties and the next step, the sewing of the bags, is also outsourced to partners in Portugal, Poland, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Romania and Switzerland. According to Isenegger, Freitag has close ties with their partners and has been using one for several years code of conduct as a guideline in the partner selection process, which is shared on Freitag’s website.

The uniqueness of each Freitag product not only segments the design process, but also influences the distribution process. For example, for the online shop, each bag must be photographed separately from all angles and Freitag retailers never quite know what kind of order they will receive. Quantities and shapes can be specified, but color and pattern cannot. Instead, retailers receive a box with a diverse selection of colors. That customers really can’t know what to expect becomes all too clear in a storage room where a stock of bags hang side by side, ready to be shipped. There are bags with dots, abstract shapes, a soft plain beige, or a clearly recognizable grass print. Colors range from bright to dark, to pastel. Everything seems possible. But, if it turns out that certain pieces really don’t sell at the retailer in question, they can exchange them for a new (again unknown) mix.

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The packages that Freitag retailers receive. Image: FashionUnited.
Collection of bags in warehouse of the online shop. Image: FashionUnited.
Freitag bag is photographed for the online shop. Image: FashionUnited.

Freitag mainly reaches customers in Europe and Asia. Remarkably, Japan was Freitag’s first international market after Germany. When FashionUnited speaks to co-founder Markus Freitag during the visit in Zurich, we ask him about this choice. “There are several aspects of Japanese culture that match the Freitag identity,” he explains. “First of all, there is wabi sabi, the acceptance of imperfection. But, I also see a similarity between the role of the collective versus authenticity within the Freitag accessories (every bag is a Freitag bag, but no two bags are the same) and the Japanese culture. The collective plays a major role in Japan, possibly more than in Europe, but at the same time a lot of value is placed on giving things their own, authentic twist, also through aesthetics and fashion.” In addition, according to the Freitag founder, the Japanese are relatively loyal brand followers, which is beneficial in the long term. South Korea, Thailand and China are also relatively important markets for Freitag.

The factory also houses the repair room, the last stop of the production process. “Customers often want to keep their own bag with them for a long time, because the bags are unique and therefore very personal. Sometimes we see bags from up to twenty years ago,” a repairman shares. If after a few years you still need a new bag, it can also be exchanged via the Freitag ‘swap’ service, which essentially works quite similar to finding a tinder match. With Black Friday, the exchange service will also be possible on location in Freitag physical stores this year. The online store, on the other hand, will remain closed on November 25.

Next step: Circularity

The truck tarpaulin that will be processed into unique bags in this factory in the future may have been initiated by Freitag itself. The brand is working with several partners, including the Dutch company Heytex, on a truck tarpaulin that retains a function even after a second life as a Freitag bag. While Freitag now plays the last role in the upcycling cycle of truck tarpaulins, it hopes to be able to close the circle completely in the future.


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