Fashion

Swiss bag brand Freitag: 'Circularity is anchored in our DNA'


Sustainability is
becoming more and more relevant in the fashion industry, with even big
brands like H&M and Asos working on greener ranges. Swiss bag brand
Freitag, on the other hand, is not advertising a sustainable collection. It
does not need to, as following a circular economy is firmly secured in the
company’s DNA.

“We are generally everything that has to do with circularity: Bicycles
are circular and our first bags were messenger bags. So we were born with
the DNA of the bicycle,” said Oliver Brunschwiler, creative director at
Freitag.

FashionUnited met Brunschwiler at the opening of the new Freitag by
Selekteur store in Amsterdam and spoke to the former snowboarding pro about
why the Corona-related restrictions on air travel in particular are an
obstacle for the brand, how Freitag is politically engaged and why ‘100
percent circularity’ is almost impossible.

You were a professional snowboarder yourself, does this fact play a
role for the brand?

Brunschwiler: We don’t have a direct connection to winter sports – we
focus on urban transport dilemmas, not those in the snow. But at the very
beginning, when Daniel and Markus [founders Daniel and Markus Freitag,
editor’s note] were still sewing bags in their first studio, they asked me
if I could test a snowboard bag. It was called Stenmark. Stenmark used to
be a slalom skier from Sweden. I tested the bag and took it to Japan,
because I was a pro there, and travelled around the world with it.

You are not only a former snowboarder and creative director, you also
hold several other positions such as lead link, strategic planner and
member of the board. Can you explain the wide range of positions in more
detail?

It’s what we call our self-organisation system, which means that you can
have different roles. For this interview, I am speaking from the role of
“apostle”, which has the “purpose” of representing the Freitag brand “to
the outside world”. When I’m talking in the role of creative director, I’m
at the concept approval stage of a retail store. It’s called holacracy and
it is our organisational model.

So we have actually also done away with these classic hierarchical
levels. I do have roles that are held by the management as a whole, but
depending on the project, I wear a “professional hat”. However, other staff
members can also wear this hat, depending on their area of expertise. We
want to empower our employees to make their own decisions.

Are you planning more DIY experiences like the ‘sweat-yourself
shop’?

p>Whether it is digital or physical, it is a new DIY product that we’re
bringing back that’s a little bit smarter, that recycles a little bit more
of the leftovers that come out of cutting. We actually want to close the
loop and produce even less waste.

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Does the new product complement the DIY range?

It’s the replacement. We’re very pure about it, there’s always just
something you can do at that location at that time, and we like to
experiment there. We have determined how many pieces there were of the
first product and we weren’t quite happy with it ourselves, especially in
terms of the waste and also the design features – it was a prototype. Now
there is a re-development of the product and improvements in terms of DIY
character are also coming.

Has the pandemic driven digitalisation?

It’s not rocket science, is it? It is the same for everyone. It showed
that this exogenous shock simply has to make one constantly alert as an
organisation and that is healthy, isn’t it? Because exogenous influences
are something that accelerate your transformation. I see this as a positive
push towards digitalisation.

People will continue to do retail. We are making noise from Jeju (Korea)
to Amsterdam and continue to open new stores with our partners. But the
shift to e-commerce will not simply make up for the lost sales of the
Corona era.

Many companies in the fashion industry suffered particularly from the
lockdown-related shop closures and made losses. How did Friday fare during
this time?

We have grown strongly in the last few years. Of course, I have to say
that we are limited to grow organically, because we cannot call some
factory in China and say: we are doubling quantities. It’s all used
tarpaulin material that we buy from European shipping companies and it
involves numerous manual production steps.

We are also self-financed, which means we work without bank loans and it
is only ever our profits that we reinvest at our own pace in innovations
that match our philosophy. With such value-driven projects, we in turn
attract exactly those employees who fit our brand.

As a self-financed business, has a lack of revenue stopped you?

Of course, we still had very ambitious goals at the beginning of last
year, but in February 2020, the early warning system was already on because
we are very present in Asia and saw how things are going. This enabled us
to correct our high ambitions at an early stage and to adjust as well as
possible.

Because we are self-financed, we had to put the brakes on costs because
many of the planned projects were not focused on a shift to e-commerce, but
were rather playful and the risk of failure was very high. But we did not
have to cut jobs. We are still doing very well, although our overall drop
this year will be around 15 to 20 percent from the initial ambitious
target.

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How did you deal with having to apply the brakes?

Because the whole company is very agile, we were able to change the
strategy immediately. We have set new priorities and that has worked at our
size, it took hold and that is how we can get ourselves through longer
periods of recession or a pandemic.

Freitag recently opened many stores. Can you tell us a bit more about
the expansion strategy?

With the so-called “F-Store by” concept, where we have strong, motivated
sales partners or those who sell the brand via limited licences, it often
comes down to opportunities. We don’t proactively ask anyone: ‘Do you want
to open an ‘F-Store by’ for us?’ It is actually the other way around, and
it is the trusted partners who ask us.

The two to three stores that we usually open ourselves per year have
been put on hold for the time being. There are many opportunities in the
real estate sector at the moment. But we are still very cautious because an
important driver for us in retail is tourism traffic.

Have the Corona-related travel regulations become an obstacle?

Air travel has a big impact on traffic in Freitag stores. It is the
biggest influencer for brick and mortar stores at Freitag because our
customers are mobile and they are bag hunters, which means they travel
around and hunt for unique items they can’t get among the usual
mass-produced products.

Are there any markets that you would like to enter into at the
moment?

There has been a lot of interest from the US lately. Our customers are
located especially on the West Coast and in the Northwest of the country.
That’s why we were interested in a US expansion plan again. However, that
is such a huge thing if you do it right, so I am also a bit glad that we
have been slowed down and are focusing more on where we are best.

We would like to close the loop – the globe – because we are closing
loops. The challenge would be very long distances logistically, and we
always want to avoid that. We don’t do ‘returns’ or offer ‘free shipping’
because this kind of logistics is anything but ecological. But we have time
to close the loop globally and don’t have to take advantage of every
opportunity – we are growing slowly.

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Foto: Lukas Wassermann

Apart from bags, there is also a biodegradable clothing line. Why does
this not have a strongly presence in the stores?

It is really more of a hobby and we originally did it for ourselves.
There was a short-term ambition for a business line, but we dropped it. We
wanted to prove to ourselves that we can develop a clothing line that is
made in Europe and leaves nothing harmful behind at the end of the product
life cycle.

We distribute our clothing line where it makes sense – exclusively in
Europe, where it is also made, and online – but it’s not like we have
ambitions now to make ‘F-abric’ a business as big as our bag business.

Actually, it is all about fabrics. We launched the clothing line seven
years ago, it is 100 percent recyclable, cradle-to-cradle, no toxic
ingredients at all, no irrigation-intensive cotton either, but European
bast fibres and modal. Accordingly, it is also quite limited, without
synthetics, one can’t make every cut out of it.

What other goals is Freitag striving for in terms of
sustainability?

Our purpose is to become 99 percent circular, which is what companies
like Microsoft are now aiming for, in ten years. But they compensate for
that, don’t they? There are whole sciences for measuring ‘sustainability’.
We don’t even have the word ‘sustainability’ because it’s all part of our
DNA. Whatever we can do ourselves in the area of materials, whatever we can
influence, we want to drive towards 99 percent, because 100 percent is
almost impossible – in our generation at least.

Are there other topics that you would like to push forward?

We got involved politically for the first time. In Zurich, we started to
[understand] traffic regulations, which are about bicycle traffic. We
actually want smart cities to become more bikeable, not only because it’s
in our DNA. That’s why we are starting to get political as a brand and
employer, city-by-city, and to get involved, but only in this area.

It is something that is always a bit tricky, because you also represent
other employees when you express a political position. And then you quickly
find yourself in a corner, mostly with the Green Party, when it comes to
bicycles. We actually represent the circular economy, that is a new vision
that we have set for ourselves, independent of any commercial ambitions.

This article was originally published on FashionUnited.de. Edited
and translated by Simone Preuss.

Fotos: Freitag | header image: Oliver Brunschwiler by Roland
Taennler



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