About thirty years ago, the brothers Daniel and Markus Freitag lived on a busy highway in Zurich. They rode their bikes to work every morning but couldn’t find a really good bag to take with them. Inspired by the trucks they saw driving by every day from their apartment, they designed their own bag made of truck tarpaulins, which is suitable for cyclists but also for the general public. Today, on the same country lane the brothers overlooked in their early years, stands a tall stack of brightly colored containers selling Freitag bags and accessories. They are still made from old truck tarps. The difference is that they are now used worldwide.

    Although the company’s production facility used to be nearby, a construction project was started a few years ago to build a factory in the north of Zurich, which will be in line with the brand’s DNA down to the smallest detail. Apart from sewing and dividing the cuts, all the production steps of the brand’s bags and other accessories are carried out in this factory. The head office and a Freitag shop are also located under the same roof. During a visit, FashionUnited wanted to find out what the innovations and working methods look like in such a carefully designed factory.

    Families in the production hall and rainwater for washing

    The large factory and administration center, called Nœrd, is reminiscent of a university campus. During the lunch break when we arrive, a large group of employees eat together at tables, fresh hot dishes from the company canteen, which, as it turns out, are prepared with products from their own vegetable garden. The atmosphere is friendly and relaxed, which is enhanced by the sight of groups of children being guided through the building by staff. Our visit coincides with the “Future Day”, a Swiss concept in which children aged around ten to fourteen are taken to work by family members or friends to get a first impression of working life. Throughout the day we meet children in the different departments of the factory.

    When the dining room empties and everyone has resumed their work, our tour of the production process begins. He starts in an adjacent large factory building made of concrete with high walls (as much concrete as possible has been recycled in the building, but “in terms of supporting structure, it is not possible to build only with recycled concrete”), where stacks of truck Tarpaulins in all sorts of colors ready to be washed. A labour-intensive process, report the journalists present, who were also allowed to work to prepare a tarpaulin for the laundry. For example, pieces of metal, ropes and straps are pulled off the tarpaulins and cut off by hand. However, only after checking whether the tarpaulins are harmless and do not contain any toxic substances. Then the sail is cut into smaller pieces and put in the washing machine.

    Truck tarpaulins in Freitag Fabric. Image: FashionUnited.

    All the tarpaulins come from Europe, explains Elisabeth Isenegger, who is responsible for PR at Freitag. This is not only ecologically advantageous, but also practical: the tarpaulins, which are suitable for the production of bags and other accessories, are a European phenomenon that cannot be found in Asia or America, for example. The Freitag brothers used to look for the tarpaulins themselves by phoning Yellow Pages companies they assumed had their own trucks. Today, companies often turn to Friday themselves. By the way, the tarpaulins are not a donation. “We pay about three hundred euros for a large tarpaulin. The more colorful and eye-catching the colors are, the more we pay for them,” explains Isenegger. “We also try to motivate our logistics partners to use special colors, but they often have their own ideas about what they want to do with them.” The fact that recycling is not always the cheaper option, although the used material already “exists”, is also evident here: “It would be cheaper to produce new material in large quantities and the perfect colors.”

    The tarpaulins are washed with rainwater collected in an underground basin next to the factory. An opening next to the building’s parking lot provides access to a large room where rainwater seeps away and is pumped through pipes into the factory. Since the water enters the ground via the gravel on the factory roof, which has a natural filtering effect, it no longer needs to be cleaned. The pool is a good example of how completely self-furnishing a factory space for Freitag brought ecological opportunities. However, before washing, some soap and a degreaser must be added, Isenegger concedes.

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

    When each bag is unique, design and distribution are a little different

    According to Isenegger, the design process at Freitag consists of two rounds. First, there are “classic” product designers who design the shapes of the specified models. After the tarpaulins have been washed, the bag designer cuts the tarpaulins to determine which colors are used for which parts of the bag. After all, every tarpaulin is different and so is every bag.

    The cutting room is divided into a team cutting by hand and a large cutting machine on the other side. Both have their own advantages, for example the machines are good at calculating how much material might be lost and both give you control over the color selection.

    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 maintains close relationships with its partners and has for a number of years used a code of conduct as a guide for partner selection, which is published on Freitag’s website.

    The uniqueness of each Freitag product influences not only the design process but also the distribution process. For the online shop, for example, each bag has to be photographed individually from all angles, and the Freitag traders never know exactly which orders they will receive. Amounts and shapes can be specified, but not color and pattern. Instead, the dealers receive a box with a variety of colors. That customers really can’t know what to expect becomes all too clear in a storage room. Here hangs a supply of bags ready for shipment. There are bags with dots, abstract shapes, a soft, sober beige or a clearly recognizable grass print. The colors range from light to dark to pastel. Everything seems possible. However, if it turns out that certain pieces are not selling at the retailer in question, they can exchange them for a new (again, still unknown) mix.

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    The packages will be sent to Friday’s retail partners. Image: FashionUnited.
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    Collection of the bags in the warehouse of the online shop. Image: FashionUnited.
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    A Freitag bag is photographed for the online shop. Image: FashionUnited.

    Freitag mainly reaches customers in Europe and Asia. Notably, Japan was Friday’s first international market after Germany. When FashionUnited speaks to co-founder Markus Freitag during the visit to Zurich, we ask him about this choice. “There are several aspects of Japanese culture that align with Friday’s identity,” he explains. “First of all, there’s wabi sabi, the acceptance of imperfection. But I also see a similarity between the role of the collective and the authenticity of the people Freitag accessories (every bag is a Freitag bag, but no two bags are the same) and Japanese culture.The collective plays a big role in Japan, maybe even more than in Europe, but at the same time there is a lot of emphasis on the Giving things their own, authentic touch, also through aesthetics and fashion.” Also, according to the Freitag founder, the Japanese are relatively loyal brand followers, which is an advantage in the long run. South Korea, Thailand and China are also important markets for Friday.

    The factory also houses the repair room, the last station in the production process. “Customers often want to keep their own bag for a long time because the bags are unique and therefore very personal. Sometimes we see bags that are up to twenty years old,” says a mechanic. If you still need a new bag after a few years, you can also swap it through the Friday swap service, which is basically similar Works like looking for a Tinder match. With Black Friday, the exchange service will also be available on site in the Friday branches this year. The online store, however, will remain closed on November 25th.

    Next step: circular economy

    The truck tarpaulin, which will be processed into unique bags in this factory in the future, could soon be manufactured 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 today plays the final role in the truck tarpaulin upcycling loop, the brand hopes to fully close the loop in the future.


    This translated and edited post previously appeared on FashionUnited.nl.