In the bag: Crumpler talks design, industry, and being total product nerds

Published:  March 27, 2015
Katia Pase

In the mid 90s a couple of Melbourne bike couriers at Minuteman realised the bags they’d sewn for themselves to carry packages were a better business proposition than the courier gig, and a little startup called Crumpler was born. The company’s first brochure featured branding and product descriptions inspired by the Beastie Boys album Paul’s Boutique, and with that, Crumpler forged its link between creative branding and business.


“By accepting written material that bore almost no relationship with the products they were selling, Crumpler took an enormous risk. But it paid off,” writes the company’s copywriter at the time, Paul Mitchell. “The copy’s irreverence matched the Crumpler boys’ personalities, and so the Crumpler ‘voice’ represented both the brand’s and the founders’ sensibilities. Strongly Australian, the voice still worked in a global market. What it meant for Crumpler as a commercial entity was an authenticity that became the envy of other brands.”

Ahead of Crumpler’s 20th Anniversary, and their recent signing as official luggage supplier to the 2016 Australian Olympic team in Rio, desktop caught up with Crumpler’s brand director (and former creative director for Apple) Sam Davy, and Crumpler’s head designer Janis Lacey, about the Crumpler brand in 2015; the differences between craft and design; and about Melbourne’s design landscape.

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How does Crumpler balance branding itself for a Melbourne audience, an Australian audience, and a global audience?

Sam Davy: We generally market ourselves consistently. The guarantee for life message, our slightly irreverent sense of humour — we think they’re pretty universal qualities so we don’t really adapt that. We’ve been retailing in Asia for the last ten years, and that whole market has been going very well for us. They respond quite positively to our humour. They get the sense of what we’re trying to do, and if they don’t fully understand then it gives the incentive to investigate further — to look a little deeper — rather than take it at face value.

How is your brand personality, and the Crumpler products themselves, influenced by current trends in pop culture or technology or anything that’s happening around what you’re doing?

Janis Lacey: I think generally our aim is to always present things through our personality. We’re not averse to chipping in on trends of the day, but generally we’ll take the piss out of it, or have fun with it, or turn it on its head.

SD: At the end of the day we are a retail brand, and so to some degree our product has to be fashionable. It needs to fit into people’s lifestyles and into what they’re doing, but generally we don’t follow fashion for the sake of following fashion. We’re not looking at what seasonal colours are going to be hot next season so we can fit them into our range. Naturally the design team subconsciously picks up on those sorts of things. As we’re moving through the seasons we’ve managed to strike a good balance of things that feel right for the brand, and things that feel right for the market — purely through employing smart people who keep their eyes and ears open.

JL: I think a lot of it comes down to making sure that if the product stands up from a functional, durable point of view it gives you license to have contrarian fashion views, or to have a bit more humour within the product. If people are coming to you wanting something for a fashionable, functional necessity you can start to joke about all the other sorts of things.

SD: You’re not just selling it on the colour or the print. The product has a lot more virtues.

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How does a consideration of the genders inform your design principles?

SD: We’ve always regarded ourselves as a unisex brand. We’ve never really said “We’re designing this for guys.” It’s a bag. It’s good for riding your bike. And it’s good to carry stuff and protect that stuff against the weather. But I think that given the styling and the fabrics we use, the brand is naturally more attractive to guys than it is to girls. The fabrics we used in the early days used to destroy fine clothing. They were a bit abrasive, say, on fine merino wool: it was like taking sandpaper to it. Those sorts of things lend Crumpler to being slightly more of a guys’ brand.

But when we did our first series of luggage we noticed a lot more girls coming into our stores. Girls who would never have walked into the stores before; who disregarded it as a guys’ shop. So we thought we’d try designing products for women, and we’ve done three or four collections specifically targeted at women since then — bringing in all the stuff we normally do, but using a more feminine silhouette, with the same abilities to do things like carry laptops and the same properties in terms of durability and weather-proofness, but less abrasive.

JL: The fabric thing is the hardest thing to solve when it comes to wanting things to last for hundreds of years, but trying to create something finer or lighter weight.

SD: The two don’t go hand in hand — wanting something to be really durable and also fine or sophisticated. Or if you do find a fabric with that balance, the price is generally exceptionally expensive, so your product price becomes way overblown.

JL: From a design point of view, the interesting thing about trying to design a men’s bag or a women’s bag is that it starts to feel slightly ridiculous. Other than social stereotypes (totes are for girls, backpacks are for guys) it doesn’t actually mean anything. We found that the female bags we were designing were popular with guys and vice versa.

SD: Everything just becomes a big mashup to a certain degree, so we’ve sort of proved ourselves right. Let’s not try and stereotype this and put it into two different camps. Let’s just make great unisex bags. A laptop is a laptop, no matter who’s carrying it.

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When sourcing your fabrics, how much do you think about developments in sustainable materials and recycled fabrics?

JL: We try but from what we’ve found so far, the durability is not there for the price. If we pick a super durable fabric that we can guarantee for a lifetime, there is sustainability in that you’ll never have to replace it. And we’d rather stick to that. If the materials catch up to the durability we’ll start to incorporate it, but right now you’re trading something for another value.

SD: Our stance has really been that if the bag wears out due to the workmanship, the stitching coming undone, then send it back to us and we’ll repair it. We’ve got bags out there that are still going strong after 15 years, and so that’s our stance when it comes to sustainability. We’re noticing a lot of 16 and 17-year-old kids using Crumpler bags as old as them.

What’s the creative process like at Crumpler HQ?

SD: Janis and I chat and go, “That’s a pretty good idea; let’s see if we can make it.” It’s sort of like one big creative process that’s happening all the time, and projects come in and out of that and get informed by other things that are going on — other projects that are finishing or about to start. It’s fairly eclectic.

JL: With the Olympic campaign it’s the two of us. We chat with everybody but for the most part it’s the two of us.

SD: We have a conversation that’s kind of just like, “Wouldn’t it be cool if you opened it up and it was yellow” and “Let’s try that technique on the webbing we’ve always wanted to do” and “What about the logo?” and then we hit on something and go sketch it up.

JL: After that somebody someone will flesh it out, and everybody gets drawn in the same direction. We don’t have a formal process of presenting ideas and having a roundtable discussion.

SD: It’s the benefit of having a really small team. We trust each other to make good decisions. I don’t need Janis to go and do ten different options. I know the team is going to land in the ballpark of what I’m thinking, or produce something better than what I had imagined.

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What is the brief for the Olympics gig?

SD: The Olympic committee wants a piece of luggage to give to all their athletes, staff, and everybody who’s part of the wider Australian Olympic team. I think that’s about 900 individuals. They’re fairly flexible as to what we do, and they recognise that whatever we do needs to be representative of our brand. So as long as we’re using the new Australian Olympics logo, which is currently being designed, they’re fine.

We haven’t seen the tracksuits and the kit yet either, which will be done by Adidas. The opening and closing ceremony uniforms will be done by Sportscraft, but we’re all operating individually. In another month we’ll start presenting ideas to the AOC.  I think at that point we’ll get a glimpse into what Adidas and Sportscraft are doing.

Will their ideas affect your direction for the cases?

SD: Doubtful. Given the brand that we are, we’ll just go ahead and do what we think is cool, staying true to the values of what we want and what they want.

Are there any aspects of national identity or iconography that will influence or feature in your designs?

SD: Not really, other than the obvious green and gold colours that need to be used. We want to bring in a midnight navy blue — like the Socceroos away jersey — into the brief. We’re playing around with ideas for how we can personalise the cases, whether that’s for every single athlete or for each individual sport. We’re also trying to have some fun! These guys are young teens slash 20-year-old sports people, and we want to give them a piece of luggage that represents them: something cool, with all our values, but something they can bring their own personality to. We’re playing round with a funny, interesting sticker set that comes with the case, for the user to play around with as much or as little as they want. When the team gets to Rio there’s going to be 900 cases coming off the carousel so they’ll need something recognisable so they can say, “That one’s mine!”

Do you perceive a difference between craft and design?

JL: It’s funny being in Melbourne. I did an industrial design degree in Melbourne, but there’s not a lot of industry in Melbourne. With our job we spend a lot of time in China and you realise that over there industry is everything. So in China, people like myself are super relevant. They’re crying out for people to connect their capabilities with customers. But here, you come out of design school and you go “I’m not relevant at all, there’s no industry here. I don’t know what that is.” You don’t know the reality, so your natural inclination is to do things yourself. So it becomes this craft-based, entrepreneurial industry that’s spawning all these little companies. It’s great but it’s so different to how we’re operating in a proper industrial way. But it’s funny to think that the brand was born out of that really craft-based root, where the thinking was “Let’s just make stuff.” The industrial design time really only came about as production moved offshore and we needed people to link what was happening in the pattern room here with what’s happening in the factories.

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How do you stay innovative?

SD: From our perspective, we’re really nerdy about product. It’s all about solving problems, looking at people’s needs, naturally observing how people move and travel around their environments, and looking at what sorts of tech they’re carrying. We use that on a daily basis to inform our thinking.

A lot of the guys are into innovative technologies, whether it’s 3D printing for example, but our key is having good people who we trust. Our team is very inquisitive, with a desire to follow things to their end conclusion. If we see a pair of sneakers with an interesting finishing technique for example, we’ll go out and buy them and inspect them, cut them apart even, and try to figure out what was done there, to spawn other routes of exploration. We’ve got our eyes out for the small details.

What’s most important in the branding and communication of Crumpler?

SD: Honesty. Sometimes we use external photographers, but all of our graphic design, writing and web design is done in house. Ultimately what we try and do is engage in a really honest way to communicate our fundamental values.

All photos by Ben Richards

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