Bag It

I sat in my car waiting, dozing from the heavy heat of the afternoon sun shining through the windshield, when the double doors of the nearby building sprang open with a roar of screaming voices. Students rushed out like angry ants, running around the car in a desperate attempt to get into their parents’ vehicles and evacuate as quickly as possible. I was parked in the driveway of an elementary school, helping my friend out by picking up his second-grade son. But an odd image struck me as I watched the frenzied exodus–I was used to seeing Norman Rockwell kids in scuffed jeans running with dangling shoelaces in school yards, but to update into ’02 these all-Americans boys added backpacks slung over their shoulders to the picture (many of the girls carried roller bags like miniature flight attendants). The odd thing for me wasn’t that the kids were carrying backpacks, it was that most of them were skate backpacks.

What happened? After two decades of almost dormant sales, skate bags appear to be waking from hibernation and are all over the place. They’re coming from behind and jockeying for position in the softgoods charge to skate-shop registers. Hit an airport and you’ll spot herds of under-40 travelers with them. Skateparks are peppered with mounds of knapsacks thrown out of harm’s way. Stroll into a decent skate shop, and they hang everywhere like bulging fruit. There have been more impressive leaps in bag designs, materials, and innovations in the past five years than in the past twenty. But as important as the improvements are, companies and skate shops have realized that, like shoes and clothing, skate packs appeal to a much wider clientele than the hardgoods sect.

Little Bro

In the past, not even the distant past–let’s say the start of the 90s–most bags seemed like an afterthought for skate companies. Kids needed backpacks, but it was a pretty shallow market, apparently not worth the attention that hardgoods demanded. They were generally bought from a third-party manufacturer, a skate-brand name was sewn on, and shops stuck them in whatever part of the store had extra space. Companies like Shorty’s built skate-carrying systems into their backpacks by the mid 90s, but that seemed the extent of skateboard-specific backpack design. Visually, most packs were pretty similar, and after being thrown around and stuffed too tightly, they didn’t last very long. Zippers broke, stitching pulled out, and straps separated. Skaters’ nature is to abuse every type of clothing or equipment they use, and until a few years ago it appeared that skate bags were the bottom feeders of the accessories ocean, with more thought going into slow-moving items like pads.

But if skate companies have proven one thing, it’s that they like to protect their territory. Instead of peeing all over the place, they design skate-specific products and leave non-endemic companies that don’t fully understand the needs of skate rats in the dust.

A perfect example is skate shoes. Remember when skaters regularly limped thanks to heel bruises, Shoe Goo was stocked in skate shops, and no vert skater was far from a roll of toe-saving duct tape? Skaters wore mainstream shoes like Nike Air Jordans, Converse, or Pumas, and dealt with their stiffness and other shortcomings. Then skater-influenced companies began designing shoes to solve the problems, and nowadays it’s the most lucrative sector of the skate industry. When was the last time you saw somebody skating in a shoe not designed for skateboarding?

Skate bags are turning into skate shoes’ little tagalong brother–the market will never be as large (not even close) or as demanding, but companies realize that to succeed they’ll have to follow in the same footsteps.

Focus

“The bag market has evolved because it is finally being seen as a stand-alone category,” says Clive Marketing Director Tim Swart. Started in 1999 with the help of Eagle Creek (a mainstream bag company),live was an oddity in our industry–all they made were bags specifically designed for skaters. Clive has since added surf and snowboarding. Everybody I spoke with at the time thought that Clive employees had been breathing too many fumes. Every skater knew you could make a better skate backpack, but most thought you couldn’t survive focusing on such a peripheral “accessory” item. Might was well start a skater jock-strap company.

“We started out small in terms of manpower and overhead,” Swart recalls, “but we originally came to market with 21 styles. It was pretty much a charge out of the gate.”

Clive, with their unique designs, quickly caught skaters’ attention by doing a very smart thing–they made their bags look different. Sling a Clive over your shoulder and you’d never be mistaken for some college dork in a Polo shirt on his way to the store. If there’s one thing skaters fiend over it’s looking like a skater. Today Clive offers over 50 different designs.

Savier is another company that hit the street in full stride. Paul Fidrych, the company’s founder and president, has a background not often found in skating–a degree in engineering with a focus toward physics and design (sounds like a guy who can design bags to me). Savier started a serious buzz back in 2000 as a new technical shoe company with the tag team of Brian Anderson and Brad Staba to help steer the ship.

The weird thing was that they came out with bags before shoes, but it’s easier to design and produce packs than shoes. Savier’s innovative bag designs and high-quality materials floated into more than a few ASR conversations that year.

And they’re keeping the innovations going. According to Fidrych, Savier has applied for four patents regarding bag technology this year. When I asked about this plan of attack, he told me it wasn’t that out of the ordinary. “Actually, Savier is a skateboard company,” he says, downplaying my skate-shoe company reference. “Our goal is to make the absolute best products for skateboarders. As our team does a lot of traveling, they asked for a bag line that would work with their lifestyle.”

“Lifestyle” is a key point regarding backpacks. I went on tour for a couple of weeks last year, and the days of pros lugging around duffel bags are over. Scabby dudes with tats are stuffing their dirty clothes into cleanly designed and expensive rolling bags. They have Clive shaving kits, Discman packs, and computer bags for their G4s. “In snowboarding, backpacks and bags are seen as essential to daily use,” Swart says. “This is now what is happening in skateboarding.”

“Basically, kids today are more mobile and want to be ready for any situation,” says Apollo Projects CEO Frank Vu. “Therefore, they carry a lot of shit–laptops, cameras, digi cams, cell phones, PalmPilots, mp3 players, skateboards, and clothing for any situation.”

Apollo started out of Patrick Keener’s garage with one bag and now publishes a fourteen-page catalog. “Backpacks are such a necessity that it evolved into a fashion item. Like any other type of fashion item, (packs are) a way to express your individuality.”

“I think when someone commits to a pack, it is part of their life for a while,” Savier’s Fidrych says. “They live out of it–make sure all their shit goes in the right place. That’s why we put so much into the design.”

R&D

The most dramatic change in this sector of the industry has been the research that’s going into it. Skate bags are still in their toddler years, which means that companies are wide open to innovate and attempt to nail what skaters need, sometimes before the skaters even know. Every part of the bag is looked upon with the thought of improvement. “Our footwear- and bag-development team are the same people,” says Fidrych. “If there is a new technology made available for footwear, we can immediately use it in our bags. Case in point with our new breathable Respirator technology. While it was developed for footwear tongues, we quickly discovered that it would make the ultimate back-panel material for packs.”

As with most companies, the Clive design process relies heavily on rider input and feedback. “We start out deciding on a function for a product, then come up with our design brief and proceed with the design,” Swart says. “Upon developing a prototype we make modifications and refine it to the point where it becomes a finished sample. It’s a fairly extensive, time-consuming, and costly process.”

Entering The Race

Bags are getting more teched-out by the minute, but in the end it all comes down to convincing customers to slap down the cash or make their parents pull the plastic. Getting into the shops was problem number one for bag makers, the same for any new company, but shops already knew that backpacks were hot sellers, for a part of the year at least. “If you miss back-to-school, then you’re screwed for the entire year,” Vu says. “It’s the only season to sell large volumes of bags.”

Shops appear to be taking bags more seriously. “We’ve found that bags are more successful in a section dedicated to backpacks,” says Shane Wallace of Active Ride Shop, a successful So Cal retailer and mail-order operation.

Clive produces backpack stands to make sure that their product isn’t dumped behind a stack of old sale shoes. “The hardest part was to get people to be as serious about the backpack category as they should be, which is now happening,” says Swart.

Scott Koerner, promotions manager at Da Kine, says that they give away bag stands. “We’ll give bugger accounts standing racks, and we have flat wall-mounted racks for shops, too. It’s really tough to sell a bag if it isn’t displayed properly. It doesn’t maximize its potential.”

Every bag company I spoke with figures that the retail-price ceiling for backpacks is in the range of 80 to 100 dollars, but–and this is a big but–they’re counting on customers to buy more than backpacks. Clive makes purses for the girls and everything from shaving kits to cell-phone holders. And Savier has the RV Roller, a rolling bag that’s more of a high-end suitcase.

“The most simple backpack is our best seller,” says Active’s Wallace, apparently slamming the door shut on all this effort toward innovative designs. “The top sellers are the ones that sell for 40 or 50 dollars.”

But this may be changing. Even if most sales are from the simpler, cheaper backpack, a tech bag gives the impression that a company is on a different level than the average deck company’s third-party product, and the hype generated by unique features promotes brand awareness.

There’s another weapon these companies have–famous skaters. Pro-model backpacks are creeping into shops and are making a huge impact. Swart says that Bam Margera’s 90-dollar (retail) signature model is the best-selling Clive bag. Da Kine gives Mike Vallely credit for helping the company get into skate shops with his signature model. Apollo produces an Atiba Jefferson camera bag in homage to the TransWorld SKATEboarding photographer, and has a list of other skater-designed models. Savier has a couple of Brain Anderson creations, Da Kine put Mike V’s famous thunderbolts on their product, and Clive also gave Bucky Lasek and Kerry Getz models. The big pro names that have always played a huge part in moving hardgoods are now creating a consumer wave, and perhaps just as important, are helping their bag sponsors distinguish their products even more from non-bag-specific companies.

Pro power is almost a necessity because customers are still getting used to the idea of having multiple high-quality skate-designed bags to choose from, and pack-specific brands need all the leverage possible to compete against well-known hardgoods or shoe brands.

Obviously most kids won’t dump 180 bucks on the Savier RV Roller–they don’t need luggage like that yet. The majority of backpack buyers are kids, but the hope is that as they grtwear tongues, we quickly discovered that it would make the ultimate back-panel material for packs.”

As with most companies, the Clive design process relies heavily on rider input and feedback. “We start out deciding on a function for a product, then come up with our design brief and proceed with the design,” Swart says. “Upon developing a prototype we make modifications and refine it to the point where it becomes a finished sample. It’s a fairly extensive, time-consuming, and costly process.”

Entering The Race

Bags are getting more teched-out by the minute, but in the end it all comes down to convincing customers to slap down the cash or make their parents pull the plastic. Getting into the shops was problem number one for bag makers, the same for any new company, but shops already knew that backpacks were hot sellers, for a part of the year at least. “If you miss back-to-school, then you’re screwed for the entire year,” Vu says. “It’s the only season to sell large volumes of bags.”

Shops appear to be taking bags more seriously. “We’ve found that bags are more successful in a section dedicated to backpacks,” says Shane Wallace of Active Ride Shop, a successful So Cal retailer and mail-order operation.

Clive produces backpack stands to make sure that their product isn’t dumped behind a stack of old sale shoes. “The hardest part was to get people to be as serious about the backpack category as they should be, which is now happening,” says Swart.

Scott Koerner, promotions manager at Da Kine, says that they give away bag stands. “We’ll give bugger accounts standing racks, and we have flat wall-mounted racks for shops, too. It’s really tough to sell a bag if it isn’t displayed properly. It doesn’t maximize its potential.”

Every bag company I spoke with figures that the retail-price ceiling for backpacks is in the range of 80 to 100 dollars, but–and this is a big but–they’re counting on customers to buy more than backpacks. Clive makes purses for the girls and everything from shaving kits to cell-phone holders. And Savier has the RV Roller, a rolling bag that’s more of a high-end suitcase.

“The most simple backpack is our best seller,” says Active’s Wallace, apparently slamming the door shut on all this effort toward innovative designs. “The top sellers are the ones that sell for 40 or 50 dollars.”

But this may be changing. Even if most sales are from the simpler, cheaper backpack, a tech bag gives the impression that a company is on a different level than the average deck company’s third-party product, and the hype generated by unique features promotes brand awareness.

There’s another weapon these companies have–famous skaters. Pro-model backpacks are creeping into shops and are making a huge impact. Swart says that Bam Margera’s 90-dollar (retail) signature model is the best-selling Clive bag. Da Kine gives Mike Vallely credit for helping the company get into skate shops with his signature model. Apollo produces an Atiba Jefferson camera bag in homage to the TransWorld SKATEboarding photographer, and has a list of other skater-designed models. Savier has a couple of Brain Anderson creations, Da Kine put Mike V’s famous thunderbolts on their product, and Clive also gave Bucky Lasek and Kerry Getz models. The big pro names that have always played a huge part in moving hardgoods are now creating a consumer wave, and perhaps just as important, are helping their bag sponsors distinguish their products even more from non-bag-specific companies.

Pro power is almost a necessity because customers are still getting used to the idea of having multiple high-quality skate-designed bags to choose from, and pack-specific brands need all the leverage possible to compete against well-known hardgoods or shoe brands.

Obviously most kids won’t dump 180 bucks on the Savier RV Roller–they don’t need luggage like that yet. The majority of backpack buyers are kids, but the hope is that as they grow older and their needs increase, they’ll buy a brand that they’re already aware of and happy with.

There’s also the trickle-down effect. The RV, for example, is one of the most requested Savier bags from pro skaters and industry people. If enough kids see their favorite pro or “cool guy” rolling around with one on TV or in a magazine, it could plant the seed for a future purchase.

When skaters start to travel and their needs expand to a larger bag, will they leave the skate industry? According to Swart, skaters want everything skate if they can get it, because people who wear clothes to display a certain identity are going to consider bags (and shoes and watches, et cetera) as an extension of that identity. Skate bags have become such a part of our image that skate video games now even have characters that wear them. “Non-skaters go to skate shops to buy everything, backpacks included,” Swart says. “Everybody wants to buy the skate look.”

Perhaps I’m missing the point completely with all this talk about the “skate look.” When I think of the near riot of kids scrambling out of the school that day with their backpacks stuffed tight with homework, I have a hard time relating. When I was in grade school, I could fold my homework, if I had any at all, into my back pocket. I didn’t have any use for a backpack until high school. Today bags are a necessity for younger and younger kids, who also happen to be the biggest demographic in skating. Maybe the skate-bag industry’s most powerful allies are the evil teachers who started this whole thing with their avalanche of homework. You know, I’m starting to smell something fishy…y grow older and their needs increase, they’ll buy a brand that they’re already aware of and happy with.

There’s also the trickle-down effect. The RV, for example, is one of the most requested Savier bags from pro skaters and industry people. If enough kids see their favorite pro or “cool guy” rolling around with one on TV or in a magazine, it could plant the seed for a future purchase.

When skaters start to travel and their needs expand to a larger bag, will they leave the skate industry? According to Swart, skaters want everything skate if they can get it, because people who wear clothes to display a certain identity are going to consider bags (and shoes and watches, et cetera) as an extension of that identity. Skate bags have become such a part of our image that skate video games now even have characters that wear them. “Non-skaters go to skate shops to buy everything, backpacks included,” Swart says. “Everybody wants to buy the skate look.”

Perhaps I’m missing the point completely with all this talk about the “skate look.” When I think of the near riot of kids scrambling out of the school that day with their backpacks stuffed tight with homework, I have a hard time relating. When I was in grade school, I could fold my homework, if I had any at all, into my back pocket. I didn’t have any use for a backpack until high school. Today bags are a necessity for younger and younger kids, who also happen to be the biggest demographic in skating. Maybe the skate-bag industry’s most powerful allies are the evil teachers who started this whole thing with their avalanche of homework. You know, I’m starting to smell something fishy…