I sat in my car waiting, dozing from the heavy heat of theafternoon sun shining through the windshield, when the doubledoors of the nearby building sprang open with a roar of screamingvoices. Students rushed out like angry ants, running around the carin a desperate attempt to get into their parents’ vehicles andevacuate as quickly as possible. I was parked in the driveway of anelementary school, helping my friend out by picking up his second-grade son. But an odd image struck me as I watched the frenziedexodus–I was used to seeing Norman Rockwell kids in scuffed jeansrunning with dangling shoelaces in school yards, but to update into’02 these all-Americans boys added backpacks slung over theirshoulders to the picture (many of the girls carried roller bags likeminiature flight attendants). The odd thing for me wasn’t that thekids were carrying backpacks, it was that most of them wereskate backpacks.
What happened? After two decades of almost dormantsales, skate bags appear to be waking from hibernation and are allover the place. They’re coming from behind and jockeying forposition in the softgoods charge to skate-shop registers. Hit anairport and you’ll spot herds of under-40 travelers with them.Skateparks are peppered with mounds of knapsacks thrown out ofharm’s way. Stroll into a decent skate shop, and they hangeverywhere like bulging fruit. There have been more impressiveleaps in bag designs, materials, and innovations in the past five yearsthan in the past twenty. But as important as the improvements are,companies and skate shops have realized that, like shoes andclothing, skate packs appeal to a much wider clientele than thehardgoods sect.
In the past, not even the distant past–let’s say the start ofthe 90s–most bags seemed like an afterthought for skatecompanies. Kids needed backpacks, but it was a pretty shallowmarket, apparently not worth the attention that hardgoodsdemanded. They were generally bought from a third-partymanufacturer, a skate-brand name was sewn on, and shops stuckthem in whatever part of the store had extra space. Companies likeShorty’s built skate-carrying systems into their backpacks by themid 90s, but that seemed the extent of skateboard-specificbackpack design. Visually, most packs were pretty similar, and afterbeing thrown around and stuffed too tightly, they didn’t last verylong. Zippers broke, stitching pulled out, and straps separated.Skaters’ nature is to abuse every type of clothing or equipment theyuse, and until a few years ago it appeared that skate bags were thebottom feeders of the accessories ocean, with more thought goinginto slow-moving items like pads.
But if skate companies have proven one thing, it’s that theylike to protect their territory. Instead of peeing all over the place,they design skate-specific products and leave non-endemiccompanies that don’t fully understand the needs of skate rats in thedust.
A perfect example is skate shoes. Remember when skatersregularly limped thanks to heel bruises, Shoe Goo was stocked inskate shops, and no vert skater was far from a roll of toe-savingduct tape? Skaters wore mainstream shoes like Nike Air Jordans,Converse, or Pumas, and dealt with their stiffness and othershortcomings. Then skater-influenced companies began designingshoes to solve the problems, and nowadays it’s the most lucrativesector of the skate industry. When was the last time you sawsomebody skating in a shoe not designed for skateboarding?
Skate bags are turning into skate shoes’ little tagalongbrother–the market will never be as large (not even close) or asdemanding, but companies realize that to succeed they’ll have tofollow in the same footsteps.
“The bag market has evolved because it is finally being seenas a stand-alone category,” says Clive Marketing Director Tim Swart.Started in 1999 with the help of Eagle Creek (a mainstream bagcompany), Clive was an oddity in our industry–all they made werebags specifically designed for skaters. Clive has since added surf andsnowboarding. Everybody I spoke with at the time thought that Cliveemployees had been breathing too many fumes. Every skater knewyou could make a better skate backpack, but most thought youcouldn’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 andoverhead,” Swart recalls, “but we originally came to market with 21styles. 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 lookdifferent. Sling a Clive over your shoulder and you’d never bemistaken for some college dork in a Polo shirt on his way to thestore. If there’s one thing skaters fiend over it’s looking likea 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 abackground not often found in skating–a degree in engineering witha focus toward physics and design (sounds like a guy who can designbags to me). Savier started a serious buzz back in 2000 as a newtechnical shoe company with the tag team of Brian Anderson andBrad Staba to help steer the ship.
The weird thing was that they came out with bags beforeshoes, but it’s easier to design and produce packs than shoes.Savier’s innovative bag designs and high-quality materials floatedinto more than a few ASR conversations that year.
And they’re keeping the innovations going. According toFidrych, Savier has applied for four patents regarding bagtechnology this year. When I asked about this plan of attack, he toldme it wasn’t that out of the ordinary. “Actually, Savier is askateboard company,” he says, downplaying my skate-shoe companyreference. “Our goal is to make the absolute best products forskateboarders. As our team does a lot of traveling, they asked for abag line that would work with their lifestyle.”
“Lifestyle” is a key point regarding backpacks. I went ontour for a couple of weeks last year, and the days of pros luggingaround duffel bags are over. Scabby dudes with tats are stuffingtheir dirty clothes into cleanly designed and expensive rolling bags.They have Clive shaving kits, Discman packs, and computer bags fortheir G4s. “In snowboarding, backpacks and bags are seen asessential to daily use,” Swart says. “This is now what is happening inskateboarding.”
“Basically, kids today are more mobile and want to beready for any situation,” says Apollo Projects CEO Frank Vu.”Therefore, they carry a lot of shit–laptops, cameras, digi cams, cellphones, PalmPilots, mp3 players, skateboards, and clothing for anysituation.”
Apollo started out of Patrick Keener’s garage with one bagand now publishes a fourteen-page catalog. “Backpacks are such anecessity that it evolved into a fashion item. Like any other type offashion item, (packs are) a way to express your individuality.”
“I think when someone commits to a pack, it is part oftheir life for a while,” Savier’s Fidrych says. “They live out ofit–make sure all their shit goes in the right place. That’s why we putso much into the design.”
The most dramatic change in this sector of the industry hasbeen the research that’s going into it. Skate bags are still in theirtoddler years, which means that companies are wide open toinnovate and attempt to nail what skaters need, sometimes beforethe skaters even know. Every part of the bag is looked upon with thethought of improvement. “Our footwear- and bag-development teamare the same people,” says Fidrych. “If there is a new technologymade available for footwear, we can immediately use it in our bags.Case in point with our new breathable Respirator technology. Whileit was developed for footwear tongues, we quickly discovered that itwould make the ultimate back-panel material for packs.”
As with most companies, the Clive design process reliesheavily on rider input and feedback. “We st
art out deciding on afunction for a product, then come up with our design brief andproceed with the design,” Swart says. “Upon developing a prototypewe make modifications and refine it to the point where it becomes afinished sample. It’s a fairly extensive, time-consuming, and costlyprocess.”
Entering The Race
Bags are getting more teched-out by the minute, but in theend it all comes down to convincing customers to slap down thecash or make their parents pull the plastic. Getting into the shopswas problem number one for bag makers, the same for any newcompany, but shops already knew that backpacks were hot sellers,for a part of the year at least. “If you miss back-to-school, thenyou’re screwed for the entire year,” Vu says. “It’s the only season tosell large volumes of bags.”
Shops appear to be taking bags more seriously. “We’vefound that bags are more successful in a section dedicated tobackpacks,” says Shane Wallace of Active Ride Shop, a successful SoCal retailer and mail-order operation.
Clive produces backpack stands to make sure that theirproduct isn’t dumped behind a stack of old sale shoes. “The hardestpart was to get people to be as serious about the backpack categoryas they should be, which is now happening,” says Swart.
Scott Koerner, promotions manager at Da Kine, says thatthey give away bag stands. “We’ll give bugger accounts standingracks, and we have flat wall-mounted racks for shops, too. It’s reallytough to sell a bag if it isn’t displayed properly. It doesn’t maximizeits potential.”
Every bag company I spoke with figures that the retail-priceceiling for backpacks is in the range of 80 to 100 dollars, but–andthis is a big but–they’re counting on customers to buy more thanbackpacks. Clive makes purses for the girls and everything fromshaving kits to cell-phone holders. And Savier has the RV Roller, arolling bag that’s more of a high-end suitcase.
“The most simple backpack is our best seller,” saysActive’s Wallace, apparently slamming the door shut on all thiseffort toward innovative designs. “The top sellers are the ones thatsell for 40 or 50 dollars.”
But this may be changing. Even if most sales are from thesimpler, cheaper backpack, a tech bag gives the impression that acompany is on a different level than the average deck company’sthird-party product, and the hype generated by unique featurespromotes brand awareness.
There’s another weapon these companies have–famousskaters. Pro-model backpacks are creeping into shops and aremaking a huge impact. Swart says that Bam Margera’s 90-dollar(retail) signature model is the best-selling Clive bag. Da Kine givesMike Vallely credit for helping the company get into skate shopswith his signature model. Apollo produces an Atiba Jeffersoncamera bag in homage to the TransWorld SKATEboardingphotographer, and has a list of other skater-designed models. Savierhas a couple of Brain Anderson creations, Da Kine put Mike V’sfamous thunderbolts on their product, and Clive also gave BuckyLasek and Kerry Getz models. The big pro names that have alwaysplayed a huge part in moving hardgoods are now creating aconsumer wave, and perhaps just as important, are helping their bagsponsors distinguish their products even more from non-bag-specific companies.
Pro power is almost a necessity because customers are stillgetting used to the idea of having multiple high-quality skate-designed bags to choose from, and pack-specific brands need all theleverage possible to compete against well-known hardgoods or shoebrands.
Obviously most kids won’t dump 180 bucks on the SavierRV Roller–they don’t need luggage like that yet. Themajority of backpack buyers are kids, but the hope is that as theygrow older and their needs increase, they’ll buy a brand that they’realready 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 andindustry people. If enough kids see their favorite pro or “cool guy”rolling around with one on TV or in a magazine, it could plant theseed for a future purchase.
When skaters start to travel and their needs expand to alarger bag, will they leave the skate industry? According to Swart,skaters want everything skate if they can get it, because people whowear 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 videogames now even have characters that wear them. “Non-skaters go toskate 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 talkabout the “skate look.” When I think of the near riot of kidsscrambling out of the school that day with their backpacks stuffedtight with homework, I have a hard time relating. When I was ingrade school, I could fold my homework, if I had any at all, into myback pocket. I didn’t have any use for a backpack until high school.Today bags are a necessity for younger and younger kids, who alsohappen to be the biggest demographic in skating. Maybe the skate-bag industry’s most powerful allies are the evil teachers who startedthis whole thing with their avalanche of homework. You know, I’mstarting to smell something fishy…