For over 20 years, the Freitag name has been synonymous with quality, craftsmanship, and individuality. Born out of a single product made from repurposed truck tarpaulin, the Swiss company was founded in 1993 by brothers Markus and Daniel Freitag with the intention of creating the perfect waterproof messenger bag. The Freitag philosophy combines the duo’s passion for design with their childhood-honed sense of teamwork, making the brand’s use of sustainable materials, as well as its ethical manufacturing practices, somewhat of a bonus. It’s been more than a year since Freitag launched “F-abric,” a line of European-grown and -sewn “toxin-free” clothing derived from 100 percent biodegradable textiles such as hemp, linen, and modal. (Cotton, with its heavier environmental footprint, was dubbed verboten.) Ecouterre recently sat down with Daniel in San Francisco to learn more about the company’s eschewal of fashion “seasons,” why it chooses to source its materials as close to home (i.e. its headquarters in Zurich) as possible, and what it’s like to work with your sibling.
F-abric was developed because you couldn’t find sustainable workwear for your employees that was also biodegradable. What came first, the designs or the material?
It was interesting because it was a journey. We really wanted to buy sustainable workwear and couldn’t find it.
We went to textile fairs in Paris trying to get suitable material and we just realized that there’s a lot of talking and you see beautiful fabrics—sellers even call them “organic”—but when you ask the ingredients they have no idea.
So we ended up somehow taking care of the fibers, coming to solutions on how to produce a fabric which was tough, heavy, but still sustainable and we ended up with a no-cotton philosophy.
Why not cotton?
I think [organic] cotton is great. I have nothing against it, but we still had the feeling that it travels far.
“We realized that the best fibers are the things that are growing and giving good nutrients to the soil.
If you live in Switzerland and you wear cotton, it’s not from the region; it can’t be.
Cotton is also very water-consuming and that’s why we asked ourselves what was the fiber we have been using in Europe before artificial fibers and cotton were around?
So we realized that the best fibers are the things that are growing, that are totally sustainable, and giving good nutrients to the soil. It’s a fiber that is natural to the region, to the people.
So that’s why we ended up with this fiber mostly from France—[that is,] linen-hemp—and, just for certain pieces of apparel with a softer, lighter touch, we realized that we had to add something else and then we ended up with this modal fiber which is cellulose and made from beechwood. [Modal] also has a good, closed sustainable process and it’s also biodegradable.
So what was first, design or fabric? I think it was kind of woven together. First we made drawings with a textile designer of how [the garments] should look because we believed we could buy the fabric in Paris, then we realized “Okay, it’s not going to happen,” so when we had the first batches of fabric coming in we realized we need to readjust our designs because the fabric is very specific and you need to kind of design to [the] material.
So it was an interactive process: going in cycles and challenging the things we knew and learned and bringing it into the designs we had. It was really [about] developing the things together.
Each piece in the F-abric collection has an E number. Does the E number stand for Europe?
There are many reasons for the “E.” You can see it for “Europe,” you can see it for “ecological.”
[For] the first bag collection, we had F numbers—obviously the “F” was for “Freitag.”
So [we had] the F-11, F-12, which were the first bags. The F-13 actually is the one which is in the Museum of Modern Art.
“F” also stands for “fundamental”; that is what why call our bag collection “the fundamentals of Freitag.”
Our backpack is part of the “Reference” line so you can say that’s the second letter of the word “Freitag”—F…r…—so the next one is “e.”
“Our products are not just a piece of “fast fashion,” which is here for a season and you need to throw it away.
Besides being biodegradable and locally sourced, what are some of the other benefits of the F-abric collection?”
I think the comfort of wearing. I just realized that I’m totally addicted now. When I’m wearing a sweatshirt that’s made of artificial fibers, I just don’t feel comfortable anymore and I wouldn’t have noticed the difference before.
The look, I like it; it has this natural approach and beauty of imperfection. I think sometimes, especially in Switzerland, we’re a country of perfectionism [and] we like to have it perfect.
Freitag is searching for perfectionism on a different level, and I think we really pay high attention to the details of that project but it’s not about surface.
Also, it’s the story that we provide and I think, to me, this is what I appreciate.
I don’t need many pieces in my closet, but the ones I have, I need to know where they’re coming from. I want to have a relation to them, and I want to know what was the intention of the people who invented it. So I think we can provide that, as well.
Our products are not just a piece of “fast fashion,” which is here for a season and you need to throw it away.
I think it’s something that’s a part of a feeling you get from products, which are a result of well-made decisions.
Does F-abric have seasons?
No. There is a seasonal approach to apparel that you can’t ignore, but we don’t try to come out with a Spring/Summer 2016 collection and then, as soon as it’s in the store, try to sell it out and bring you the Autumn/Winter.
We just have styles which should work in all the seasons. Actually, that’s also the beauty: it’s a very heavy fabric and usually you would think you can’t sell that in summer, but I was wearing our pants in Bangkok—high moisture, high temperature—and I felt comfortable.
And so we try to avoid the overheated cycles of the seasons, but I think we can’t ignore that there are more T-shirts and short pants in summer than in winter.
But I’m not sure if you really have to sell it out or, if it’s still good, you can offer it the next summer again.
Of course, you need to adjust because I think apparel is much more part of zeitgeist than accessories, [which] are more steady.
“I think we want to keep it basic with a good cut and a modern approach.”
You have a more tight fit, then it goes wider again, so there are tendencies which you can’t ignore, but fast fashion is too fast.
Given that there are no synthetics involved, what are the characteristics of the fit?
We came from workwear and had the idea that our employees should wear it everyday, no matter if they have the white-collar or blue-collar kind of job.
You should feel comfortable while you’re in action and doing your work, but you should also feel comfortable when you go out later in the day without changing your clothes.
We just had the idea of this everyday approach. I think we want to keep it basic with a good cut and a modern approach.
I think it’s kind of the in-between thing, you have a retro-orientation, but you definitely try to look forward at the same time.
We have limitations, but we make them a benefit and work around them, give them a certain character trait, and appreciate those boundaries.
Was sustainability always built into the Freitag brand?
Well, of course, [sustainability is] one of the pillars of the foundation of Freitag, but we never tried to sell our brand from that angle.
Because you often see that you end up with this “I feel sorry for the environment so that’s why I buy that product” and I think that’s the wrong approach.
I think it’s an obligation for brands to think what about the next life: Where is my material coming from? Where is it going? And in that sense I think if you make sustainability your USP [unique selling point] then you’re not serious about the topic because a USP is something you want to have alone.
And that’s why I think you need to figure out different angles of what is the selling proposition for your brand and for your products, and sustainability should add up to that.
And in that sense I think it has always has been a very important part of our foundation, but we never tried to position ourselves as an “eco brand.”
If you look closely, I’m not sure if you’d find anybody else taking care of biodegradable buttons and sewing thread like we are, but we still try not to position ourselves [solely] as an ecological “I feel sorry for the environment” brand.
[Sustainability is] one of the pillars of the foundation of Freitag, but we never tried to sell our brand from that angle.
There are constant reference to cycles and cyclical thinking in Freitag designs. Other than being biodegradable, how else do cycles come into play for the collection?
Many. We have the long-lasting quality, which is an aspect that helps cyclical ideas. You can say adaptability or compatibility. [With] the shelf system we made—if you don’t use it in one corner, you can take it apart and build it up in a totally different form or shape—you have the modularity that is totally helping us to think in cycles.
The idea of repairing is something that I think is beautiful. If you do it in a beautiful manner, it gives character to your piece.
There’s the question of speed: sometimes you need to slow down to win time and not speed up. We try to bring this out in products, so you feel there is something more than just a surface of that product.
And we bring it to our packaging design, to our shop architecture. The flagship store in Zurich is built from 19 used Freitag containers that we piled into a tower, and before you enter the shop, you’ll have already understood the concept behind the brand.
You can also find it in the way our factory building is operated and built. We have a balcony-gardening project we do with our team members.
You feel it all over. Customers start to understand that you have a vision, have a goal, and it all adds up to that, and I think it’s also important to understand that it’s about questioning the standards and constant learning, not about perfectionism.
You grew up in an old farm house near a forest. How did growing up around nature influence the way you design and conceptualize things?
I think what we basically had was a lot of freedom. A carpenter was living in that house before us, so I think even more important than the farmhouse itself was that workshop: it was equipped with tools.
We had a little shed in the backyard that was full of wood and objects from the renovation of the house, we had resources and tools, and this I think is just the greatest environment for kids to have.
We had our presents for Christmas, but I think the coolest things were the ones we built ourselves with all the consequences.
I remember the moment when we tried to build this paraglider and it definitely didn’t work out, but it was so fun. We just had the idea “let’s fly this afternoon,” so we started to build this wing, you know, and it didn’t fly at all, but I mean just to have the opportunity to try and build a wing, going uphill and running down, and not flying but learning and playing.
“When [my brother] doesn’t see a solution, I have an idea. I think we totally created a partnership during our childhood.
It’s been proven that learning is about embodiment. You can’t stand still and become intelligent; you need to move. It’s a holistic approach, and this is what we had. We had a chance to be creative, be kids, to learn teamwork.
When [my brother] doesn’t see a solution, I have an idea. I think we totally created a partnership during our childhood. And I think this is all a part of that farmhouse and forest. I only hope that every kid has a chance to learn like that.
When were you first introduced to composting?
We had been living in a multiple-family house before we moved into the farmhouse, and we had a garden. My father, who was discovering vegetable gardening, understood that there’s a biological way or a less-biological way [to do things] and he chose the biological way.
And we hated it, you know. It was our job to bring out the biological waste. It was not my most favorite thing to do, but I understood that the zucchinis close to the compost were bigger than the other ones.
We always call ourselves “children of the compost generation.” I think Switzerland was an early [adopter] when it came to [waste and recycling].
It’s a lot of work to do it properly [but] the understanding here is that there is no waste, there are just resources in the wrong place, and learning how compost works is a good base.
We have to ask: What’s it like working with your brother?
If you have a partnership that has a very strong base that you can’t destroy, this helps especially during challenging times in business.
I think there are good partnerships that break in a certain periods of a process or on a timeline, and we definitely know that our relation will never break—it can’t. We are a family, which always will tie us together.
But what you need to do is sometimes we need to work on it like in every partnership. It’s not something you get for free. You need to adjust to your partnership.
If there is change in the company, we need to readjust our role and also our relation.
“We know that our relation will never break—it can’t. We are a family, which always will tie us together.
And I think this is something that you need to be ready to work on. What I think might be a problem is that our partnership could be too symbiotic: that you have your own understanding, you’re very fast, you can read the other person. That’s why it’s important to bring the other people to the table, because otherwise you isolate yourselves.
As a startup, where you have to be an all-rounder and you need to learn and do everything yourself, it’s fantastic if you have a partner you understand and know the skill sets of.
It’s also good to be two you can remind each other what [the company] was meant to be and where you wanted to go. Building this [type of] relation with a partner is an ongoing challenge.