Truck tarpaulin (or tarp for short) may not be the most glamorous of materials.

But who would have thought that a cult brand could be created with bags made from these formerly unglamorous, dirty tarp? Markus Freitag did; and in the 20 years since he made the first Freitag messenger bag, the Swiss brand has since grown to producing 400,000 bags annually in over 20 countries worldwide.

Founded by brothers Markus and Daniel Freitag in 1993, the Swiss bag and accessories brand has garnered a dedicated and diverse following based on its eco-conscious brand philosophy. It first began with a messenger bag made to be waterproof and sturdy for cyclists, like the Freitag brothers.

Markus Freitag: Finding the right Freitag bag is “like dating” Markus Freitag: Finding the right Freitag bag is “like dating”
Markus Freitag at the Actually store in Singapore

Even though the Freitags do not advertise their brand, they are marvellously adept at marketing it; just take a look at the Freitag website for instance. Every step of the making-of Freitag bags is detailed in quirky-cute stop motion clips that spread the good word on its “upcycling” practices.

“The Reference collection [the premium Freitag line] was only possible after we had developed the concept of a bag made of recycled materials, at this price level,” shares Markus Freitag; prices for Freitag bags can range from $65 for a small pouch to $1,120 for the Hilten bag from the Reference line.

Markus Freitag: Finding the right Freitag bag is “like dating”Besides using old tarp and seatbelts into bags and more accessories, Freitag also prides itself on its sustainable practices within its Zurich-based factory. Rainwater and excess tarp are collected, reused and recycled where possible; the Freitag factory also uses energy-efficient hydro and solar electricity.

Freitag still take great pains to make sure that all tarpaulin sourced is already well-worn from their truck journeys. The natural wear and tear creates a distinctively aged look to old tarp bought by Freitag, which is then cut selectively by their professional pattern cutter and sewn together as the main fabric for their bags and accessories.

Since the designs available depend on the tarps that they can buy and find, “you’ll never find the same Freitag bag twice”, says Markus Freitag.

Freitag fans are known to scour stores in search of creative designs too. The co-founder equates it to being “like dating, you’ll have to find an individual bag that suits you; sometimes you find it in this store, or another. Customers are willing to find the stores, even if they’re located in some far-flung industrial area.”

While the well-dressed Markus Freitag insists that he doesn’t quite have an eye for fashion, we were amazed when he told us the jeans he was wearing on the day we met him were self-made. His shoes and accessories of choice have that deliberate appearance of an “effortless” style that’s a good mix of both form and function. The older Freitag brother’s been seen in shoes from Maison Martin Margiela and French deck shoe brand Rivieras.

Read about what he has to say about the eponymous bags that shot the Freitag brothers to fame, the concrete blocks they’ve placed in it and Freitag’s “plan B”, should they ever run out of tarp one day.

How long did it take you to make the first Freitag bag?
“I was a student at the arts school at that time. I already had the concept in mind. Daniel left for a couple of months from Switzerland to San Francisco to work there; so it was up to me to make the first prototype.

The first bag was made in one day. We got the truck tarp from a trucking company; the next day, I started to draw and cut out the tarp. I tried to sew the bag with my mother’s sewing machine at first which was not strong enough and it broke.

My roommate’s girlfriend was a tailor, so there was a industrial sewing machine available. It was not suitable for the tough material but it was sturdy enough to make the prototype. The model’s called the Topcat. It’s a large, expandable messenger bag with an extendable flap. That was the first bag that Daniel brought to San Francisco, to test it while cycling.”

Markus Freitag: Finding the right Freitag bag is “like dating”What is it like working so closely with your brother?
“We found a good way to challenge each other, so there’s still a friendly competition between us. If one of us comes up with a good idea, the other one thinks, ‘well, not bad but I have a better solution’. That gives energy to our project.

He likes to work on details, for sure. I’m more of the planner, the person who sets up the team to work together on a project. Sometimes I have to remind him that there’s so much going on, to move on: ‘let’s talk about this as well’.

I like to come back to a project the next day, it’s good to have some distance to look at it from a different point of view, to find a new solution. That it’s more or less perfect, that it can remain like that for the next … (he laughs) a couple of years, at least.”

What sort of tests do you put your bags through, to make sure that it lasts?
“We use the bags in everyday life, though we don’t have a machine to test it. We carry the prototypes around the city, then we refine the design based on the feedback. Then we start a bigger production, re-distributed to stores.

Once, we’d put in concrete blocks in our bags. We’ve also filled the bag up with water bottles to test its sturdiness.

Some bags have lasted for about 10 to 15 years. If the buckle breaks, you can go to a shoemaker to fix it. We’ll still recommend that you’ll use the bag for as long as possible.”

So what happens next, if you ever run out of tarpaulin?
“That will be a headache (laughs). I have numbers on the amount of tarpaulin that goes onto new trucks onto the streets, so that I know if we can get a certain percentage of these used tarp, we will have enough tarps for future bags. It’s not so dangerous right now. But for sure sometimes you don’t know where to get all the truck tarps or what’s the price (Ed. Freitag values the tarp, depending on the colours and condition of the tarp).

In the really long-term, it would be good to use different materials like recycled lining from PET plastic bottles, you can make this into fabric for the lining of bags. You could start to make bags out of this fabric. Or we could go in the direction of organic fibres. It could be nice to have the Freitag brand on different products like furniture.”

Do you think you’ll ever venture into a Freitag clothing line?
“I think it would fit the brand but I think it would be difficult. We don’t really like to do too ‘fashionable’ designs, that change season after season. There are so many fashion brands around, it would also be really tough in that market.”

What keeps you inspired?
“My daily life, while I travel. And my personal needs, while using the Freitag bags. I often think, ‘Okay, we have very nice bags but there are still some bags missing in the collection …’ And that’s good inspiration. Because as long as I have this feeling that we need more bag designs, there is something to do, I’m inspired.”

Prices start from $40 for a Freitag keyholder at Actually. Shop for Freitag in Singapore at Actually, #04-06, 313@Somerset,  and online at the main Freitag website. Follow Freitag on Facebook for more updates from the brand.