The world of 2022 is different than the one of the previous decade, with new challenges and dreams. While backpack fans and collectors are a hardy niche, the greater currents of the world still stir around us. Many of the businesses built into our community are tiny one-person operations, which affords unique opportunities for designers and company owners to interact with whoever might be using their creations, across the globe.
With their new release, the ATD2, around the corner, contributor Jon Custis spoke to the founder of Attitude Supply, Michele Fasano,
(All images provided by Michele Fasano)
Jon: During your 2019 Q&A with The Perfect Pack, you talked about the challenges of manufacturing your products in Europe. Anyone who has not been living under a rock knows that the COVID-19 pandemic turned the supply-chain upside down, and on the ATD Supply website you’ve mentioned challenges when talking about the pricing for the ATD2. What were the most difficult challenges you have faced in the past 24 months and how did you overcome them?
Michele: Even before the supply chain itself, the biggest challenge was forced shutdowns for sure. Since February 2020, Italy faced three months of almost total inactivity. I used them to design, but suppliers were physically closed, including my main manufacturing partners. Even when lockdowns were lifted, until three months ago workers who tested positive had to stay home for 15 days, and so did the colleagues who were in tight contact with them. My manufacturing partners range from solo-operated companies to small ones with a couple workers so each time this happened, they had to shut for a couple weeks, creating delays in all steps (counter-prototypes, pre-production meetings and production itself). There was no way to overcome this issue, other than pack a lot of patience. In the end, delays were not that big, but still I am incredibly thankful toward my customers because they were totally supportive.
Another big issue was delivery of finished goods to them. Depending on the countries I shipped to, some deliveries took weeks to be completed: customs have been under an unprecedented pressure, especially US ones, developing huge backlogs. Brexit was completed during this period and UK shipping became messy as well, with a couple parcels damaged (cut) by UK customs agents and in general a couple lost packs in the world. Constant communication, regular tracking to prevent issues instead of waiting for them to appear and great attention to any custom communication in order to reduce customers’ waiting time were the only possible solutions.
Coming to raw materials supplies, most of the ones I use are from the EU and US and I had decent stocks, so delivery delays were just a few and not so painful. The only noticeable one was from Tweave. I almost had to switch from Durastretch® to other fabrics due to the long wait, but we finally made it. The biggest issue on this side, for me, was not about delays but cost increases: COVID, and then war in Ukraine, made shipping costs and synthetic fabrics and parts costs rise, and this had to be taken into account when pricing our bags.
I need to clarify that the price increase in our packs (other items were not involved, actually) is only partially related to materials cost. The pricing was wrong from the beginning. With ATD1, I was stuck in the the paradox of setting a price that people would have paid for a premium pack intended to cover the need for two or three bags, with long and expensive development, large amounts of laser cut premium fabrics and almost paranoid attention to construction, but at the same time created by an unknown company with the idea to create less possible attention while traveling to nasty locations and not be perceived as an expensive luggage by average people.
I was scared by people not feeling my product’s value or trusting a newborn company, so the price I came out with was barely sustainable, and definitely not enough to invest in R&D, machinery and design time. Raising ATD backpacks’ final price up was the only way to keep delivering the same quality, the same state-of-the-art construction that our customers expect and deserve when they trust the company, with a markup that is still lower than most of my competitors.
Jon: I was going to ask about the pricing of the ATD2, because a few people are commenting about the size of the ATD2 and the price; they say that its size and capabilities don’t justify the expense.
Some of the same sort of things were said about GORUCK backpacks and the company’s mindset. I have chatted with founder Jason McCarthy and read his book, “How Not to Start a Backpack Company” a couple of times. I don’t think Jason ever wanted to create an average backpack with an average price. I don’t believe you would ever settle for an average backpack either, but I don’t think you were trying to create a luxury product like Jason was, when you built the ATD1 and now the ATD2.
How has the progression of ATD Supply as a company changed your outlook on design and impacted the development of the ATD2?
Michele: As said in the first answer, our packs’ price increase was driven by the fact that the previous one was not sustainable even at the beginning. With recent cost increases for raw materials slamming this on my face more and more. ATD2 has less versatility in terms of size and expansion compared to ATD1, but it’s not a smaller ATD1. It is specifically developed to handle just some of the uses the ATD1 could work for—the ones most people have—and perform better at them compared to its bigger brother. Plus, making it really costs just a few bucks less than the ATD1 to us, due to the same complexity, same number of cuts and sews.
I definitely never thought about creating luxury products at the beginning. What I wanted to do with ATD1 was to disrupt the game, creating something that I wanted to have and did not exist, and I did it. It was not just about the expandability but also the aesthetic versatility of the design, the paranoid construction, the materials. I wanted to make a pack that could be with the user literally everywhere, in any setting, be it the Libyan war, an office in Milan or a hotel in Bangkok (it’s been to all of them).
No other pack was at the same time so versatile, so expandable, so comfortable (for the majority of users) regardless of the setup. Small packs could not accommodate bigger loads, big packs looked weird if loaded 1/3 full and used in urban settings. ATD1 was different, a “league of its own” as it was often referred to, and it changed the game. Products taking the same path popped out after that and also some new versions of previous or contemporary ones were inspired by its versatility and expandability.
As said, I definitely never thought about creating a luxury product with ATD1 and I don’t plan to do it now with ATD2. In the end some features happened to be more similar to luxury items than average ones, like the ability to be one’s only (carry) option, scarcity, small unique batches with small changes at any run, and the physical perception of quality construction that makes most owners stick to it, since the ATD1 is rarely seen sold second hand on collectors groups.
I had always dreamt of developing soft goods and I had ideas coming from my experience and observation but no technical skills, nor resources like Facebook Groups to help me start. Still, I wanted to have my own “thing” so I started it in the clothing industry, selling and managing services from a bunch of suppliers (embroiderers, printers, sewers, modelists) to small brands. I also sold streetwear garments I designed and commissioned with my own label to local shops, but this was not what I wanted to do. When I finally asked a sewer to make some packs I had designed (simple lines, pen and paper), seeing them in real life confirmed that I had to focus on this and learn how to sew and work with CAD (computer-aided design) software since my design ability was still totally inadequate to put on paper the ideas I had.
The energy that was waiting under the surface finally erupted in the ATD1. The company itself has been mainly based on it, but it was only during the 2020 lockdown that I developed the ecosystem of pouches and smaller bags that now are available. At the beginning I only thought about the product: kickstarting it, making it, delivering it, improving it, again and again. There was no real focus on growing a company that could lead to a long-lasting story. I’m sure the fact that I had another job that became a proper career in the last years, had its part in “slowing” down the process, but at a certain point I realised that even with another career I had more to offer than just the ATD1 and in order to do that, the company needed to be fully profitable and able to invest. Of course I had always managed the cost of every bit of my products, working on the BOMs (bills of materials) to ensure they were optimised, but starting from 2020 I decided that this had to be a more complete and far-sighted project.
I’ve been managing operations, projects and teams for years in my working life. I still do that and I had never put that point of view in ATD Supply, treating bag design more as a form of escape from company life. When I finally realized ATD Supply needed more structure in order to be able to invest and raise its products’ level, I just had to take that skillset I already had and put it in it, together with design and sewing.
This impacted the ATD2 for sure, bringing me to develop a less versatile pack (less than ATD1 yet still truly versatile for EDC and short trips), but more adept than its predecessor to address a larger audience’s needs, focusing on urban use and shorter trips, and pricing it according to a more sustainable mark up. It also influenced the choice to explore greener fabrics, since I want this company to grow, and its commitment to this topic to grow with it.
Jon: Did you ever quit that day job as customer care center team leader?
Michele: I did, to grow as a local operations manager in a multinational food delivery company and again, one year ago, in a micro mobility company, with a fleet of free floating electric scooters and bikes. I manage all operations in Milan, handling tons of data, taking operative decisions and dealing with all kind of issues and stakeholders ranging from ground team workers to the city administration.
Jon: How do you get the time to lead ATD Supply? Or did you hire other members onto the team?
Michele: I still manage all operations on my own and usually dedicate around 1hr per day to regular tasks such as data, accounting, planning, bureaucracy, invoicing, orders fulfilment, customer care and writing contents for the website, or some hours in my days off if I’m not able to do that for some reasons.
On the other hand, creativity has to be listened to when it comes, so design happens when it happens, usually at night. For my personal product development model, the first part of it needs a lot of time and commitment, while the CAD execution of the design can usually be done in a more relaxed setting, even watching a movie in the evening for example, or listening to a podcast. Then I sew on days off or on those days when daily tasks listed at the beginning are less demanding. At this point I test, ask others to test, note the comments, and start again.
Jon: In your press release about the ATD2, you sound like you finally feel comfortable that you have a customer base that values and trusts ATD Supply. You also sound like your business model changes are going to allow you to continue to be excellent at the basics. What is next for you and your company?
Michele: Apart from small accessories and spare parts for the packs I’m working on, the most important drop will be the fifth run of ATD1; orders will be open around October 2022. ATD2 taught me a lot from a construction point of view and the pack will see its biggest design restyling since its launch, while retaining all the features that made it peculiar.
After that, I will explore some lightweight items: a sling/sacoche and a lighter and more compressible version of the ARB Tote. It will be an interesting challenge to create something lighter but with the durability my customers are used to. I felt the need for such items in my last trips, something one could store in a one-bag backpack adding no weight and taking no room, but able to carry an EDC if the main luggage had to be checked in, or left somewhere for some reasons.
What’s next for me? Well, these items will need some serious travel to be stress tested…
Thank you Jon for the deep and interesting questions, for the second time I liked your focus on the designer together with the product. I mostly find myself thinking at products more than me as a designer and these interviews are a chance to make some mental order on this side as well.
the ATD2 backpack is available for preorder now