- Buyer's Guide
Interview with Eric Fischer :: Inside Line Equipment
These days boutique cycling bags are becoming increasingly popular. Students and commuters alike are starting to recognize the value of tough and robust bag designs that bicycle messengers have relied on for years. This means that more and more clever bag makers are transitioning out of the shadows, off their kitchen tables, and into the marketplace – giving us more choices. So when Inside Line Equipment in Berkeley offered to open their doors to us, we couldn’t resist asking them a few questions about their humble roots.
What key insights drive your stuff?
Just functionality. Like simple, clean stuff. Not so many pockets that you lose things but well thought out.
So are you leaning towards minimalist styling or functional?
I guess I’d lean towards minimalist, but really both. What I think of as functional is really simple.
Who else is doing cool things in the carry world?
There’s a lot of small companies out there doing rad things. The big companies might be doing cool things, but if so it gets lost. The tactical companies out there are doing some really rad stuff. I like to draw more stuff from tactical companies than the office type stuff because it’s usually simple clever things that are durable since it has to withstand some rigorous use whereas a lot of cheaper bags – like mass produced stuff – are a bit fussy and untested.
Is the military inspiration what sent you down the road of using MOLLE webbing?
Yeah. I really like MOLLE for the utility. It’s not as clean or sleek as a plain bag, but I like how it works with our accessories but isn’t exclusive to ILE. MOLLE has been around for 15 years, but it’s just starting to trickle into the civilian oriented bags.
So are there any things that you see other brands are doing great or some things that other brands could be doing better?
It would be rad if some of the high-quality domestic military brands like Mystery Ranch would make more bags that incorporated civilian styling. Also they could put out some more weatherproof stuff. I just saw that Arc’teryx made a new backpack. It’s a $1200 submersible Navy SEAL backpack. It’s floatable. It’s just crazy. I think things like this that are more civilian oriented would be great. And I think adventurous people would buy them.
So what’s next for ILE?
Well, some smaller daypacks for sure. Also, we’re working on a new color scheme thing for the Japanese. And we’re doing a little bit different photo bag. Really, though, we’re always just trying to improve everything we make. One thing that I improved recently is the liners. Instead of sewing the sides of the liners they’re Radio Frequency welded. I really wanted to buy the machine that does this but it’s expensive and it’s huge. It’s a Radio Frequency welder. It heats the fabric from the inside out so they’re melted together and it makes it completely waterproof. So it’s a drybag but it still has the durability and functionality of a Cordura backpack. And that makes it even more durable.
Can you explain more about one of the smaller daypacks you’re working on?
It’s like a one-day assault bag. The Default may be a little bit big for some people, but the smaller daypack we’re doing is pretty lightweight. It doesn’t have the vinyl liner so it’s not waterproof but that means it can open up flat. There’s a spot for shoes and some real simple organization. I hate digging through pockets and stuff but if there’s something like a mesh organizer you can still see what’s inside and it’s not in the way. The fabric is made in Connecticut and it’s sail cloth so it’s super lightweight, really sew-able but also durable.
So what do you carry daily?[Points to the prototype daypack] I think it’s the perfect size for me every day because I try not to carry too much stuff into work. I also love a Default for a plane flight or a weekend trip. My favorite way to travel is with a Default and a Tote Bag. We just started making some totes that aren’t on the website yet but they’re built with a waterproof liner. You can throw in keys, a laptop, and it’s also got some MOLLE. And it’s completely waterproof.
What is the essence of your brand?
Just minimal styling but with all the functionality of a technical bag.
Is there something in particular that stands out in your mind?
Once I made a bag to carry this guy’s little Chihuahua except it had this false bottom that was really complicated. It was kinda ridiculous but he loved it!
What drives your choice in materials for bags?
I always look for what is available domestically. I use Cordura because it’s super tough, US made, and you can make just about anything and it’ll hold up. I also use US-made thread, it’s really consistent quality. I’ve learned that thread is just not something you want to skimp on. Same with buckles. But thread is throughout the entire bag. In the grand scheme of things it’s pretty cheap but some people skimp on it and go with a smaller size or go with an imported version and the quality just isn’t as good.
Do you prefer using domestic materials instead of going overseas?
Yeah. I think the quality’s better and now I’ve developed relationships with these companies. There’s something really cool about knowing where everything comes from, and the stories behind everything that goes into these bags.
Is there something that’s driven your desire to use domestic?
I like that everything it stands for is awesome. I mean I don’t drive a giant truck with a confederate flag on the roof or anything. I’m not super patriotic but I think there’s great stuff made in the US, with fair wages and made to rigorous standards. With overseas competition the US-made products have to be held to the highest quality. The industry got smaller after the 80’s, but now it’s coming back. I have some friends who are in a small shop in Temescal Alley, Standard & Strange, [in Oakland, CA] that only sells US stuff and it is awesome. It’s hard sourcing US but I think it says something about your brand.
What things won’t you do with your brand?
I won’t take them to Singapore. I like making all the backpacks here. I’m not sure if in the future I’m going to touch every single backpack like I do now, but I like doing that right now. I like overseeing all of this [gestures to shop]. And I’ll never compromise materials if it’s a dollar cheaper. Because if you want to buy a cheaper backpack I’m sure you can find one. With ILE there’s no investors saying ‘you need to cut down the cost of these backpacks.’ It’s nice being self-employed because I can make sure that the standard of each backpack doesn’t get compromised.
What key insights drive your product direction?
What I think I can make better or what my friends think could be improved. I have no interest in making messenger bags because there are already ten thousand messenger bags. I know that with backpacks I can keep making them better and keep getting inspired.
What key challenges do you face with your product?
I have so many ideas for different bags to make, I just don’t have time to develop them all. I get so excited about new product ideas, but have to balance that with running the whole operation.
So which product are you most proud of?
The Photo Bag. It’s not like any other photo bag and that’s why it’s appealing. The idea is that it serves the purpose of someone who wants to travel with a messenger bag full of their clothes and their camera bag, like if you’re going on an airplane or whatever. This bag puts both of those into one. It’s a little bit taller than a Default but the same width. It has a roll-top compartment, a spot for a 13” laptop, and the bottom opens up a hard shell camera case. And since there’s no zipper and there’s no shared seams there’s no leakage.
What was your inspiration for that bag?
This guy writes a blog called ‘Prolly Is Not Probably’ [now called ‘The Radavist’] and I talked to him. He and I developed this. We wanted something for that purpose, a bag with a spot for clothes, shoes, and camera gear. I remember riding BMX bikes as a kid and we’d carry a camera in our backpacks folded in clothes and stuff. Also, all camera bags look awful. So I wanted something that didn’t look like a standard camera bag and something made from more durable materials.
What are your main channels for inspiration?
I don’t know, I just listen to whatever people are asking for and then get creative. I don’t go to a “special place” under a tree and think of things. I’m always sketching things down. Sometimes I’ll come back to work in the middle of the night because I can’t sleep and I want to work or I have an idea of how to do something better.
What was the catalyst for your brand starting?
Just me needing a better backpack. I wanted something different than what was out there. I had a couple of backpacks growing up, but wanted something better, so I decided to make it.
What was the first bag you made?
It was similar to a Default, but it was pretty rough. It was made on my grandmother’s sewing machine and it’s…yeah…awful. I also made a couple of wheel bags because I was going to bike races and I needed a backpack wheel bag. I basically sewed back straps onto a bicycle wheel bag. I was going to a bike race that was less than five miles away and it felt stupid to drive. It’s kinda silly because I don’t even make that bag and I don’t think there’s even a market for that kind of bag, but it was something that got me into sewing.
What was the point of no return for your business?
Probably buying the bartacking machine. It’s a super specialized thing and it’s really expensive. It’s like five grand for that machine so when you buy that you gotta be making a lot more backpacks. It takes you to the next level and when you’re spending that much money on sewing machines it’s pretty serious. Most everything you can get away with on a pretty simple sewing machine with bag building. But there are some things like the RF welding and the bartacking that can set you apart. I love tools so much…
What guy doesn’t?
Yeah, though most guys probably don’t like sewing machines [chuckles].
What single business moment has given you the biggest smile?
Every month I get an order from Japan from this little bike boutique and they’re so into bags. They carry all sorts of US brands and I am stoked that they think my bags are rad. Anyhow, this latest order said “ten rad bags”. They trust me enough to pick out anything cool. That’s pretty gratifying.
Can I see a pocket dump?
I don’t have anything cool in my pockets…but you can see my broken iPhone [chuckles]! Oh! My wallet is kinda cool, it’s made out of Hypalon. This was a test to see how durable it was. It’s what they use to make hovercraft skirts out of. It’s rubber-coated nylon fabric. I’ve had this wallet over a year. But I think that’s the coolest way to test something. Make a wallet out of it because you use it every day. I have so many backpacks that I’ll never test them properly. I have friends and I tell them wear the shit out of their bags. Now that I’ve tested it I’m making a prototype for a Photo Bag using Hypalon for the drag handle.
Where’s your dream office?
I’m pretty happy with this space. I just moved in here. The last place I was working…it was really bad. Back in November it was so cold. We were in a cinder block building with 25-foot ceilings. It was huge. We were heating it with two small space heaters and the warmth was drowned out in the cold. It was warmer outside than inside, so we would open up the roll-up door just to get sunlight. It was very cave-like and not fun. It was so cold I did not want to be there, so as soon as I was done working I would just go home. Whereas here I can go next door, get a beer, relax and cut some stuff. I always want to be here now, so I guess this is my dream spot for now.