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RELoad Bags shop visit :: Philadelphia, PA

by , May 15, 2012

3 trips around the US this month – Northeast, Southeast, South/Central/Northern California, and then back to Texas each time in between.  As always, us Carryology folk do the research and find the best brands in the industry, then set up a meeting whenever we are in their respective areas.  Whenever possible anyway.  There is talk of buying a Carryology jet in the shape of a backpack…we’ll see.  So I was stoked to learn about a well-known brand called RELoad Bags in downtown Philadelphia, where I was headed as part of my Northeast trip.

I must admit, despite them being well-known, I hadn’t heard about them, and after a short bit of research, I was shocked I hadn’t.  Look them up in Google if you haven’t heard of them…you’ll find websites, blogs, and forums, all praising their quality messenger bags, which they’re known for.  So, I called them up ahead of time and set up a casual shop visit with the brand’s owner and founder, Roland (pictured standing behind the front desk below).

Quick preface, though I’ve been living in Austin for several years now, I’m originally from Hershey, PA (yes, where the chocolate is from), and Philly is the closest “big” city to Hershey (bankrupt Harrisburg doesn’t count).  I have been to Philly approximately 3,497.2 times since it was such a close drive from Hershey and since there were things to do that Central Pennsylvania didn’t have.  That being said, this trip was a much needed homecoming to visit my folks and visit my old hoods, so it felt great to be “home”. Anyway. On a perfect Spring Northeastern afternoon, my cousin (a successful DJ in the city) picked me up at the Philly airport, and we shot straight over to the East side, specifically North 2nd street.

The neighborhood has an authentic Philly feel, mixed in with apartments, boutique shops, restaurants (Italian, Chinese, Mexican, South American, etc), and empty lots with tires.  And a company that makes messenger bags and backpacks. A nice neighborhood, seasoned with just enough grit. You’d walk right by RELoad Bags if it weren’t for the handmade sculptural bike rack out front, made from what I assumed was steel.  Some time went into this piece. Two bikes locked and hanging perpendicular to the sidewalk, it was definitely an eye-catcher.  The front display window proudly displays a messenger bag with their branding on the front; the front panel of the messenger boldly states  “BEWARE OF IMITATION” as it quietly sits next to an antique sewing machine for all to view from the sidewalk.  In I go.

RELoad Bags makes a variety of bags and packs, all from their Philadelphia shop.  In this one shop, they perform all of their material stocking, prototyping, production, ordering/shipping, and all the other various processes of business.

“After fourteen years of making bags, we still have the same approach as when we first started. Everything is made right here in our Philadelphia studio, from scratch, start to finish. We cut and stitch everything up ourselves, using the highest quality materials we can find. Our goal is, and has always been, to offer the finest, most customizable bags you will ever sling over your shoulders.”

They offer 4 “single strap” and 5 “double strap” (aka backpack) options, ranging from various sizes and levels of bells and whistles.  Their messengers start quite minimal with the “Mini” 780 cu. in. ($102 and up) and then scale up to a massive 2850 cu. in. (Courier / $117 and up), designed for professional bicycle messengers and the rest of us serious civilian users. The Small Civilian and the Civilian fill out the middle of the messenger range.  Their two best-selling messengers that they’re most known for are the Civilian and the Courier.

The double strap options go from the Mini Pack ($225 and up), Mid Pack, Small Flight Pack, and Medium Flight Pack to the gargantuan Mega Pack ($325 and up with 3927 cu. in. of space)…that is more than my Osprey hiking backpack I use on international trips!

From my limited experience with their products and my thorough in-person review, I would describe their products as serious, simple, and purpose-built. Though there aren’t many wild innovations in the design, the durable reputation built on user experience more than makes up for this. Sometimes simple isn’t an issue when everything just works, tried and true. In my professional experience, “design features” are 90% marketing hype, and usually they’re prone to breaking or failing.  As Dieter Rams says, “Less, but better”.

However, it’s this blending of simple and tough with their bold and creative aesthetic front panel design and color combination that makes these a favorite among cyclists.  They do so much custom work for their customers, the word “custom” loses its punch.  In a world of mass-manufactured, made-in-a-Chinese-factory-by-the-thousands, this is quite rare.  Whatever colors you want – sure, done, check.  It’s as if custom for them is standard production, seriously. Want a “robot-cat-fighting-a-fluffy-pink-Godzilla-on-the-moon” scene on the front messenger panel?  I’m sure they can do it… but you’ll have to ask them first.

“Along the way, we also began to incorporate the art of applique stitching into our bags. This, along with the widest palette of colors available in the industry, allows our customers the ultimate freedom of expression in any custom bag they order. We feel that this is a quality almost important as durability and functionality of the bags, and we strive for top marks in all three. Having set the precedent for custom graphics on messenger bags, these days most other companies also offer some form of graphics. However, nobody has more experience than we do. We firmly believe that our end users should have the opportunity to be a part of the production process along with us…something that is sorely lacking in most business approaches these days. It’s why we do things the way we do, and why we will always remain a small collective of artisans, making a relatively small amount of bags, right here in the United States.”

There were plenty of great designs all around the shop, and some stuff I couldn’t snap photos of.  Each design is hand-sewn on the front panel (made up of hand-cut 1000D Cordura nylon pieces), consisting of hours of detailed work to make each bag unique.  Or, if you want solid black, they can do that too.  The color/design options are probably well up into the millions, so choose wisely.

My favorites are the messenger with pizza on the front panel (the careful hand applique is stunning here, look at the detail on the onions… purple 1000D Cordura nylon with purple and white stitching), the cheesesteak messenger (they are in Philly after all!…the brown 1000D Cordura fabric to make the “steak” is folded like real cheesesteak; the folds actually stick up off of the surface of the panel…amazing), along with the MOLLE webbing messenger Roland walked me through in detail.  Since I left, I’m still dreaming of that pizza messenger bag, but I’m a bag nerd, and I love pizza. I’m smitten, and I feel guilty because of it.  Must.  Have.

Some specs on the construction…
– Your choice of 1000D CORDURA® fabric, Ballistic Nylon, or waxed canvas outer material (we love that Cordura here at Carryology)
– 18oz vinyl-coated nylon lining
– Heavyweight main strap with nickel plated buckle
– Double-layer base for durability
– Waist/sternum strap
Basically everything you need for a classic messenger.

Roland told me that RELoad Bags proudly stand behind all of their work, and though it’s rare, they will repair bags that come in after years and years of heavy professional bicycle messenger abuse.  Usually it’s just the webbing or a buckle that needs looked at.  Though rare, it’s great to see that some brands out there care about their product.  Their prices are also damn impressive, with units starting at $100…for a handmade custom quality piece of carry. Though I honestly want to copy and paste each and every word from their “About Us” page, I won’t, but I will list their shortlisted values.  I highly recommend you read through the aforementioned page if you’ve got the time; a cool read.

“At R.E.Load, our bottom line consists of Quality of Life.
We will always question the system and seek alternative ways of commerce.
We challenge society’s relationship to work and the workplace.
We connect the product with the people making it.
A strong environmental ethic informs all of our choices.
R.E.Load Bags are made in the USA and always have been.
We work as a whole in decision-making processes.”

Roland introduced me to two other members of the RELoad staff while I was there.  Both super friendly, and both got straight back to work after the intro.  This is a business after all, not some Carryology hootenanny.

The shop was small, in a good way, and though there was much more to be seen, my time was limited and so was Roland’s.  I hope to revisit RELoad Bags again next time I’m up in Philadelphia so I can get a better look to share with our Carryology community, and because it’s always fun to be around the energy of people hand-making great products for real people who are living on two wheels and demand the best quality (with some aesthetic flare).

Enjoy the photos, and…



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