From the Autobahn to Fifth Avenue
The brothers Freitag struck it rich by turning grimy truckers' tarps into the trendiest bags on the street.
By Siri Schubert

(Business 2.0) – It was 1993, and 22-year-old Markus Freitag was a Swiss art student. Every day he hauled sketches to class on his bike, and with Zurich averaging 127 rainy days a year, they often got wet. He yearned for a messenger bag like the ones he had seen while visiting New York, but in those days Switzerland had few bike messengers--and fewer messenger bags.

So one evening Markus sat down with his brother Daniel, a graphic designer, to brainstorm ideas for their own bags. With recycled materials in vogue, the brothers figured they could use seat belts as straps and bicycle inner tubes to insulate seams. "But we had no idea what to use for the bag itself," Markus says.

As they were talking, Markus peered out his kitchen window, which overlooked the Autobahn A3, a freeway used by trucks traveling from Germany to Italy. In the United States, trucks carry cargo in enclosed aluminum trailers, but European drivers protect payloads with waterproof vinyl tarpaulins, which are often imprinted with colorful logos. As Markus watched tarp-covered trucks speed by, inspiration struck. "How about those?" he asked.

A few weeks later, Markus rode his bike to a Zurich truck depot. After convincing the owner that he wasn't a militant environmental activist, he carted about 30 square feet of discarded tarps home and soaked the smelly, oily fabric in his bathtub. He stitched together a bag on a borrowed industrial sewing machine and mailed the prototype to Daniel, who had moved to San Francisco for work. Daniel gave it to a Bay Area bike messenger, who loved it.

Tarps are often one-offs, so no two bags the Freitags made were exactly alike. The individualized designs became so popular in Zurich that when Daniel returned from San Francisco the brothers turned their apartment into a factory. "There were tarps and bicycle tires in the hallway, and the bathtub was always grimy," Markus recalls. Eventually roommates complained, so the Freitags rented a warehouse. Their first break came in 1994 when a major Swiss newspaper dubbed their bags the hip product of the week. "That's when we realized this wasn't going to be just a hobby," Markus says.

Today, Freitag bags are sold in about 250 stores worldwide as well as over the Internet. The privately held company doesn't disclose revenue but says that in 2004 it sold more than 100,000 bags priced between $70 and $220. Now 35, Markus still gets around Zurich on his bike and credits his interest in environmentally friendly design for at least part of his success. "It was great seeing our first bag, the Top Cat, close to the iPod and other design classics" in New York's Museum of Modern Art, he says. More than a decade after sewing that first sample, he's also thinking about new challenges. "Designing a hotel would be cool," he muses. Anyone know where to find 300-thread-count Egyptian cotton tarps? -- SIRI SCHUBERT