When Swiss designers Daniel and Markus Freitag sold their first messenger bag in 1993, sustainability was a new concept for most in the fashion industry. Even so, it didn’t take long for people to fall in love with their one-off pieces, built from recycled truck tarps and made to last for almost a lifetime. In the Netherlands, a similar story was about to begin with René van Geer and Marianne van Sasse van Ysselt, who were on the cusp of designing the world’s first ‘cardholder’. This new type of wallet, which was made to carry bank cards rather than cash, would eventually be the spark that led René and Marianne to establish Secrid.

Three decades on, Secrid and FREITAG have both become synonymous with functional, forward-thinking and sustainable design. Somehow, they’ve also managed to stay ahead of the curve, building a thriving and purpose driven business around values like longevity, circularity and authenticity. It’s no surprise that their paths have crossed before, with the brands joining forces in 2018 to create a special edition of upcycled cardholders with distinctive tarp covers. This year, Daniel and René also took part in the Redesign Everything Challenge Jury, meeting at the WDCD headquarters in Amsterdam for two days of lively evaluations. Here, we ask them a few questions about creative entrepreneurship, innovation, and their best advice for the next generation of product designers. 

Daniel and René during the Redesign Everything Challenge Jury Days in May 2024. Photo: Anisa Xhomaqi.

Hi Daniel and René! A lot has happened since you started your companies many years ago. Can you tell us about the first product you launched? What was the industry like back then?

Daniel: Back then I was working as a graphic artist and my brother was a display designer. This was mostly before digitalisation, so we always had a lot of bulky items to carry around (laughs). And at the same time, we started seeing bike messenger companies pop up around the United States. We noticed the cool bags they carried and wanted to buy something similar, but it was just not possible to find in Switzerland back then. And so we decided to do it ourselves — that was the motivation behind FREITAG. It was not about recycling or even about starting a business. Even the material we used was more found than designed — we chose tarp because it was functional, waterproof and durable. The whole process was more a discovery than a plan. And the very first bag design was done in one afternoon.

René: We launched Secrid in 2009, right in the middle of the economic crisis. At the time we still had our design studio, but almost all our assignments had come to a standstill. So we had no money — only time. That’s when we decided to shift our focus and put all of our energy into developing our own brand. We had been designing products for other people for years, but it was our dream to make something entirely according to our own values and insights, and to support society over shareholders. And so Secrid was born. 

Our first product was called the Secrid Bodycard, and it was a minimal wallet based on a design we had patented in 1995. At first, retailers were slow to respond — nobody asked for this kind of thing. Fortunately, we had a small group of people who were very enthusiastic, the fans, the early adopters, and that was enough for the beginning. From this word-of-mouth, orders slowly started rolling in.

The Original miniwallet by Secrid and the FREITAG Classic messenger bag. (©Secrid / ©FREITAG)

Has your approach to design and sustainability changed since then?

Daniel: Over the years, we’ve experimented more with circular materials. Because even though upcycling still has its place, there’s an obligation to try and come up with better material solutions. Again, all of this has been a process of discovery.

The book Cradle to Cradle by Michael Braungart and William McDonough was an eye-opener for me. The idea of building something good from the ground up, of not just making solutions for waste materials — that totally made sense to me. But with time, we also discovered that circularity is a team sport. As small companies, we can’t solve this challenge alone, because material flows are so complicated. You need a lot of entities playing together, and for the whole world to move in this direction. And I’m very happy that we’ve been pioneers in building a really sustainable product offer and brand. But I’m even happier to discover that more and more companies are taking on this journey. This makes it so much easier to come up with sustainable solutions along the whole supply chain. 

An example for this is the first circular FREITAG backpack that we launched in April after three years of development. It’s a bag that is made out of one single material, from the zipper to the cord, to make it as recyclable as possible. This product could not have been launched without the material expertise of our project partners and recycling partners.

“Circularity is a team sport.”

René: Our approach has become more mature. In the beginning, we were very busy trying to survive, and to do it in a neat, sustainable way. But the focus was on getting by — and on improving our product, little by little. Now, sustainability is a part of our holistic approach to designing products and doing business. With each Secrid wallet, we want to share our belief that the world needs ever better products, not ever more. We call this vision the Industrial Evolution.

About five years ago, we also set out to become a Certified B Corp, which pushed us to evaluate the impact of everything we did. We were already measuring, calculating and optimising, but then it really became a target to cut down our product CO2 emissions by 50%. We now have a programme to help us make real steps that we can measure, and to raise our standards even higher each year. 

Developing the F705 Secrid x FREITAG wallet. Photo: Oliver Nanzig. (©Secrid / ©FREITAG)

When it comes to circularity, what is one issue you wish more people talked about?

René: We see circularity as a part of an evolutionary process. It’s an important element in making products better, but the risk is that it becomes a goal in itself. It’s difficult to keep the balance. For example, if you focus on circularity but the product’s lifetime is only half what it needs to be, then it’s still problematic. It’s easy to say circularity is good, but if this has negative impacts on other aspects of your design — then it’s not enough. People don’t realise that there is often a price to pay for circularity.

“People don’t realise that there is often a price to pay for circularity.”

Daniel: Yes, and I still think sustainability as a whole has much more to it than only the material stream. There are social, cultural and design aspects not covered in the cradle-to-cradle philosophy, and we need to use all of the strategies available to us to build a sustainable business case and not just a sustainable product offer.

Can you tell us the story behind the collection you worked on together?

Daniel: Actually, I’m not entirely sure how René and I first met (laughs). Good question. But we’d been aware of each other’s work for a while, and it worked out so well. We found an interesting angle, because Secrid has a very high standard of quality when it comes to their products. But during assembly, sometimes their wallets would get a little scratched. They would be perfectly functional, but they wouldn’t be able to sell them anymore. We created a design that actually made use of these kinds of scratches, so that we could save some of their production materials from becoming waste. I think that culture-wise, Secrid’s company philosophy, the way they are organised, the way they communicate — it was just a very good match for us to collaborate.

René: Yeah, it’s a funny story. When we started, it was so important for us to be independent and to build our own brand. Very early on, a huge luggage brand asked us to make something together, but it actually got us thinking — if we could, what brand would we aspire to be like? We thought of names like Paul Smith and FREITAG. So, we reached out to them, and it was a pleasant surprise that they were interested. The contact came very naturally. As a company, FREITAG is very similar to Secrid in many ways—from the size to the philosophy.

Developing the F705 Secrid x FREITAG wallet. Photos: Oliver Nanzig. (©Secrid / ©FREITAG)

In general, how do you approach collaborations at Secrid and Freitag?

Daniel: We’ve done a few interesting collaborations, like with Brompton Bicycles or Comme des Garçons. But we don’t do these that often. I think there needs to be a very good reason for joining forces with another brand. Usually it’s companies where the creative philosophy matches ours, and where we see potential to use our material in their context. So we definitely search for collaborations with a good fit: in terms of culture, brand and function.

We also look for partners who can deal with the uniqueness of our products. Because at FREITAG, every item is a one-off. And most distribution channels and systems are not set up for this way of working. That can be a benefit but also a challenge.

René: For us, this sometimes means working together with brands that have a vision that is very closely aligned with ours, to amplify our message and reach more people with our stories. The collab with Freitag is a great example of this. But just as importantly, it can mean collaborating with players in the industry that have an other focus than we have. We see this as an opportunity to inspire them to join us in our holistic approach. Having a successful collab-item in their portfolio that is produced in Europe and assembled in local sheltered workshops can inspire them to investigate this way of working more broadly.

These sheltered workshops are also very important collaborations for us. Since the start of Secrid we partner with participation companies for the production of our wallets. This collaboration really is a two-way street: people with a distance to the labour market get a meaningful job that increases their well-being and at the same time we benefit from their special skills ensuring the highest quality of our products. We also try to build strong collaborations with our retail network. We choose to work with a people’s network, rather than large e-commerce companies that have different values. Together with our partners we want to bring not only our product, but also our brand values to the market.

OVER THE YEARS, you’ve both SEEN your fair share of copycat products. How do you deal with them?

Daniel: I mean, on the one hand, being imitated means that we’re inspiring people. So when I see companies in different contexts do something similar to our bags, reusing materials and making products locally — that’s something I can appreciate. Where I think we have an obligation to protect ourselves, is when they actually copy the FREITAG brand, and rip-off our products as well as our name. Nevertheless, it’s always been part of our philosophy to be ahead of the curve. To create new things, new stories, and focus most of our energy towards the future. And I think that in the end, that’s the best protection you can have: to keep innovating. 

René: In general, it’s a big issue — we’ve had more than 1000 copycats of our collections. But their quality is usually poor, so they come and go. In a way it’s also a compliment. The problem is most copycats do not copy our social and ecological values. So they don’t really measure up, and sometimes they end up creating the negative impact that we aim to reduce. That’s why for us, it’s becoming more important that people recognise Secrid as the original, and understand that we’re a mission-driven company.

Making new products from upcycled truck tarps. (©Secrid / ©FREITAG)

What is something you are still working on or dreaming of doing at Secrid and Freitag?

René: One thing we’re still working on is our branding. Because many people know our products but not our brand. So, when I mention the company name, they have no clue, but when we describe our product they realise they actually own one of our wallets (laughs). We want to tell more stories about what we’re doing, the people we work with, and our vision for the future. For example, we just launched our first campaign to thank the talented teams that assemble our products in sheltered workshops.

Daniel: Actually, I’m in a phase where I don’t have to be so involved with the business operations at FREITAG. So I’m working on new projects and in new entities outside of FREITAG. For example, we just launched an electric cargo bike, called MONoPOLE. The company behind it is called Toolbike AG, which we run as a steward-ownership company. That’s where we try to adapt the ownership structure to the purpose and not just the product. I think this will become an increasingly important question for sustainable and purpose-driven companies. What is your ownership structure?  How does it operate? These are the kinds of questions that I find interesting and like to consult on for others as well.

We’re honoured to have you in this year’s Redesign Everything Jury. Are there any projects or parts of the process that left a memorable impression?

Daniel: Overall it was a very strong field. For me, there was no clear winner — within this challenge that wouldn’t be easy. I loved the more speculative projects, the ideas that might be unrealistic or utopian. Because a bit of utopia is needed nowadays, and I appreciate it when people have the courage to think outside the box. To ignore science a little bit, and to just imagine. I think this is an important job for designers: to create appealing narratives for a possible future.

“A bit of utopia is needed nowadays.”

René: I’ve really enjoyed the discussions with the jury. The process is very inspiring and surprising. What I see in the projects is a growing interest in learning from nature and exploring circularity with bacteria and fungi. Some of the most memorable ones were using organic materials to grow electronics and making alternatives to leather made from fruit. Seeing the quality of these materials is very exciting.

Daniel and René during the Redesign Everything Challenge Jury Days in May 2024. Photo: Anisa Xhomaqi.

Lastly, are there any last words or advice you’d like to pass on to our winners?

Daniel: I think my advice to all young startups would be to look into your founding and ownership structure. Because when it comes to investments, usually capital rights and voting rights are sold together. So when you sell your first shares, you’re not only gaining money, you’re also selling your capital and voting rights for eternity. And I think the steward-ownership model can be a very good way to cap these rights and make sure they stay in the right hands. I know that as designers, we often try to avoid these kinds of topics. But in the end, I’ve learned that designing the structure of your company is also a creative process. And adopting a different structure can help you grow a steady, healthy business instead of trying to play the venture capital game.

René: To the winners, I would say keep going. Some of the projects in this Challenge are still very early stage, and it requires a lot of energy to bring new ideas to the finish line and to the market.

What has helped us is to stay independent. We managed to slowly but surely build our business without shareholders. Like Daniel says, this can be very disruptive for your business and especially your values. It also helps to develop a world vision. Oftentimes strong solutions start from a narrow perspective, but as a business grows, it usually benefits from broader advice. I was reminded of this during the jury process again. So if you’re a designer, get input from experts in other fields. Expand your perspective and build a network that can support you. But whatever you do, always stick to your own values, and stay as financially independent as you can.

“It requires a lot of energy to bring new ideas to the finish line.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All images are courtesy of Secrid and FREITAG, except photos by Anisa Xhomaqi for What Design Can Do.

Would you like to catch René on the main stage at WDCD Live Amsterdam 2024? Tickets for the festival on 5 July are available here.