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LOSTATSEA.NET > FEATURES >

May 2, 2008
While the aesthetic of the bike messenger is all the rage in today's urban marketplace, it was anything but when Roland Burns and Ellie Lum founded R.E.Load bags in Philadelphia in the late 1990s. Back then there was little reverence for the two-wheeled, leg-powered courier, and most of those outside the messenger community who weren't oblivious to their existence treated them with disdain.

In the decade since R.E.Load took off, however, the lifestyle of bike messengers, particularly their ubiquitous bags, has been co-opted by the mainstream. With both online and big-box consumers clamoring for a piece of the hip aesthetic, companies like San Francisco's Timbuk2, who once staked their reputation on selling bags made in the United States under non-sweatshop conditions and designed specifically for messengers, began outsourcing their production to factories in Asia and placing their products in markets ranging from REI stores to internet retailers like Onlineshoes.com. As quality suffered most "messenger" bags became anything but, most designed to hold laptops and iPods rather than courier manifests and packages. But even as the ranks of professional bike messengers slowly dropped off in number, Burns and Lum continued to develop their product at R.E.Load, designing and building bags specifically for messengers and imbuing them with a trademark attention to quality and detail. Today R.E.Load is one of the most well-known names in the cycling community, known as much for its deep catalog of amazing custom designs as its reputation for durable, hand-crafted gear.

LAS staff writer Ari Shapiro recently caught up with Burns and Lum to pose a few questions about stitching up bags, the flavor in Philadelphia and Seattle, and of course toe clips.
---

LAS: How and when was R.E.Load born?

Roland Burns: R.E.Load was technically born in early 1998... although really Ellie and I made our first bags in 1997. To make a long story short, I had a bag from another company that I was completely dissatisfied with. Ellie knew how to sew, so we just got together and thought of what we would want our ideal bag to be. We didn't do it with the intention of starting a company, but people started asking us to make them bags, so we just kinda took it from there

To borrow from Tom Waits, how were the early years?

Ro: Tough. We were still messengering full time, so we basically worked ALL the time. Still, it was really fun for us...but yeah, tough.

Any "d'oh!" moments?

Ro: Almost every day brings it's own special moments. It is a constant juggle of what's most important at what time.

Inside the R.E.Load store. (photos by Kyle Johnson)


Running your own business is great, but working outside of the mainstream structure also poses its own challenges - do you have a business plan, or just run with scissors and keep your fingers crossed?

Ro: Honestly, most of the time we fly by the seat of our pants. Neither Ellie or I have ever had any formal business training. Well, unless you count the ten years we've owned R.E.Load! Most of our decisions are informed by our ethics - which unfortunately, in this society, means we seldom make the moves that make us the most money.

How did you go about learning the mechanics of stitching a quality bag together?

Ro: We just did it. We bought a machine - which Ellie already knew how to use - and started making bags. Luckily we had a ton of built-in product testing since we were messengers.

Is there a pile of wrecked bag prototypes in a dark closet somewhere?

Ro: A lot of the time we wind up giving them to our friends so they can get used. We take the labels off first though! We definitely go through a lot of stages before settling on a new bag design.

A R.E.Load-West employee in Seattle with a custom bag.


What is the typical R.E.Load workday like?

Ro: Trying to find music that everybody can agree on! Really, with a company as small as ours, everybody wears different hats depending on the day. Dealing with our stores, customers, and suppliers definitely takes up a good chunk of the day, though.

When you get design ideas for your custom bags from customers, are there any reasons you'll not do a bag, other than the technical issue of shading?

Ro: We won't do things that are outwardly offensive to large groups of people.

What's the most difficult/time-intensive bag you've ever pulled off?

Ro: Probably my Keirin racer bag, or maybe the bag I did for the PEDAL show in Seattle a few years ago. I'm really into labor-intensive line work, so most of the stuff I do now takes a ton of time.

Ellie: Prototypes are definitely the most time intensive bag(s). It takes a ton of tries & re-tries to get one good final bag.

"Lone Wolf," "Three Monkeys," "Go Out," and "Parrot," from the custom collection.


Do you ever take on a custom design and then, once you get into it, realize its going to be way harder than you thought?

Ro: ALL THE TIME! That's what makes our quoting system so difficult; we never truly 100% know how long something is going to take. We make our estimates based off of our previous experience, which in most cases is pretty close, but sometimes we miss the mark big time. Usually it's for a loss on our end.

What design and/or graphic are you most proud of?

Ro: It changes all the time. Usually it's whatever design utilizes the newest technique I've learned. Right now that's photorealistic portraits, like my James Brown bag. Or, of course, my J Dilla bag. The Dilla bag is far from the most difficult bag I've ever made, but it's the closest to my heart.

Ellie: I would have to say, the first applique bag R.E. Load ever did. I took some custom graphic home to do on my home-sewer, which has a zig-zag stitch option (applique-stitch). The feeling of discovering a new level to take the company to was invigorating.

What are some brands you admire?

Ro: Cadence, Fabric Horse, Randl, Patagonia, Blackspot, Stones Throw records, Rane.

In your humble opinion, what is the best bag company outside of R.E.Load?

Pac. Her bags are absolutely ridiculous.

Co-founder Roland Burns stitches a bag in Philadelphia.


Which city can rightfully lay claim to starting the modern bike messenger business as we now know it?

Ro: NYC or San Francisco.

Why is the left shoulder standard placement for messenger bag straps?

Ro: It just...is. The same way most people are right-handed. There's no rhyme or reason for it.

Aside from bike messengers, who are your main customers?

Ro: We're spread all over at this point. A lot of artists buy our bags because of the possibilities for expression. Students, of course. A lot of bicycle commuters too.

Has the fact that you can buy pseudo-boutique messenger bags at places like REI had a "trickle-down" effect for your business?

Ro: It's more like we give THEM a trickle-down effect. Obviously our bags are much more durable, functional, and better-looking. People are drawn to high quality bags, like ours and of course a bunch of the other companies that are around now. But they wind up settling on a lower-quality bag because they don't appreciate the value in ours.

Would you ever sell on QVC or HSN, and enjoy watching the "bags sold" ticker?

Ro: No.

Some progressive cities, especially in Europe, offer loaner bikes throughout town for urban commuters - do you think this trend will grow and evolve?

Ro: In Europe, yes. In America, unfortunately, probably not.

Any close calls with planes, trains or automobiles?

Ro: I've been doored... Anybody who has messengered has probably been in a bad accident. I averaged one bad wreck per year.

Ellie: I've been cut-off by a cab driver....

What do you do when you're not making bags?

Ellie: Field research, lay in a hammock.

Ro: Music. I DJ, and I just got into making beats on my MPC. I also recently started playing poker.



With the growing popularity of iPods, more folks are riding with their personal soundtracks, what's your take in this trend?

Ellie: We both ride with music sometimes. Ro rides with an earbud only in one ear.

How would you compare/contrast cycling, and bike culture, in Philly and Seattle?

Ro: We honestly don't know how to answer this - bike culture is so similar everywhere, because of the Internet. Philly has mad flavor, Seattle has mad hills.

East Coast - West Coast... where's the most flavor?

Ro: East coast. I'm from NYC.

Ellie: West coast. I'm from SF.

Clipless, flat or toe-clips?

Definitely toe clips.

SEE ALSO: www.reloadbags.com

--
Ari Shapiro
A staff writer for LAS, Ari Shapiro mixes up pretty unique smoothies at XOOM in hot Tucson.

See other articles by Ari Shapiro.

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