Built to Last
by Alex Jones
Since 1988, R.E.Load Bags has produced ultra-sturdy, infinitely customizable messenger bags, cycling accessories and other gear. But the company’s real strategy for sales and sustainability is playing matchmaker: Listening to what customers want, then bringing the bag of their dreams to life—and creating a product that’s meant to last that long.
“We don’t believe in ‘planned obsolescence,’” co-founder Ellie Lum writes in an email. Lum is based out of Portland, Oregon, while her counterpart, Roland Burns, works from the company’s shop in Philadelphia; together, they’re the R.E. in R.E.Load.
“[Rather],” says Lum, “we believe in using an object for years and years, and when a part on it wears out, we encourage repair to extend the life of the object. We want people to build relationships with the bags that we hand-make.”
Sustainability through durability has been R.E.Load’s ethos for nearly two decades. The company website encourages people to challenge a system that “pushes the mindless impulse to buy unnecessary and disposable goods,” and they believe that incorporating art and sustainability into their work makes people happier—and the world a better place.
The shop built its business around offering one-of-a-kind, custom pieces—from size and style of straps to thread color and bespoke graphics—for their shoulder bags, backpacks, and now accessories like cell phone holders and chain lock covers. And the company builds their goods to last decades: through the long life of a product, customers can contact R.E.Load or stop by the Philly shop to replace a broken buckle or get fresh stitching on a well-loved bag.
While it’s now easy to find shops that will let you build your own gear, Burns and Lum were one of the first brands to make that happen. Working in bike shops and as bike messengers themselves, the pair started out making improvements to existing bags, then moved to making their own from scratch. R.E.Load’s reputation for quality and a high level of personalization spread from the bike messenger community to the mainstream. The founders have always strived for a connection that’s more than a transaction as they do business.
“It’s rare when you purchase something that you actually interact with the people that are making it for you, so that [is] really important to us,” Burns says. While the shop offers online sales to customers all over the world, Philly-based customers can walk into the R.E.Load shop in Northern Liberties and see Burns stitching away on one of two industrial sewing machines located at the back of the showroom while they browse sturdy shop aprons and colorful wallets.
The potential for deeper producer-consumer connection runs both ways: “We really just like to get an idea of the story that’s coming behind what we’re making,” Burns says. “It’s a really kind of personal and intimate setup that we’re in, which is really important to us.”
It turns out that collaborating with customers to bring an idea into reality is more fun for the makers, too.