An Interview With Attitude Supply
Attitude Supply is a brand born of perseverance and a willingness to learn and adapt. It hasn’t been an easy journey but the hard work has paid off in creations like the ATD1 Backpack, well respected for its travel versatility and rugged durability. To learn more about the brand’s history and inner workings, we asked founder Michele Fasano to share his insights…
You were nominated for the Carryology VII awards. First off, congratulations on that. It says a lot to get that sort of recognition.
Carryology is undeniably a milestone in the carry world and I was honored to be nominated. We hadn’t run any marketing campaign about that, so it spontaneously came by users who voted for the ATD1, making it even more important.
Are you a trained industrial or soft goods designer?
Not at all. I actually studied Geography at university. On the other hand, I’ve always been intrigued by how things are built and designed and I had always sketched things since when I was a kid. Speaking about sewing, my grandmother was a superlative professional tailor (she also designed and made wedding dresses) and my mother sews as well as a hobby, so I’ve grown up surrounded by sewing gear. As soon as I was able to design my own patterns, it was natural to just sit there and try by myself.
Why the name Attitude Supply?
When I started I had no design background, no links to the manufacturing world and not a big amount of capital. I only had curiosity, determination and my will to learn. In other words, I only had my attitude, so I chose it as a name. This helped a lot at the beginning. My project was to develop travel gear but while growing my skills and finding the money to do that, I started printing t-shirts and sweatshirts and selling them to streetwear and outdoors stores around Milan. The name led to small but constant success, and this helped me grow to the point I could focus on travel gear and quit merchandise. At the point where the brand is now that name, it could be seen as “too much”, but attitude is still my fuel to learn and to create, so I’ll keep using it, together with the less flashy ATD Supply.
With the ATD1 backpack, you made it with a few features focused on security. How important do you think a backpack’s security should be?
It depends on its primary use; for a travel and EDC backpack, a lot. I wanted users to feel comfortable knowing that no one could easily access their pack while it’s worn in crowded places or when it has to be left unattended. The ATD1 was designed thinking about one-bag travel, including unconventional destinations, and was tested in such situations.
I wanted it to be equally at home in a Tokyo subway, in a Middle Eastern medina, at a huge international airport, on a truck’s roof driving a dusty desert trail or strapped to the side of a motorbike on a Kashmir mountain road. Plus, a travel backpack could be occasionally checked in or stowed in a bus trunk, out of sight and I wanted users to feel reasonably comfortable about their belongings’ security in those situations.
Is security more important than look or feel in an urban environment?
It partially drives them. Since a one-bag approach requires a bag that fits different settings, including the ones described before, having a clean and minimalist aesthetic, being “stealthy” and low profile, is a security feature together with being an aesthetic one.
What are your most important design features? You seem to like balance in your designs, but what else is important?
That’s true, balance is important to me, also aesthetically. A clean aesthetic, security and comfort are the main features of my design, but the first and most important one is versatility. I strongly believe we should gain more from less and being able to widen the spectrum of situations a product can be proficiently used in is my priority.
My design process is also influenced by this approach. I start writing down a simple description of 2-4 situations the object will be mainly used in, then I make a list of all features that fit and I sketch all of them in. At that point, I start trimming until I feel I reached that balance between features and the lack of them. That lack, that empty area, is where the user will write his story using the product, adapting it to his needs.
When I think “Italian-made”, I definitely get a sense of luxury goods and handmade attention to detail. I mean, you’re in Milan, what a place to reach for the stars! What is the Italian soft goods production world like these days?
Milan is inspiring for sure and Italy in general has the benefit of having a huge manufacturing background and a lot of options in a relatively small country. On the other hand, soft goods production here is mainly oriented toward luxury and leather. Most military, outdoors and sports goods are manufactured in the Far East nowadays and most of the companies once making them locally are now just design teams, while all the knowledge and tools to properly manufacture locally are getting lost. When I had sewn and tested the ATD1 final prototype, I searched for a partner willing to manufacture it and it was really, really hard to find one. I knocked on the door of almost all companies manufacturing military and outdoor soft goods for third parties and most of them were not interested in diving into such a complex product, or no longer had the machines required to manufacture it within the borders.
The manufacturing partner I had been worrking with, and still work with for pouches and more simple products, had a ’70s bartacking machine they hadn’t been using for 20 years when I first asked them to put some bartacks on my bags!
For the ATD1, I finally found a one man-operated small company located a few hours driving far from Milan. He makes super-specialized custom gear for military professionals, mixing modern elements like laser cut fabrics with great craftsmanship and attention to details, and he was actually the only one interested in bringing this project to production. We immediately felt connected and discovered our approach to design is similar; his production experience did the magic when combined to my ideas about carry.
You are obviously working hard to produce a quality product, but is there heavy competition in Italy and Europe for you?
Italy represents a little more than 5% of our total sales and many of them are friends of mine or foreign people living here and working in the design, military or university fields. The few people who want to invest more instead of just grabbing cheap, off the shelves options, stick to outdoor oriented gear—due to our background in alpine sports—or luxury (more often “luxur-ish”) carry goods. Plus, even if this is slowly changing, English is not so diffused amongst Italians in their 30s, so international trends in this field are taking more time to develop here. Italy can be a market for quality carry goods in the future and there already are some small brands operating in-house production here, but it will take time.
Europe is different, we had plenty of orders from the UK, Germany and France and there are both small and mid-sized companies making killer goods around the continent (Trakke, Bedouin, Heimplanet, to name a few). Plus, eastern countries like Poland or the Czech Republic are entering the game, mainly with more tactical oriented gear, making the overall European scene quite interesting.
You use 500 denier Cordura and mil-spec hardware for the ATD1, which is what I’d call a meat and potatoes type of bag; rugged and clean. Why did you expand to new fabrics for the third production run?
We’ll always stick to Cordura® 500D and mil-spec hardware since they are field tested, reliable and, to be honest, they never go out of style if properly used. At the same time, we wanted to explore different materials and VX21 seemed a good starting point. Future experiments will include other X-Pac fabrics and Dyneema, especially on smaller goods and accessories to be used inside the bags (pouches, packing cubes, etc).
How was the Kickstarter experience? KS gets people’s emotions pretty hot sometimes on the bag forums.
That’s true, there were non-virtuous examples of carry-related Kickstarter campaigns but at the same time many of the last big things in our field were launched through it, like it or not. Personally, as a backer, crowdfunding is mainly linked to the feeling that the creator is able to infuse in me. If I like the project and I can feel there is an ethic in the campaign management and a commitment by the creator himself, I’m in.
As a creator, crowdfunding to me was painful, challenging and exciting at the very same time. I put myself in the game, pitching YouTube reviewers and the media, learning how to set up Facebook ads or run email marketing campaigns. Due to different time zones, I often answered enquiries late at night, in a language that is not my mother tongue, but I think that people appreciated the feeling of interacting with the creator and not some Customer Relations Management service.
At the end, the very best part of this whole experience were backers themselves. They supported the whole project and pushed me through it. I’m proud to read their feedback about how the campaign was handled even more than reading those about the backpack. I still have backers from the first launch keeping in touch with me, even just to say hello, or to send me pictures and stories about their travels with the ATD1. This is truly precious.
Your English is certainly way better than my Italian and I wonder where you learned it. Was it at university, through your wide travels, or do you just have a natural ear for foreign languages?
All of them actually. I’ve always been intrigued by languages and had a natural ear for them. In my early teenage years I liked to read and try to understand song lyrics. I was also lucky enough to have good English teachers at school so my grammar and vocabulary were already relatively good when I started traveling; practice then made it better.
What lessons did you learn from your first production run of the ATD1?
ATD1 is an incredibly versatile backpack, and this makes it incredibly specialized for those who need or just appreciate that capability to be used in almost any environment and for almost any carry task. Kickstarter taught me to understand who our products should address and how I should interact with potential users. Success came when I decided to be personally involved in the campaign, with name and surname, answering enquiries and creating a relationship, a bond with those who were investing their hard-earned cash on my idea.
As we were talking about this interview, you told me that you not only operate Attitude Supply, but you also work as a team leader at a customer care center. First off, that’s amazing to me that you do both, but it also speaks to your passion for design.
I started many years ago working part-time in a call center in order to pay my bills while working on my project and I kept doing that for years, sometimes quitting to focus on new work, sometimes starting again. Then there was an opportunity to upgrade and I caught it, even if this would have meant working for more hours on that job. Naturally, I had to create the time to focus and develop new products and I had to cut ATD Supply consultancies to those I find pleasant working on, or that teach me new things. I’m not considering quitting my day job yet, but the future will tell!
Does your work in customer care influence your attitude about your personal customers?
Actually, a lot. I personally answer any message or email received through the ATD Supply website or social network pages, and I like to do that since it’s the beginning of a relationship. The ability to listen to users’ feedback, to develop empathy and to understand customers’ needs from their enquiries are vital in any business where people from another continent buy a product they’ve never seen before, from a maker they just heard of. They need to trust the whole project, and I like to show them they can trust it.
How many Attitude Supply customers come back to you, or refer ATD Supply to their friends? Is this something you have the time to measure and record?
I still don’t have a big inventory to choose from for a second order, but it happens that customers come back. I record every order to have all the information I need for billing and shipping in the same place, so I see when names repeat. I’m happy when it happens since it means that I did a good job.
Fortunately, customers often suggest ATD Supply to friends and communities online and I keep track being in the FB groups and through Google Alerts. I’ve seen people referring to the ATD1 on Reddit many times and this is particularly rewarding.
Finally, if a young 30-something person wanted to get into the soft goods design world, what five pieces of advice could you offer?
* Do you want to design travel bags? Travel. Are you into outdoor packs? Hike. Nothing gives more insight and inspiration about an object than its actual use.
* Be curious and study other designers’ solutions. There’s nothing wrong with it, but when you sit at the design board or open your design software, avoid external influences and just let your ideas flow.
* Learn how to sew, even at a basic level: the way you design will change immediately and your patterns will be better and more usable.
* Searching for raw materials suppliers or manufacturing partners is exhausting and it’s actually a job. It may take years to find the right ones and still you’ll have to update. Don’t give up.
* Trends are important but function is more so, it can be felt in a product and it creates a deep sense of beauty. Keep it robust and simple. Dieter Rams’ 10 rules for good design should be printed and kept on the design board, but the 10th is especially true: Good design is as little design as possible.
Michele announces the wait time for each project when he opens pre-orders, which are usually around 3-4 months. Due to the current situation surrounding the COVID-19 virus, things are a bit more unpredictable but he is eager to resume where ATD Supply left off.
Complex products like the ATD1 are always launched through a pre-order process, but he is considering going this route for smaller accessories as well, to allow for larger quantities, lower manufacturing costs and therefore lower prices, therefore creating greater sustainability.
Many thanks to Jon Custis for this interview. Jon is a retired infantryman, currently serving diplomat, and professional nomad. His thoughts on carry are influenced by years of suffering under packs stitched up by the lowest bidder; he joined Carryology to shed those scars.