Wearables Business

A bag for all seasons

A bag for all seasons

Carson Reed

A frenzy of creativity brings PPDs bags, packs & totes replete with new features and rich in functionality

The promotional products industry has come along way since Jasper Meek kicked the whole thing off by printing advertising on the sides of burlap school bags in the late 1800s.

Since then, promotional products have expanded into every imaginable realm of merchandise, from electronics to wearables. But it would be a mistake to give short shrift to the industry segment that started it all. Bags, packs and totes are every bit as practical and even more desirable than they were 120 years ago.

It is a market sector driven by innovation and imagination, as manufacturers struggle to distinguish themselves in one or more niches of what has become a highly fragmented market. There now is a bag (or a suite of bags) for every season, every event, every lifestyle.

We need our bags. We look for designs that not only reflect our tastes but also accommodate our specialized and ever-changing needs. The industry rises to the challenge, providing us with new bags, or at least new and specialized functionality, to hold and protect our recreational gear, our change of clothes, the tools of our trades, our new electronic appliances.

Bags are the perfect perk at every price point because, as George Carlin says, everyone needs a place to put their stuff.

Even the most inexpensive bag is coveted by the underbagged — a canvas or vinyl tote is a cherished take-away at conventions and trade shows, not to mention that it is the only promotional item which is still visible after everything else has been tucked away inside of it.

This is no secret to the businesses of the New Economy, which are very open to bags for both inexpensive (but impressive) perks for large-scale promotions, and also for more exclusive promotions featuring high-quality, often brand-name bags of all sorts — from luggage to briefcases.

At both ends of the scale, customers seek a mix of style and function — items that not only get attention, but get used as well.

The good news is, there are more attractive choices in bags than ever before. Manufacturers are in the midst of a frenzy of creativity, and the market is replete with cleverly-designed bags, packs, luggage, and totes, rich with new features and functionality.

New colors, new fabrications

On the corporate side, the ubiquitous black polyester softside (flight bag, carry-on, briefcases, pack) is still king of the world (albeit jazzed up with new features), but it is slowly giving way to bursts of color that seem to reflect the more casual sensibilities of the new decade. This year’s bags are offered in a few new colors, including straps and detailing in contrasting colors.

On the same note, one trend just beginning to emerge this year is the popularity of multiple-fabric construction. While the top sellers in almost every line are still web-handled polyester weaves, more and more new bags in every category are constructed from two or even three or more fabrics, including molded rubber bottoms, leather bottoms, leather trim, and a plethora of mesh pockets, both inside and outside of bags. And the trend is just beginning, says Russ Rowan, director of product development for Toppers, based in Thorofare, N.J.

“We’ve expanded our sport line dramatically,” he says, “and a number of bags, like our swim bag, will feature multiple fabrics. This is a new direction for us, and it reflects a trend in the industry.”

Expect to see even more major changes in the Toppers bag line for 2001, further reflecting the trend.

Durable, lightweight fabrics developed for the recreational industry are becoming crossover staples for bags that “go both ways.” Leading the charge is microfiber, which is showing up everywhere in backpacks and luggage as well as accessories like travel kits and cell phone cases.

Yet another trend being pushed by consumer demand is a rethinking of straps. Manufacturers are offering new, more ergonomic strap configurations, especially single straps such as the cross-body strap. Top industry supplier Norwood’s Air-Tex bag line, for instance, has three different carriers — a courier-style briefcase, a backpack and a hip pack — all designed with a strap that can be worn across the chest, says Air-Tex Marketing Manager Laura Gaulke.

“The cross-body styles almost become a garment,” she says. “These are bags that really are ‘wearables’ because, essentially, you wear them, which gives you two free hands and better freedom of movement than carrying a bag by a strap. They’re especially great if you’re in a hurry.”

Because everybody is in a hurry these days, Air-Tex’s cross-body bags are crossovers designed to appeal to both the sport and corporate markets, Gaulke says.

Which bring us to the biggest trend of all — a pervasive blurring of the lines between corporate, travel, and sport bags. One reason is the prevalence of business casual dress, a trend that has brought sport or active clothing into the workplace, and, along with it, sportier corporate bags. The trend is so pervasive that most of the bags mentioned in this article can and will do double- or even triple-duty for work, school and play — and that’s no accident, says Air-Tex’s Gaulke. Like most of the industry, Air-Tex counts on creating at least some pieces in every line that will fit into both markets.

“We try to hit every market we can with each new bag,” agrees Toppers’ Rowan. “We include features that can be used by a variety of consumers in a variety of situations.”


A bag or a briefcase?

Is it a bag? Is it a briefcase? Just as the distinction between corporate and sport bags is blurring, so to is the distinction between a briefcase, a document bag and a laptop bag.

The canvas script bag from Big Accessories, available through Alpha Shirt Co., for instance, marries the two ideas into one simple, functional bag. The shoulder-carried bag is closed with two brass swivel buckles in front and comes in black, khaki, navy and olive — the olive bag, especially, seems like an update of an Army surplus bag — suitable for men or women and serviceable as a soft-side briefcase, laptop bag or purse.

More an more laptops (and sheaves of papers) are being slung around in Messenger Bags, says Toppers’ Rowan.

“It’s really just an upscale version of a newspaper route bag,” he says. The Toppers bag is canvas with all metal hardware.

Ogio Sport, headquartered in Salt Lake City, offers a messenger bag that is popular both as a briefcase and as a laptop holder, says Ogio Sport National Sales Manager Nick Wright.

“Laptop bags have been one of the most popular items for the last three years,” says Wright. Ogio is offering features such as Velcro straps to hold the computer in place, ample padding, and the ability to leave the top of the bag open to allow hot laptops to ventilate.

“These are expensive pieces of equipment,” says Wright. “People want a bag that does more than just help them haul it around. They want a bag that protects the computer.”

A black nylon version of the messenger bag is also offered under the BAGedge label of Big Accessories, which has added a rubber grip top handle in addition to the strap.

Timbuk2, also available through Alpha Shirt Co., offers its 100-percent Cordura nylon El Ocho and Pee Wee styles of messenger bags in three color combinations.

Yet another casual, recreational briefcase available through Alpha Shirt Co. is Eagle Creek’s Urban Ascent Padded Briefcase. Like many offerings this year, the briefcase has inner compartments made of mesh. In keeping with its recreational motif, the bag comes in khaki as well as black.

And for those who really like to travel light, Turning Point (Monroe, Wash.) offers a laptop “wrap” — not dissimilar in concept to the trendy eat-and-run tortilla sandwich of the same name.

“A lot of people don’t want to carry their entire accessory kit everywhere,” says Turning Point Field Manager Kristi DeLeo. “They might be going to make a PowerPoint presentation, and they can just walk in with the computer and go. It’s an impressive way to begin a presentation.”

But not everyone wants a bag for all occasions. for people who like to keep a little distance between work and play, Toppers has covered all the bases, offering ultra-casual canvas attaches, somewhat dressier microfiber briefcases and a traditional, dressed-for-success simulated leather portfolio/computer brief bag.

Luggage: smaller, double-duty

One of the big trends this year are smaller pieces of travel luggage — alternatives to the fanny pack, like Eagle Creek’s black nylon Padded Travel Pouch. Like many of the new bags, this one can be carried from a shoulder strap, worn around the waist, or attached to a belt. In fact, Eagle Creek has an en- tire line of smaller bags which are designed to double as both carry ons and backpacks, including the Pony Express and Wanderer Day Traveler, both 1000-denier nylon bags with various compartments including exterior mesh pockets.

Air-Tex has created a three-piece ensemble of microfiber luggage — a wheeled duffel, a smaller, carry-on duffel, and a briefcase that doubles as an overnighter. Marketed under the name Viaggio (Italian for “journey”), the unique-shaped luggage comes only in black, with newbuck leatherette trim.

Admanco’s Global Series of executive travel bags make up a nice matching collection at a reasonable price point. Admanco Director of Marketing Gregg Chatterson, CAS, says the poly-vinyl constructed Global Series, which is imported, has been more successful than anticipated since it was first introduced last year.

Leed’s offers a slim, lightweight alternative to the garment bag with its Garment Sleeve, an item that would be much appreciated for use on short business trips.

Totes: modern features

At first glance, the inexpensive, ever-popular promotional bag or tote may seem to have evolved little since the days of Jasper Meek. We have material choices not avail- able then, such as boldly screenprinted non-woven vinyl, but natural fabrics like canvas still predominate in the economically priced totes and shoppers.

But take another look — even these affordable giveaways have modern features to surprise and delight their owners.

R-Bag, for instance, has introduced a reversible shopper that lets the user choose between brightly colored vinyl or a more subdued canvas. It also offers a canvas tote with a 4.5″x6″ clear PVC window that can be used to display a photo, convention name badge, party invitation or I.D. — giving people a way to personalize their bag and make it distinguishable from all the others.

Air-Tex this year is offering its greatest variety of fabrics and colors ever, says Gaulke. The company has totes in cotton duck, laminated cotton duck, and polyester — and offers more than a dozen colors plus patterns and color combinations. The company is also emphasizing its less-expensive, full-color computer printing technology, which gives even the simplest tote a classy, expensive look. Look for even more upscale totebags next season, Gaulke says. Toppers offers both open and zippered book totes, including canvas styles with contrasting web handles, inside zippered pockets, and a nylon tote with outer snap pockets.

Ripon, Wis.-based Admanco’s full line of totes also show a plethora of features, including inside and outside pockets, zipper flaps, and several designs with side gussets.


Every possible need addressed

One thing is for sure — there is a sport bag to suit every possible need or desire.

Manufacturers such as Admanco have every imaginable configuration of bag — from inexpensive barrel bags to square barrel bags to club bags to full-sized sport bags, all in a variety of colors and fabrics.

“What’s hot in sports bags right now is water-resistant or waterproof fabrics — and space,” says Seattle Sports Marketing Manager Robin Nell.

Seattle Sports’ hot sellers have a variety of waterproof features, such as a valve that allows users to roll down a bag without getting it wet inside and urethane-covered zippers that also excel at keeping the contents of a sport bag dry, even in exterior pockets. The line includes dry bags, duffels, day packs, and a line of accessory bags for everything from wallets to cameras to cell phones, Nell says. One of the biggest trends in sport bags are mesh pockets. They are everywhere — on canvas totes, golf bags, backpacks and duffel bags. They are inside the bags and outside, and custom-designed to carry anything from basketballs to cell phones.


Nowhere are the two trends of colors and mesh pockets more evident than in backpacks.

The CD Backpack from Eastpak, carried by Alpha Shirt Co., features both in colors like sage, beige and orange with a mesh pocket that holds a hip-hopper’s CDs and a CD player as well as another pocket for a water bottle and a padded felt zipper pocket for glasses.

Eastpak has also introduced a double backpack, with two separate zippered main compartments.

Here’s a hybrid for you — both Toppers and R-Bag (Sylmar, Calif.) have introduced very luggage-like wheeled backpacks with telescoping handles, another response (along with ergonomic strap configurations) to the growing concern over the long-term effects of slogging around 50 pounds of technology, books and papers. Both packs remain light enough to be slung across a shoulder, despite the additional hardware.

Admanco is also offering a teardrop-shaped, single-strap Ergo(nomic) Backpack with both zippered and Velcro outside pockets.

Air-Tex’s rucksack this year features hot fashion features like pleated cargo pockets in a palette of outdoorsy earth colors — olive, sand, khaki, says Gaulke.

“These colors go really well with what people are wearing,” says Gaulke, who adds that even though its bags are developed as stand-alone items, the popular colors and styles present an opportunity to create tie-ins to many wearables.

Duffels & cargo bags

Here’s an interesting hybrid: Toppers this year introduced a Contractor Bag — a gate-mouth style duffel designed to hold — you guessed it — plenty of tools. The bag has three large and 12 medium-sized pleated pockets inside, two large and three small slash pockets outside, and cord-locked end pockets. Definitely a working bag, and yet, it’s sporty as can be in either black/ red or black/gold.

In keeping with the trend toward multiple colors and fabrics, R-Bag’s Super Streak duffel features black dense-weave polyester sides and a silver Prilobal Nylon top panel. The bag, which has both handles and a shoulder strap, also features a weather flap to hide its dual zippers.

Turning Point is also “bringing in more bags in more colors,” says DeLeo. Its Legacy bags come in all black with mesh vented end pockets, but also black with red, gold or royal blue trim. Its new, smaller sidecar bags are even more colorful — the color bags have full-color top sections and even the black bag features gray trim.

R-Bag also has a corporate sport crossover duffel in its Duo-Tone Duffel, a stylish black with gray bag that doubles as both a gym bag and an overnighter.

Air-Tex this year put out two sizes of classic cargo bags, which, says Gaulke, are adaptations of one of the hottest retail bags to the needs of the promotional industry.

“These are the sort of bags that people see in LL Bean and Eddie Bauer catalogs,” Gaulke says. “They’re very popular. People are looking for that shape.” Air-Tex has been able to offer the bags at an attractive price point using a 420-denier nylon with a 600-denier bottom, Gaulke says.

Golf bags

“Right now, all our hottest-selling items are golf items,” says Ogio’s Nick Wright. Scheduled to be released in August, Ogio’s new cart bag previewed at the PGA Merchandise Show in February, and sold out before its release date, he says. The cart bag — a bigger, swankier version of the stand bag — was Ogio’s response to increased demand on the high end of the golf bag market, Wright says.

“I kept losing sales because I didn’t have one,” he says.

Ever miss a tee time at the driving range? Jones Sports, headquartered in Portland, Ore., has a solution for you — a popular new bag with a clock sewn right in.

“It’s handy because so many people don’t wear their watches when they golf,” say founder George Jones. “This way, you can see when you need to head over.” The clock has a timer and can be used as a stopwatch, says Jones. “A lot of golf pros use the muscle memory techniques where they have you hold a position for five seconds,” he says. “so it can even be a teaching tool.”

Jones introduced the bag at the February PGA show in Orlando. The bag a place for tees, a ball marker, a divot repair tool and three golf ball markers so you can scratch your initials on your Titleist in indelible ink.

“We do a lot of schools and colleges,” says Jones. “And we decorate the bags with the school colors.”

Jones uses a lettering system with logos hand cut from vinyl, glued on and then stitched, Jones said. “It gives a little more of a varsity look,” he says. But at the high end of the scale, the choice is still embroidery. “It’s expensive, but popular,” he adds.

R-Bag is offering an extremely lightweight “Sunday Golf Bag” that will hold just your favorite clubs for a casual game of golf. With a very attractive price point, the bag has been a very popular promotional item for both weekend conventions and business meetings, the company says.

Toppers offers three different styles of travel covers — a must for the business traveler who takes his or her clubs on the road. Features include a foam padded top to protect club heads from airport luggage handlers.

Carson Reed is a Denver writer with a long background in business and industry work for magazines, industrial films and web-based publications.


Any distributor that sells a fair share of canvas tote bags has probably come across Admanco, Inc.

The Ripon, Wis.-based manufacturer is an ASI Top 25 Supplier thanks in large part to selling tons of the most basic of the bags. And with an 8-year streak of Supplier Star Awards or Awards of Merit from PPAI, you know the company must be doing something right.

While the company’s vast product line includes items like briefcases, sport bags, executive travel bags, first aid kits, golf kits, towels, aprons, pot holders, and more, canvas totes are Admanco’s bread and butter.

“Our niche is really the basic low-end cloth tote bags,” says Admanco Director of Marketing Gregg Chatterson, CAS.

Nearly 30 different styles — from economy (imported) totes to higher-end hidden zipper totes — are included in Admanco’s 2000 catalog. Even that is not enough for many distributors, who work with Admanco to create custom totes to fulfill any particular desire their customer has.

Totes, because of their low price point, are extremely popular as trade show, sales meeting and convention giveaways. Admanco helps distributors hit these markets by mailing tote bag sell sheets to distributors.

Step-and-repeat screenprinted designs are a popular, inexpensive way to give a special look to an otherwise basic bag. Step-and-repeats are frequently mixed with a larger, centered logo for an even more eye-catching look.

Photomagic transfers and four-color process screenprints are other popular imprints for totes. Embroidery is rare on all but high-end totes bags because of its higher cost. Often the cost of a four-color process screenprint or simple embroidered logo on a canvas tote would cost more than the bag itself.

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