Meeting up with Gilles Laumonier in Eastpak’s global headquarters in Bornem, Belgium gives us the opportunity to learn more about one of the truly authentic bag brands today. The VP-GM of Eastpak Worldwide does even more than that: he explains how in order to survive, the brand had to diversify and unite at the same time. And why that is a good thing.
If a bag originates from a US-Army design you know that ruggedness will definitely be one of its features. Eastpak started life in 1965 as Eastern Canvas Products, a company that supplied bags, pouches and knapsacks to the American Armed Forces. A decade later (1976), founder Monte Goldman’s son Mark noted that a growing number of school kids used army surplus bags as schoolbags and suggested that the company should broaden its scope to the action-packed halls of high schools and colleges. His instinct was right on the money. Eastpak’s star really rose in being the first brand to introduce colourful and boldly printed bags to the marketplace. Creating and releasing its trademark Padded Pak’r only added to its fame. The icon product gave students a virtually indestructible bag, crafted out of one piece of durable Cordura fabric with the least amount of stitching possible. In return, the education system made Eastpak into one of the biggest bag brands of America in the mid-Eighties. The rest of the world was soon to follow. Focusing on the durability of its products the brand introduced its line to the European continent at its States-side highpoint.
The 501 syndrome
Eastpak on the American domestic market was a strong pricefighter, in the ongoing war between the countless bag brands that all tried to make the best out of a fragile economy. In Europe the competition was less fierce, giving Eastpak enough reason to send out its bags at a premium price. An old army motto says that united we stand, divided we fall. Eastpak seems to agree, as it gears up to manage the brand as one all over the world. And another thing: Up until 2002 Eastpak was all about backpacks, with eighty percent of its business revolving around different variations of the Eastpak-style. The brand had become a mono-product business, which left little room for expansion. Just ask Levi’s that had the dubious honour to give this predicament its shrink-to-fit name: the 501 syndrome.
The brand’s out of the bag
Especially in Europe, brand diversification hits the spot; brand and revenue-wise there is not much growth left in the European market. Eastpak will continue to build the bag segment in the rest of the world, as there is opportunity a-plenty in the newly tapped countries. Both challenges will be tackled by one management team, uniting the Eastpak brand with unwavering energy. Eastpak doesn’t do large-scale classic media advertising, but reserves its message for target magazines. Fifty percent of marketing is funnelled into sponsoring, connecting the brand to music festivals, sports, arts and fashion. Online the brand has already stepped up, and will unleash a serious web presence in the coming years. In SS08 Eastpak collaborated with the leading name in contemporary menswear, Raf Simons, who designed a range of super exclusive bags as part of his main-line collection, they featured as integral parts of the silhouettes at his catwalk show in Paris. It is coolness by association; his desire to work with Eastpak says more than a thousand words.
The brand’s turnover might place Eastpak in the mainstream posse, but mainstream is only a state of mind. It’s all about looking in the mirror at the end of the day. Eastpak will never water down its identity, always remembering where it came from. Authenticity, activity and life are what keeps a global brand in the loop forever.