The Exchange | Tom Bihn

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Nothing good ever comes from overpacking. A lesson I learned at 16 as I lugged my 75 pound suitcase through the uneven cobblestone streets of Paris. Rotating my hands between propping up my back and alleviating my wrists as they snapped against my luggage handle gave me an enlightened packing perspective. When it comes to traveling, "the weight of a person's bag is usually inversely proportional to the fun they are having." Nobody knows this better than Tom Bihn. After all, he's the one who said it.

Made in Seattle by a team equipped with over 300 years of collective sewing experience, Tom Bihn's bags are the height of timeless design and rugged durability. Since purchasing my Aeronaut three years ago, I've yet to use another piece of luggage. Tom Bihn has brought me a long way since my first trek through Paris. After interviewing Tom, it's pretty apparent why his utilitarian designs command such intense brand loyalty.

Hometown… Born in the East Bay, raised and lived for 35 years in Santa Cruz. These days, I split my time between Seattle and the mountains.

Earliest travel memory… My father was an airline pilot, so I have almost no early memories that do not involve travel. I remember flying with my family on one of the first 747s - this particular plane was being ferried to Europe: empty except for us and the crew. I walked it seemed for miles on an empty 747 en route to London.

Earliest design memory…Trying to figure out how to make a backpack for GI Joe. I think I made him a sleeping bag too. I was maybe nine years old.

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Current design inspiration… Nature, airplanes, black and white movies.

Your customers are fiercely loyal and devoted to your brand. How do you test your designs to guarantee their durability and how does their longevity play into your design process? I design for longevity not only by selecting the best materials, but also by putting them together in a way that they are least prone to fail, even after years of use. After 40+ years of making stuff, I've made enough mistakes to feel pretty confident in knowing what will work and what won't. I also used to do repairs on other manufacturer's bags - this taught me even more about how and where things tend to fail. Of course we test the heck out of all prototypes as well. The longevity of our bags also encourages me to be somewhat cautious in terms of aesthetics: you want a bag that's going to last for 10 or 20 years to be more or less classic, and not some eye sore that you're going to regret in a few years.

Not surprisingly, you receive a lot of notes, stories and photographs from Tom Bihn users on their travels – is there any instance that stands out as the most memorable? That's a tough one. Just take a look at this and you'll see what I mean. One I'll always remember is a customer who was in India at the time of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. He used his Brain Bag to carry first aid supplies and a machete as he worked his way through devastated areas, volunteering his time and help. 

As a consumer, are there certain brands you maintain allegiance to? Now that I've used a Stenlight headlamp, I can't imagine using anything else. Texas Brand Jeans. Stanfield's. 

What is the most used Tom Bihn item in your arsenal? Aeronaut. Shop Bags. My everyday bag? It's usually one of the various prototypes I'm working on. Right now, that's a backpack with a built-in compartment for my 13" MacBook Pro.

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What are your essentials for traveling?  I used to manage the youth hostel in Santa Cruz - there I watched what people carried and how they traveled. I realized that the weight of a person's bag was usually inversely proportional to the fun they were having. With that in mind, I try to travel pretty light, though I always seem to need to carry an extra pair of shoes or sandals. Otherwise I guess I carry the usual stuff - a swimsuit is surprisingly a good idea, as I try to jump into water whenever possible.

Any upcoming excursions? Back to Santa Cruz to visit family and friends, maybe a road trip with the dogs after that.

Best travel advice you’ve ever received… My friend Tim travels a lot (he and his girlfriend just got back from a month in Italy), and he's always been one of those people who can strike up a conversation with anyone. I learned how to do that from him when we were teenagers, and it's a great tool for travel, especially when solo. Chatting up the locals, I might avoid the bad restaurants, and hopefully get a better feel of a place. Plus, I've made some friends that way who've ended up coming to visit me here in Washington - nice to have a big circle of friends.

Hardest thing about manufacturing in the U.S…. We don't generally use off-the-shelf fabrics or components (sure, that'd be easier, but we don't always go for easier) so often our minimum materials orders are quite large and the lead times very long. That can make planning production and figuring out when to let people know when a bag or new color will be ready a challenge. I guess, though, we mostly think about how fortunate we are to manufacture in the U.S. When we hear stories of other companies receiving a container full of 10,000 items that are all wrong or "off", we're reminded of how we can walk 20 feet over to Lisa and Fong (our Sewing Supervisors) in our Seattle factory and work out the production details of a new design together. 

Best thing about manufacturing in the U.S…. Creating jobs is very cool, but ultimately for us it's about having the control we want. We get to do it our way, all the time, and that's very fun.

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