Flipping the Past – Interview With Ben Nobel of Kletterwerks
When Kletterwerks was first conceived in 1975, Founder Dana Gleason probably had no clue that in 2013 people would still be using his original bags. These original bags would become the start of a career that spanned over three decades of making some of the best bags the world has ever seen. In 2012, Gleason’s son, aka Dana III, decided to bring back the Kletterwerks brand. Under brand manager Ben Nobel, Kletterwerks is bringing back old designs and updating them for modern life.
I had the opportunity to talk to Ben Nobel about the history and future of Kletterwerks, simplicity in design, and how he plans on bringing back an American classic.
Visit Kletterwerks here.
I can imagine there’s a lot of pressure in bringing a brand back that
has such a solid history. How do you plan on bringing Kletterwerks into the
Honestly, there isn’t as much pressure as you may think, because the story
is so interesting. Most of the time when people haven’t heard of us, we
spend a few minutes telling them the history and by the end of it, they have
a totally different impression of who we are. Dana’s 35 year history is so
developed that between Dana Designs, Mystery Ranch and our military and fire
contracts, it is quite am impressive resume.
So in telling this brand story, we usually like to be very upfront with our
approach. We are not shy in telling people that we have multiple million
dollar military contracts and supply packs to almost every hot shot crew in
the US. Furthermore, we’ve developed an airbag for avalanche safety and
build perhaps the most sought after hunting packs in the world. That being
said, Kletterwerks is the beginning of all of this, so of course, our
heritage is certainly in simple cordura rucksacks.
Back then, no one had ever used Cordura for a pack. Dana was the first, and
since then we’ve rarely strewn very far from it. We are using a lot of the
same materials we’ve been using since the beginning, but having 35 years of
experience in building equipment, we know the wear points and trouble areas
well. Thus, the current line of Kletterwerks packs is built in the same US
factories as our military spec packs, using cordura, leather, nickel plated
buckles, and rugged YKK zips. The only major changes would include a closed
cell Densified Urethane foam for the shoulder pads and including computer
sleeves in daypacks. Obviously we had to build products for the modern
life, so we introduced iPad cases, laptop bags, and Dop kits to fulfill the
The future of Kletterwerks lies in the hands of its history. We are proud
of where we can from and where we are today. In the technical pack market
via Mystery Ranch, we’ve done very well, so we’re confident in the quality
and craftsmanship of offering with Kletterwerks. It’s a genuine American
classic, that is close to being described as timeless by many of our
American and Japanese customers. We couldn’t be more proud to re-introduce
a brand that we know lasts the test of time…
It is definitely a timeless and genuine American classic, the Kletter Flip is such an influential and lasting design. Personally, do you think in a world that is getting so technologically advanced, people are starting to enjoy simple, well designed classics?
Take food for example, everyone these days is eating like they were living
in the 19th century: farm-to-table restaurants, organic farms, buying local,
etc. etc. Somehow in the last decade or so people internationally began to
make some serious changes in the way they consume. It is the same in the
outdoor/lifestyle industry. Products and experiences are being streamlined
and simplified. Even our daily activities are taking this course – people
are exercising and spending more time outdoors. Thus, we take the same
approach here with Kletterwerks. When we decided to bring back the KW
brand, it was an obvious choice for today’s market given this new paradigm
of consumerism. Our original bags were so simple and well designed, that we
decided not to change too much. We did upgrade each piece with DU foam,
lining, and computer sleeves, but for the most part we wanted to keep this
paradigm alive with simplicity.
That being said, bags are not that much different from the way we eat in
today’s world. We can produce a simple, well designed, American-made pack
for your daily use and compare it to the smoothie and to-go salad from the
natural food market down the street. It’s a small way each of us can take a
holistic approach to the way we live.
You recently did a bag with Mark McNairy, how did this collaboration come about?
Honestly, it was quite random. At Capsule New York, Kletterwerks and
McNairy were neighbors at the show. Dana and Mark met, showed one another
their lines and hit it off. The idea for the collaboration sparked
immediately from a mutual respect for one another’s design taste and tactile
vision. Mark offered a fabric vision outside of a normal substituted color
of Cordura and was able to provide Dana with a sample roll of the
We put a few additional layers of material inside to
promote durability, but for the most part, Mark’s desire to endorse the
Herringbone as the main technology was a staple in the project. We’re
currently working on a few more collabs with Mark for AW13…
I know that you just got back from making the Trade Show rounds, what else do you have planned for Kletterwerks this year?
Well 2013 is going to be a big year for us – design and production wise.
We’re working hard with our current retailers to ensure solid sell-thru and
making sure they get as much marketing exposure from us as possible. They
are our #1 priority, and a handful of new retailers will be introduced later
Currently, we are working hard in the design room getting ready for summer
show season. This is the creative time for us – we are looking into a slew
of new bags, packs, luggage and accessories, as well as introducing some
radical new color ways. Keep an eye out for a few collaborations we will be
extremely excited to show off.
A couple weeks ago, we had a launch party in Tokyo for our new Japanese
distributor – A&F. Japan has always been a big market for us and we
couldn’t be happier with our new relationship with them. So, its time to
get those sewing machines into 6th gear to fulfill the spring/summer
We are growing our internal business as well, hiring a few key people to
help out in the office, social media, and customer service. The team
couldn’t be stronger!
And winter is in full swing, so hopefully get some powder days in…
Has it been interesting for you to see how receptive the global street culture has been to the brand?
When we started this project we were elbows deep in international military
contracts, forest service equipment purchases, ski patrol PPE programs and
intensive medical projects. Needless to say we are heavily invested in the
technical equipment market. However, since our initial push into Japan we
started to see a big impression into the street scene over there. We were
dealing with some interesting problems at that time, where bags were being
imported and sold in street shops for upwards of $800-900. Hence our
distribution channel now for both Mystery Ranch and KW.
Since Japan became our new model for the lifestyle brand, we took KW to the US Market using the
same sales approach we did overseas. We were still having a slight identity
crisis as to what the brand meant to the market – is it outdoor? Is it
fashion? Is it equipment? We decided its everything. We weren’t trying to
jump on any trends, per say, we just focused on building the best packs in
the world – and focus on the one remaining industry we hadn’t tapped yet -
Now we’ve all seen the major shift in the industry that the outdoor market
is beginning to influence the fashion world and vice versa. We’re confident
that our products can span internationally and into any market (current
industries under the Mystery Ranch/KW umbrella include – military,
firefighting, hunting. Skiing/outdoor, medical, SAR, Avalanche safety, and
I think because we kept our focus on using materials and
construction techniques that we use for all these other industries to make
products for the street scene, separates ourselves from the competition. We
are proud of the quality and craftsmanship of these packs and I think that
has really been passed along to customers in the street culture. So that is
our focus, build the best packs in the world… And yes, it was VERY
interesting to see the response…
What do you think the challenge for bag companies will be in the future? Things can always be improved on, but what do you think the next major design step will be?
Design is something that we are constantly in discussion over. There is
ALWAYS advancements in materials, which is something we strive to be at the
forefront of – whether it be Densified Urethane, Nickel Plated Steel, or
even Kevlar coated nylon. The interesting discussion regarding styling and
design almost takes a historical voice as well as a modern one.
We are, of course, a technology dependent society, so we will always be crafting pieces
to carry every day gadgets like computers, phones and tablets. But we
firmly believe that there is a standard of which function is still function.
These are the ideas we have been working on for decades and use very similar
techniques in design that we have used for Navy SEALS, Fire Fighters, and
Ski Patrol. The idea of a bag that is designed to DO something is important
to us, and we want to ensure that every bag shipped out of Bozeman has its
purpose. We’d be honored that if in 50, or even 100, years there are
Kletterwerks bags still in use.
This could be one of the biggest challenges for us, or any bag company for that matter. Engineering classic styled bags
with a function and durability is the future of our brand.
Visit Kletterwerks here.