Interview by: John Pangilinan
With an illustrious career that has spanned close to two decades in bag design, there are few who can rival the experience of Douglas Davidson, the founder of The Brown Buffalo. A humble upbringing combined with a hunger to create led him to stints at the helm of Burton Snowboards and The North Face before he set off on a personal journey to find freedom and build his own brand.
John: For those unfamiliar with your work and who you are, could you give us a brief background?
Douglas: I’ve been designing bags for almost two decades now. I’ve been working on products since the mid ‘90s. Up until about 2005, I would say, it was more like the first days of trying to explore and understand what product design is, the different disciplines that fall within that realm. So those first ten years were really exploratory.
I was introduced to apparel design, footwear design, motor sports and the motorsports industry designing Motocross gear and F1 driving shoes and F1 driving gloves and things like that at the beginning. From there, being able to have my hands on quite a few different pieces of product, I was introduced to bags, probably in the mid ‘90s originally through skateboarding. A friend of mine owned a backpack company and he was making product. He really inspired me because I was just green as green can be and seeing a friend of yours making something and then being able to go and actually create a business out of it…being young, that made an impression on me. It helped develop a framework of possibly what I wanted to do.
But at that time I really had no idea, so from there it took about ten years to develop a point of view and throughout that time I focused on bags and that’s where I really got my start. I am really blessed with the opportunity I had to work with Burton Snowboards from 2003 until about 2015. I think that’s pretty rare these days, to have that opportunity. Within that time I took a couple of years off to go work specifically at The North Face and focus on that product and be able to go into that category and really explore.
John: That’s great. So, how did you start the Brown Buffalo?
Douglas: The Brown Buffalo came out of really just freedom. I had a lot of friends who wanted to work with me while I was working at Burton Snowboards. I was still really green in the context of, you know, I had a lot of ego, I was young, I didn’t really understand that idea of team quite yet. So when I was at Burton I really was probably more self-absorbed.
“I am really blessed with the opportunity I had to work with Burton Snowboards from 2003 until about 2015. I think that’s pretty rare these days, to have that opportunity.”
But luckily I had a great manager, he understood where I was coming from and he understood that I was hungry and he understood that I had a lot of friends similar to his life. So when I gave my notice, we were just having a drink and he goes “Hey, what do you think about doing the same thing that you are doing but just from home?” At the time I was at home and I was like “Let’s do this!”.
From that point on, that Friday actually, I gave my notice and went freelance and then by that next Monday I was on a flight to Portland to go work with Nike on a project.
The next 5 years was a complete whirlwind, I originally started off in my kitchen and then moved to a studio located in downtown Burlington, Vermont. Quickly I hired a team of very talented people and for those next 5 years we went and designed bags and accessories for well over 50 different brands starting with Nike, Vans, Adidas, Eastpak, Burton, Head Porter and so on... it was nuts.
John: That’s great. So, where is The Brown Buffalo today?
Douglas: We’ve just recently received out California manufacturing license and we are about to open a store June 20th. All our goods are going to be sold Online and through our network of friends who are retailers as well our own brick-and-mortar. We are not trying to be a medium or large sized business, we really want to keep the business small so we can focus on unique carry products and offer something that is much more authentic in this space. One thing I have really enjoyed over the years designing is the interaction with the athlete, artist, photographer, creative professional. I didn’t want to lose that connection, I think it’s so important to have that emotional empathetic connection.
John: Wow! Why did you start a factory?
Douglas: There are a couple reasons... To share a little back story into my life... I lost both my parents when I was younger which led to its own challenges and on top of that I live with depression. Both obstacles have been a real challenge that I have had to manage throughout my life. So, something I identified along my journey is that I really excel when I’m using my hands and solving problems. It’s a form of healing for myself and also feeling closer to my family. I haven’t necessarily identified how I’m going to do it but I realized wanted to use this platform to help bring attention to mental health awareness.
The other reason I started this factory is I wanted to pass on to both my children a trade. My mother was a teacher for 30 year’s and her father was a butcher and cabinetry woodworker. They both left a life long impact that led to my professional career. The best gift I thought I could share with my children was to share with them how to identify a problem and how to go about solving it through this form of a trade. At the same time, we get to spend time with each other and get to know one another.
John: Amazing, how many pieces are in your initial collection?
Douglas: I think it’s roughly about half a dozen pieces, and then we’re going to offer three colors per piece. We’re going to have a lot of custom bags; we’re going to have a lot of one-off bags. Some of that might be that CORDURA® might come to us and say “Hey, we have this really cool new material, we want you to try it out” and we might make five of those. We are going to be able to play around a little bit. We just got our leather from Redwing, Minnesota the other day and that’s going to be a completely different fabric, collection and different purpose of bags. So that is the other component to the business. We’re not necessarily looking at seasons, we’re not looking at this 24-month wholesale/retail cycle anymore. We are now looking at, honestly, a 1 week retail window where we don’t have to wait two years to see the product. We can see it probably by the end of the week. Whether or not it works, it’s a different model that I am really excited about because now I can be a little bit freer with being creative.
John: What is STORMPROOF® fabric?
Douglas: Early on we wanted to offer a material that captured one of our motto’s of being tactile, rugged and water-resistant. We worked with our supplier and their chemist to engineer our own STORMPROOF® fabric that is unique to our brand. We will use this on almost all our goods sold. It’s a great solution not only on the outside but also used as a lining in case you spill a drink or make-up smudges, etc... it’s fairly easy to wipe and clean.
John: So, I’m curious, what’s the meaning of the Brown Buffalo?
Douglas: The back-story on that is that I really wanted something that was going to be connected to me. I’m adopted, I’ve been on my own since I was 19 years old. I didn’t have a professional education in the formal sense. And I’ve always been an outsider within the social groups that I’ve been in. Whether it was being cool or not cool, or being a part of something or not feeling a part of something, even as a youngster too, I grew up in a community where I was the younger kid in our group, and so I was always really the outsider to the group because I was the youngest in the group. I was also a late bloomer, I think my parents where there figuratively but as a day to day parent teaching you about life, I really had to rely on my friends and their parents to fill in the gaps.
So for me, I’ve always looked at the spiritual animal or that spiritual connection of something that’s always roaming and I’ve always felt like the Buffalo’s kind of roam in the wild. And a lot of it is focused around that. I love the Native American culture, I love everything that America has to offer us. So I really felt like that was my direct connection.
John: Definitely. Could you share any specific insights on what inspires your design
Douglas: Purpose, function and quality. I’ve gone through the stage in my life where everything was based on trend or you click into what’s cool, what’s not cool. That’s still relevant, but at the same time I think I’ve been able to develop that editing skill. I think it really is based around that functional point of view. At the end of the day, if someone is going to buy a bag from me, and they have a little insight into my background, they’re typically coming because they want something that actually works.
John: Are there any projects from your past that really stand out to you or that you are really proud of?
Douglas: I would say that there are two projects actually, and it’s more from a learning lesson, it’s more from growing as a designer and also growing as an individual. Burton was such an important part of my career and my growth to what I’m doing, both from a creative point of view and a professional point of view. I grew up in that company in so many ways. Even knowing that I wasn’t affiliated as a day-to-day employee, I had so much exposure to that. So as a professional and as a creative, that was a pivoting point in my career.
As a creative, and as somebody who is challenged to solve problems, I would also highlight being a part of the The North Face, Meru expedition, as far as managing the design of all the equipment for that category with the designer and the group who worked on that. It was just an idea that myself, Conrad Anker who is a professional climber, and Scott McGuire had when we were in Utah at the sales meeting at The North Face. It was my first time meeting Conrad and we both sat down at a table, and he started sketching up this idea that he wanted to build a portaledge so he could stand up in it. Previously he had tried to do this expedition twice before and they weren’t able to complete both of those expeditions. But with the last one they were stuck for a long period of time inside the portaledge but they were sitting down or laying down the whole time so they weren’t able to stand up and move around and move freely. So that was one part of the project.
The other part of the project was reducing the payload, so reducing the payload on their camera bags, reducing the payload on their whole bags, reducing the load anywhere we could think of. That’s where we were on the equipment side. My friend Ian was a design director for all the outdoor product, which in that company is really your outerwear and your layers and things like that. So Ian and I teamed up and built more of a creative story of how we could take this Meru expedition and build it into a bigger story and focus on the problems that these athletes were having. Whether it was from climate control, whether it was from load and trying to address that end, we just tackled every single problem.
Then we kind of focused on these three different objectives that we felt our teams could really contribute to. And from there we just went to town and started going through all the products that we could affect. So we were able to reduce a camera bag through the use of hybrid foams, which are like an eighth of the weight of what your typical foam is. In the equipment side we took an approach similar to the way that rally cars are built. You have an engine that’s going from 0 to 100 to the peak of the mountain, and it’s not supposed to be used as your daily driver. Most products that we’d made up to that point were all commercialized for the masses, but that mass product doesn’t need to be used in that expedition. It could be, but it doesn’t need to be. We were doing one expedition so we were going to build it as lean as possible, we were going to take as much weight out as possible, we were going to reinforce where we needed to but we were just going to put what needs to be put into that project so it could get from base camp to summit and back again. It just needed to be used for that one haul.
So that’s what we did. We reduced the load by around 30% I think it was, and that was a huge thing. Those guys summited, and they had really good weather and things worked out really well for them and they ended up making a movie behind the whole expedition. And I felt like that was a really big learning experience for the team that I was managing, and for all of us who were part of it. Just because it wasn’t a project that was planned; it was really something that happened on the fly of conversation at a sales meeting. With the passion that Conrad and his team have, they believed in us and they trusted us with their lives, with the product that we were developing for them.
John: What carry products do you use daily?
Douglas: Well, it depends if I am using my camera. If I’m using my camera, I use a tote. I really try to be pretty concealed with what I’m carrying because you are carrying $10,000 worth of camera equipment so you don’t want it to get ripped off. I try to make bags that are pretty concealed and pretty discreet. If I’m just on the go, I have a brief or portfolio that I made and it’s pretty well organized on the inside for the things that I need to use it for.
When I travel, I use a travel backpack that actually holds my brief so it’s 2-in-1, but I’ve designed that strictly for traveling and the backpack is strictly for traveling. But again, it’s pretty discreet just so people can’t access it. If I’m on walking they can’t access it on the inside or if I’m on a subway or wherever. Then as far as weather, you never know where you are going to be at so I made it pretty waterproof on the outside as well.
John: And finally, any advice for any aspiring industrial designers?
Douglas: It depends on where they are at in their career. If they are at the beginning, go and become good at something. Don’t be a generalist, don’t try and say you can do everything. If you want to go design everything, do design everything. But if you actually become good at one thing and become an expert in that one thing, you can go on and do other things in your life, but become an expert in at least something.
If you are more experienced and you are trying to figure out where the next step is for you, try to identify your strengths and what you bring to a team. Are you a leader? Do you like to strictly work on projects? For people who get distracted by the noise of titles and money and things like that, you can eventually have those things, but they are not going to answer your problems, they are just there. If you are doing a great job, you are going to be compensated. If you are doing a great job and you have a poor attitude, you are probably not going to be compensated.
If you gain that experience and you can contribute to a team and be part of a team and at a high level and people want to work with you, you will probably be compensated. But most importantly just make sure you are happy and you are doing what you want to do.