The Road to 2012 OR: Testing and the Next Generation

I’m now back in the USA, and I cannot describe the joy of being with my family. The heart-warming, sunshine of a smile of my daughter as she gleams at me; the uncontrolled passion of my son as he holds his kayaking line, and the comforting companionship of my wife’s embrace were a welcomed feeling after a month of detachment.

I got a lot accomplished in Thailand and now it is time for the testing phase. I love the period in the process where my art is transformed into a product; merging design, functionality and style with an emphasis on durability. And then, the true test:  how does it all work in the water?

This phase in the year also happens to correspond with the events season when the paddling community comes together to celebrate our rivers and our sport.  I learn a lot during this time, watching the next generation of paddlers and making note of their habits and preferences.  Kayaking is a sport that has changed relatively quickly over the past decade.   By spending quality time with the paddling community during this time, I am able to predict future trends and preferences, keeping Bomber Gear on the cutting edge every year.

Product testing and traveling to paddling events during this phase is not only a great time for me to learn more about my products and the paddling community, but it is also an ideal time to share the river with a next generation paddler, my son, Kai. One of the greatest joys in life is being on the water with my boy. Now a solid class IV paddler, he learned to roll at age six, and for the past four years he has been pushing the envelope of what a kid his age and size can paddle.  He is the youngest by far to paddle most of the rivers we have done. Paddling with my son is both rewarding and extremely stressful.  My own life is no longer the greatest consideration at hand.  When I think of my memories between the ages of 6 and 10 years old, I find myself recalling very little. I wonder how much he will remember and how this will impact his life. I have pondered on that often.

Week one of testing begins with five laps on the Nantahala River’s Cascades, and I was very encouraged by how well the pieces performed.  Sure, a few small changes are required, as usual. All my designs are a work in progress, as I can’t help but to constantly contemplate ways to make them better – it’s in my nature.  I am a paddler at heart, and getting to test the product I have created gives my soul fulfillment.  This is one of the core reasons I got into designing.  I get to experience firsthand the design application of my art.  It’s truly an expression of function in extreme sports.

An uneventful day of testing on a class IV run turned to class V stress quickly as Kai decided to take the lead and call the lines on the last two laps.  Thankfully, cheers of gratification follow clean lines, and while I have yet to see my son make a serious mistake on the river, I continually reassure him that we paddlers are all between swims. He looks at me in disbelief.

Week two of testing takes us down to Alabama for the Alabama Mountain Games. This is a unique event that not only includes freestyle, but also includes a “hucking” competition where paddlers do tricks off a 25 foot waterfall, including cartwheels, barrel rolls and loops. In my 20 years of experience at paddling events, this is the only one I know of to host a competition quite like this. My son and I look forward to this event all year.

Kai ran the waterfall many times that day, but the run that will stick with me for the rest of my life was truly unforgettable. We lined up to run the drop together – I wanted a picture of both us in the air together. As Kai and I charged side by side off the edge of the waterfall, I saw out of the corner of my eye that he had flipped completely over at the top of the lip. He threw his body over and pulled off a complete air screw coming down the face of the drop.  I was astounded, as he had only watched other paddlers do this trick but had never been taught how or attempted it himself.  I can’t help but be proud of him.

As the founder and designer of Bomber Gear, I don’t just create the product.  I test the product as work and I test the product in play.  And I am inspired by the next generation of paddlers, boats and equipment. What is possible now was just not merely ten years ago. If I am going to create the best product in the industry, I have to keep up with the paddling trends and preferences of the next generation of paddlers.  Lucky for me, I have one living in my house who is more than willing to travel to events and help me test products, too.  At the core of it all, I am just a paddler with a passion for design. And now I am honored to pass that on to my son.

Stay fluid,

Rick Franken

The Road to 2012 OR: Wrap-up in Thailand

Hello everyone,

This is my last week of working through the designs in Thailand before I head back to the States for some full-time (all fun) product testing.  I’m feeling a great sense of accomplishment as the 2012 Outdoor Retailer product line is coming together.  From fabric components to design and processes, I did plenty of experimenting and even more discovering at every level. Like a complex puzzle, the culminations of finished products have started to create a picture – a masterpiece of my own making.

It is a hot morning and I can feel the humidity, the streets are buzzing as I try a new route to work.  I noticed a crowd amassing around a corner of the moat. Chang Mai is an ancient city structured in a square shape with a wide moat surrounding it.  Curiosity got the best of me, so I pulled over to see the attraction.

I noticed the very top of a car sticking out like a small iceberg in the middle of the moat. Somehow the driver had gone off the road and flown about 30 feet into the middle of the canal. There were two guys sitting on the roof of a barely exposed hatchback. It is truly beyond me how someone could physically land their car in such a situation. The prospect of how they were going to get this car out was not just curious to me, but 200 other people were also gathered to see the sight. An interesting dynamic began to emerge between the watchful crowd and the two guys in the unfortunate situation below, desperately trying to figure out how to fish themselves and their car out of the ancient Chang Mai moat before the whole lot ended up as ancient history.

Swimming around in the filthy water, the two guys managed to wrap the roof of the car with a random piece of webbing, get a crane, and hoist the car out of the water. As the car began to emerge, I noticed a red license plate signifying that the car was less than 24 hours off the dealer lot.  I hope they had insurance! Once the car was hoisted out of the moat and placed on the side walk, the crowd roared in cheers. It was quite a sight on the streets of Chang Mai. As persistent and handy as this culture is with the random assortment ‘stuff’ around them, I half expected the men to jump in their car and drive on to their destination like nothing happened.

This set the tone for a rather strange day at work. Within an hour of being there I came across a major issue. I had run out of a rather important type of shock cord, and there was none to be found in the factory.  Sure, if I’d had another week, I could have some shipped in. But I don’t have another week; I need to complete these designs and get home. There is an aching feeling inside my chest. I miss my family. I have been here for three weeks, and I have one more week to finish it all.

One of the operators noticed my plight. “Go to the market,” she said, “You can get anything at the market.” The market?  I need a specific type of shock cord – not fish!  I thought, doubting her suggestion whole-heartedly.

She smiled and said, “You haven’t been to the market here.” I agreed and asked her to come with me.  If two guys half drowning in the sewage moat surrounding the city can get their hands on a piece of webbing strong enough to be of service when lifting a car filled with water out of a moat 30 feet below, find a crane (for gosh sakes), and manage to get their car back on the road before I could even get to work that day, I suppose all things are possible.

Now I have been to a lot of markets, but I was not prepared for this. It was a complex maze of venders packed just far enough apart for one body at a time to fit through them. The array of venders spread through multiple buildings and spilled into the streets.  Not only was it an easy place to get lost, but finding what you need is an art form. Areas were sectioned out by product types that would only make sense to a local. Colors and people splashed in every direction as shoppers moseyed in an orderly fashion. This was sourcing Thai style. The woman from the factory was right: you can find anything there.  I was captivated by the chaotic order of it all.

We weaved in to a small shop that was packed so tightly with inventory there was hardly any room to move around. I was astounded by how much they had.  It was a little bit of everything.  Threads, buttons, buckles, feathers and every random small thing you could possibly need for basically anything imaginable lined the walls. It was like a colorful array of candy displayed in the smallest possible area. Staring around the room with a shocked and confused expression, I obviously needed help finding something. I watched as the shop keeper squeezed between the boxes of inventory to help me. After about 15 minutes of rifling, explaining and cultural small talk, there was a spool of my shock cord.

Thailand is a different culture with different sets of rules and a different way of getting things done.  I often find myself in situations here that I pronounce as “only in Thailand” incidents. With all the challenges that surround me in this country, I find it to be a ripe place to spill my creativity.

Goodbye for now, Thailand.  Thank you for the inspiration.  Hello, USA.  Hello product testing!

Stay fluid,

Rick Franken

The Road to 2012 OR: Culture in the Design Process

I wake up early and commute through the complex order of traffic that makes up the Chang Mai streets. Motorcycles, trucks and street venders line the morning road as I wind through, enjoying the lawlessness of driving in Thailand. It is here, submersed in such a seemingly chaotic culture that I find beauty and inspiration that doesn’t just move me; it moves through me, and thus the Bomber Gear brand as well.   As I move along the ever changing (and sometimes somewhat treacherous) road to 2012 Outdoor Retailer, I’m often fascinated by the inspiration and metaphors that strike me on so many levels in the design process.

I have been here two weeks submersed deep in design and Thai culture. I work closely with the operators, adjusting and experimenting to perfect a vision of the finished design.
I create the patterns in the US and bring them here. They are nothing but blue prints, lines on paper. It is when I am at the factory working with the team that the lines of paper evolve into a finished good. There are always challenges – things that don’t quite work, mistakes that happen – but when the idea grows into a product that I can be proud of, a sense of accomplishment swells inside of me.

The days are long, but the workers are dedicated as we push through development. I have found working with Thai people is emotionally rewarding and inspiring. They are a passionate culture that is focused on hard work and perfection. They are willing push long hours, and assist in every way to ensure high-end quality product. I have been working with this factory since 1999.

Because Thailand has a monarchy, there is a subdued class system. The concept of being born into a class is very foreign to Americans, but is a way of life here. I find if I break through that precursor and work with them at their level, sew with them, help them seam rip mistakes, and spend time getting to know them as coworkers, a dedication emerges that I am proud to witness. I manage the workers by not being above them, but by working at their level, facing the challenges with them. Bomber Gear’s products and production processes are very complex. It takes skilled workers with a passion to do quality work and to create a high-end product line.

Spending time on the factory floor is a must, but it’s mentally exhausting. At the end of an eleven hour shift that has evolved into a seven day work week, I find little time to unwind. I have not had a day to my self in two weeks. But after this long day, I wanted to do something different. I had enough of picking up street food for supper on my way back to the hotel, then falling a sleep to Thai TV.

I wanted to learn how to drive a took-took. I had seen them on the streets of Thailand my whole life, and have used them for transportation many times. A took-took is a kind of 3 wheeled Taxi motorcycle hybrid that runs on propane. Took-took drivers are a breed of their own; they are considered a lower class people and they are always hustling for a fare. When you walk by them, they all call out to you, “Took-took Sir?” in their broken English, “Where you go?”

This time was different. I looked him right in the eyes, and spoke back to him in perfect Thai. “I want to learn to drive a took-took. Can you teach me?” Taken back, he did not know what to make of me. “I will pay you 500 bhat, for 1 hour of lessons and driving.” This changed the tune; 500 bhat was more than he was going to make in a week. One American dollar is equal to about 30 baht. “OK” he said in his broken English.I climbed into the cockpit to find myself sitting in a confusing array of levers, petals and a gear box. The left foot petal is the clutch; the right foot is the back break. The left hand lever is the front break the right hand is the throttle. And to make it very interesting, the gear box shifter is between the legs. Driving this machine was one of the most ambidextrous experiences of my life. The took-took driver, Aum, sat behind me leaning over my shoulder, giving directions as I began to maneuver this strange vehicle.

The first 10 minutes was sheer madness. I popped the clutch, the front end lifted up in a wheelie, and we were off, ripping through traffic. Thai’s were either diving out of the way or pointing there fingers at the crazy white man. It was pure fun! After about 30 minutes of driving, I really started to get the hang of it. It was a choreographed dance between my hands and feet as we motored through the streets. At this point I was ready for my first fare, and Aum was completely into the joke of it all. We rolled up to a tourist hot spot, I lean my head out and in my best broken English accent, “Hello sir, where you go? Took-took 50 baht?” Everyone laughed; it sure was a fun night. I bought Aum a bottle of cheap Thai whiskey as a tip and thanked him for an incredible experience.

It is hard to be away from my family but it is also a rewarding experience to be here.   I compare my took-took experience to my relationship with the workers at the factory. By relating to them at their level and not succumbing to the hierarchy of a class system, I am able to achieve and experience amazing things within this culture and within the Bomber Gear brand by simply digging deeper.  Into the culture, into the things that inspire me, and  into the processes and materials that will make up the future Bomber Gear line.  Stay tuned to find out more about the products I discover in the process.

Stay fluid,

Rick Franken

The Road to 2012 OR: Travels of a Global Brand

Hello everyone,

Rick Franken, founder and designer of Bomber Gear here. Bomber Gear is a global brand on the rise, which makes me a global traveler in the off-season, searching the globe for the best products and practices out there to keep my products on the cutting edge. This is the first in a series of journal entries that will take you through the Bomber Gear journey to 2012 Outdoor Retailer Summer Market. It’s going to be a good one. First stop, my homeland: The Kingdom of Thailand.

I landed in the Bangkok airport Friday morning, and on my way to where I was going, I witnessed a unique site that I choose to believe is a sign of the things to come in the 2012 Bomber Gear journey. I drove by forty monks walking barefoot in a line along the motorway. Having grown up here and spent a lot of time traveling the country, I was delighted to witness such a thing. I admittedly pulled over and took a few pictures. As I did, I noticed the people around me giving the first monk in the line a bit of money (for good luck, they say). I felt obligated, as monks live off donations, to follow suit. And after all, believing in a little luck can’t hurt, right? I proceeded to pull out a 100 bhat and stuffed it into the leading monk’s bag as I had seen others do. He then reached out and touched me. It took me off guard – monks rarely touch people; particularly head monks leading a migrating group of 40 other monks. A sign of good things to come? I would have to say so. Four solid weeks of submersed designing begins.

I will be spending the next four weeks at a factory in Thailand creating the product line for the 2012 Outdoor Retailer Summer Show. I have been working with this factory for fifteen years now, and it has been an amazing relationship. As founder and designer of Bomber Gear, I choose to involve myself in every step of the process, from design to production systems. When creating durable, quality products, strict guidelines from the design to the production procedures are in order. By being here and working with the factory this closely, I am able to control much of the environment to ensure quality products that I’m proud to call mine. I speak the language, I work directly with the operators, and I am able to personally take my ideas from concept to prototypes.

This is always an interesting time for me in the grand routine of events that cycle through my life and thus through the brand every year. This is the creation stage. The part of my design process when my art takes form; when my ideas become reality. I would imagine it’s how an artist feels just before he touches paint to a canvas. Better yet, it’s the rush I feel just before the last stroke off of a waterfall. I am excited and ready to make it all happen.

More to come on the Bomber Gear journey to 2012 Outdoor Retailer Summer Market…

Stay fluid,

Rick Franken