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Vancouver design duo carves niche in Japan Add to ...

The onslaught of inexpensive, imported clothes and accessories made Vancouver industrial designer Barnaby Killam think. In 2004, he and childhood friend Stuart Sproule opened Red Flag Designs – a company, which Killam says, "decided to rethink how and why things are made.”

The emerging label – known mostly for high-end casual bags made from materials like recycled ship sails – has flourished, thanks to a growing global interest in the principles they promote, the founders perseverance and a niche they have built in the very competitive design market in Japan, a major focus of Red Flag’s current efforts.

“From a product design and manufacturing quality stand point, the Japanese market is totally different than North America. The caliber of the goods needs to be significantly higher in all regards as the consumer there is much more concerned with the longevity and integrity of the name,” Killam says.

Red Flag works with a distributor in Japan, who has been instrumental in helping the small, Vancouver-based business to grow there. Killam feels “that the sensibilities of the Japanese consumer, whom has been in an economic recession for the past decade, will begin to show up in the North American consumer. Consume fewer goods, but place the importance and quality of those goods at the forefront of the agenda. Our culture of consuming disposable or semi-disposable goods is perhaps coming towards a shift.”

The privately-owned design company has moved out of an 800-square-foot space to a 3,500-square foot-converted warehouse in Vancouver, where all the goods are made on-site. “Basically the pressure is to make the goods cheaper, anyway possible. That is not necessarily the route that we have chosen to take and are working around that. Made in Canada is important to us, and we feel that there is only going to be growth in that area,” says the Red Flag co-founder.

He thinks that Canadians are increasingly interested in “consuming local goods as it is in acquiring goods from out of the country.” (Through their online store, they have had customers buying from Europe and Australia as well). Their work has expanded from their original line of bags, to such things as “The Tent Peg Bottle Opener,” a converted tent peg which it advertises as bringing “together two of Canada’s favourite pastimes: camping and drinking beer.”

Killam and Sproule, who are in their 30s, have built a reputation for the quality of their products and design. Recently, they collaborated with Lexus, the car company, and Rodarte, the edgy California luxury fashion label. Red Flag made limited edition bags made from disused automotive interiors.

The duo has recently also expanded into doing interior design projects and consulting on alternative manufacturing using recycled materials. As they say on their website: “The future of RFD is wide open.”

Special to the Globe and Mail

Alexandra A. Seno has written about economics and business trends in Asia since 1994. She is a regular contributor to Newsweek, the International Herald Tribune and The Wall Street Journal Asia. She lives in Hong Kong.

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