Made in the Philippines


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the next highly anticipated stop on this endless journey of mine was my return to the Philippines.  this time to be reunited with my cousin CJ Whittaker in Mariveles at the southern tip of the Bataan peninsula to embark on an adventure of an entirely different sort.

mariveles_roark8you see, CJ is a pack man.  over the recent years, he has become highly specialized in the art of designing packs, working with factories to turn his designs into a tangible form and then baking them into an assembly line for mass production.  he is currently here in Mariveles to help startup a brand new company called “Cotopaxi” – an outdoor gear company with two worthy goals: to make quality outdoor packs and apparel and to help people while doing it by donating a portion of the profits to the specific charity that inspires each product (Cotopaxi is also the name of a volcano in Ecuador).  one advantage that Cotopaxi has over their competitors is that they are direct-to-consumer.  this means that you won’t find their products at your local REI (aka. middle man) but you will find that when you purchase their products, the quality/helping people bang-for-your-buck factor will be turned up a notch (to 11 in fact).  CJ’s role here as design manager is to design their product line and oversee its production.  i had the honor of accompanying him for one week to get a first hand look at his operation and participate in it as well.

a 3.5 hour flight from Bangkok to Manila followed by a 5 hour bus ride brings me to Executive Heights – a quiet hill side neighborhood just minutes from the factory that overlooks Mariveles Bay.  there, i was greeted by CJ and many Koreans.  the name of the factory that we’ll be spending the next week in is called “Dong In”.  it’s Korean owned with several locations around Asia.  this particular location consists of 6 buildings, 5415 employees and 3192 machines.  Dong In is world renowned for their pack producing capabilities and any pack man you ask will attest to that fact.  they are the main manufacturer for popular outdoor brands such as Gregory, Kelty and Camelbak.

but before work time it was play time.  since i conveniently arrived on CJ’s day off, i got to join him and his accomplices on a fun filled day in the sun.  we loaded ourselves and our gear into long boats and headed to a near by beach where we gorged on Korean campfire BBQ, went scuba diving off the shore and sang karaoke after a few too many sips of strong Red Horse beer.

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"I am I said..." (photo courtesy of CJ)

“I am I said…” (photo courtesy of CJ)

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this of course was only the beginning of the Korean hospitality i received during my stay here.  they also put me up free of charge in the pool house, fed me three square meals a day and granted me an all access pass to their espresso machine and beer fridge.

CJ explains to Aaron (from Tessel) the science behind Korean food

CJ explains to Aaron (of Tessel) the science behind Korean food

Monday came along the next day and it was time to start our work week.  from the moment i entered the largest of the factory buildings known as “East Cam” i was bombarded with stimuli.  almost 2000 Filipinos sat at benches in rows, each with a sewing machine, all working swiftly and fastidiously while classic rock blasted over the loud speakers.  just try to imagine the sound of 2000 tiny machine guns firing off all around you while an over-reverberated Ann Wilson sings her heart out (pun intended) in the background.

this week the majority of the sewers were all working on a big push to manufacture a new line of backpacks for one of Dong In’s largest clients.  for the sake of efficiency and continuity, each group of sewers were responsible for one small component of each pack.  each sewer therein would apply their stitch, hand off to the next sewer, take another from the pile and repeat.  further down the line where the backpacks start to take real shape, quality assurance checkpoints are put in place to weed out any packs that don’t meet the standards.  by the time a pack is deemed complete it will have passed through many hands.

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sewing however is only one piece of the pack puzzle.  Dong In is well equipped with the machinery and man power to handle all other aspects of pack manufacturing including molding, laminating, laser cutting, screen printing, welding and forging.

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to put it quite simply, backpacks are a big deal…  when you’ve got one slung across your back while going about your daily commute, trekking into that uncharted wilderness or hitchhiking to a faraway land, it’s easy not to consider the journey that your pack first had to take on its own so it could accompany you on yours.

before your pack even had the chance to reach its complex mass production phase, it first had to undergo a lengthy ideation phase.  what starts as a sketch on a piece of paper then morphs into physical form through countless iterations of trial and error until every stitch, buckle, pocket and zipper are in their exact rightful place.  this phase is where most of the hard decisions are made.  this is also where CJ and i will be spending our work week.

allow me to draw your attention up two flights of stairs to the sample room.  here, a wonderful woman named Sandra and her team of pattern makers, cutters and sewers work with clients to bring their designs to life by building prototypes and then iterating on them until they are production ready.

sample room

the sample room

after just one day of watching CJ in action it became apparent that in order to be effective in a role like this, one really needs to be an artist, a MacGyver and a diplomat all wrapped into one.  CJ exhibits these three qualities admirably.  he is on a first name basis with most of the sample room staff and from the moment we set foot in there they all felt at ease around him.  CJ takes a collaborative approach to bringing his artistic visions to life.  he recognizes that Sandra and her team are the true experts of the craft and he solicits their input whenever he can.  he maintains an easy work environment while asking a lot of them.  it also helps that he rewards them all with Jollibee for a job well done.

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out to lunch with Sandra (photo courtesy of CJ)

out to lunch with Sandra (photo courtesy of CJ)

it’s often the case in sampling where an artist’s vision gets compromised by material logistics.  a plan that works so beautifully on paper can get foiled by reality when you learn that your cleverly laminated nylon/EVA foam concoction is not quite the elegant solution you hoped it would be.  it’s times like these when the MacGyver needs to come forth with the real-time creative workarounds necessary to keep the ball rolling (and no, paper clips and duct tape wont cut it).  my mind was opened to these realities this week as i watched both CJ and his colleague Aaron Puglisi (who is working on a line of packs that will lift you off the ground) MacGyver their way through many hard problems.

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in order to drive these ideas a little further into my brain, CJ had the brilliant idea to put me to work by having me design a product and get it production ready by the end of the week.  it has been over a year since i have had a job or anything resembling responsibility so you can imagine the excitement i was feeling at this point.  i graciously accepted his challenge and then started at the beginning of designing a new Cotopaxi product.

kickoff meeting paraphrased:

me: so… um… what should i design?

CJ: you are the world traveler among us.  what do you need?

me: well… i sure could use a snazzy case for my Kindle.  how about i design one of them and you can market it as a “Kindle Sheath”?

CJ: i probably can’t sell a Kindle Sheath but i *could* sell an iPad Mini case, one that you could most certainly use as a Kindle Sheath.

(he hands me a wooden replica of an iPad Mini)

me: ok, i’ll design one of them then.

CJ: make is so.

step one was to make lots of annotated sketches to get my ideas flowing and to come up with several design candidates.  so i did exactly that and gave them all clever code names like “Spectrum”, “Straight Laced”, Nintendo”, “Cubby”, “Minimalist” and “Mr Blank”.  after a brief design meeting we decided on an adapted version of Mr Blank.  i then drew up my final sketch complete with measurements and notes (the industry term for this is called a “techpack”) and handed it off to my new team.

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i first meet with Sandra and explain to her all my hopes and desires.

courtesy of CJ

courtesy of CJ

then Rodel draws and cuts out the patterns.

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then Mario cuts the fabric using Rodel’s patterns.

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then Dervine sews it all together.

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finally, Charlito binds the inside edges and within twenty minutes i have the first prototype in my hand.

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not only was prototype #1 a bit lackluster, but it wouldn’t sheath a Kindle or an iPad Mini.  from there it was a long uphill battle with sizing and finding that perfect laminated foam/fabric combination that wouldn’t warp when you turned it right-side-out.  finally, several days and 4 iterations later i had a prototype that would not only sheath a Kindle and an iPad Mini, but it would look cool while doing it.

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meanwhile back on the ground floor after their annual fire drill, the sewers take a well deserved rest before clocking out for the day.

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fire drill

then after the last sewer leaves, the machines, classic rock and lights all get shut off.

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when all through the factory not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse

however if you’re lucky, you might find them right outside engaged very competitively in a company wide volleyball or basketball tournament.

courtesy of CJ

courtesy of CJ

courtesy of CJ

courtesy of CJ

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‘congrats U-rock <3 Roark’

Cotopaxi is now in the final stages of development on their new product line and after having seen and sampled several of their final prototypes, i am thoroughly excited.  several thousand promotional packs are being assembled right here in preparation for their upcoming “Questival” event on April 11th and 12th in Lehi, Utah.  soon thereafter, Cotopaxi will raise the curtain and unleash their first-ever line of packs and apparel.




the best of luck to you cousin.  it’s been a very awesome and informative week!

  1. #1 by Diane on March 22, 2014 - 8:12 am

    Roark – fabulous inside look at a factory; and, congratulations on your first product! I hope to see it in production some day. You are a terrific writer.

    Now I know what CJ does on these very long trips overseas.

    Best wishes on your next journey.

  2. #2 by Janet on March 22, 2014 - 1:45 pm

    Thanks! This was so cool! I am glad that you two were able to get together and that you had the chance to design your own case! Good luck to CJ!

  3. #3 by Brad on April 22, 2014 - 11:08 pm

    That was a truly fascinating read, the products on the Cotopaxi website look great too.

    I wish I could visit the factory so I could make a pack for backpacking photographers. The only thing on the market that comes close is fstopgear but they’re not quite perfect.

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