Bomber Gear’s Rick Franken, on turning his designs into a reality

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Below is the second of four guest blogs by Bomber Gear founder and designer Rick Franken.

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 particular 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

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