The Maine-based startup that has quickly risen to become a technical backpack maker set out for Mt. Kilimanjaro for the ultimate gear test at end of February, beginning of March.

For almost every day of Charley Friedman’s life growing up, his commute included a ferry ride from Peaks Island to Portland, Maine, the state's "biggest little city." Everything he'd need each day, from a rain shell to his laptop and schoolwork to his lunch, had to fit into one, bulletproof bag that could withstand the rain, wind, sun, and variable coastal weather.

Then as a student at the University of Maine, he and his friends, Devin McNeill and James Morin, sold colorful nylon, tri-fold wallets from the trunks of their cars under the obscure name Flowfold. Their entrepreneurial spirits longed for something greater, so they sought to create the multipurpose bag Friedman had wished he'd owned growing up.

“When you live on the island, everything is smaller,” Morin said. “People don’t have room for 16 different types of bags. You want one bag to bring to class and then also the same bag to go on a quick day hike or maybe go to a concert. The idea of long-lasting resilient products has been the core of our business model since Charley started tinkering in his basement in 2008.”

Fast forward a decade later to Feb. 25. A team of three women and six men each carrying Flowfold prototype backpacks embarked on the ultimate seven-day gear test on Mt. Kilimanjaro, Africa’s tallest mountain. After hiking from the rainforest floor to the arctic level — essentially equivalent to a year’s worth of testing — they discovered that yes, the bags survived hail and rain, heat and humidity, frozen temperatures, and anything else they encountered.

The team of eight who summited Mt. Kilimanjaro.

The team of eight who summited Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Their fast summit — abbreviated from the suggested nine days — in many ways symbolizes how the Maine-based startup, in only a few years, has burgeoned from a tiny wallet company into a brand that’s working in collaboration with one of the world’s largest and most iconic outdoor retailers for a release of everyday technical backpacks later this year

“We have to pinch ourselves sometimes,” said Morin, who is one of Flowfold’s owners. “Three years ago, Charley’s mom literally filled up the basket on her bike and she would pedal to the local post office to send a handful of wallets out every day. I don’t think any of us thought then that we’d be summiting 19,341 feet. There’s some romanticism there.”

Making the wallet cool again

In 2017, the Flowfold team pitched L.L.Bean on their collection of backpacks meant for short hiking trips and everyday adventuring, taking bits and pieces from what made each brand successful. Flowfold had mastered how to craft a thin wallet made from upcycled sailcloth to set itself apart from other card holders, and were pursuing the brand’s future.

Flowfold, Amy Irish above Camp 2 on kilimanjaro

Amy Irish, Flowfold ambassador, at Camp 2 on Mt. Kilimanjaro.

“When I walk around anywhere in the U.S. and I take out my Flowfold wallet and somebody else within eyeshot has one, they take it out and they hold it above their heads,” Morin said. “It’s almost like when Jeeps drive by each other and they put their hand up and they have that secret code. When was the last time anyone thought about their wallet? I’m totally fine with being the guys that made the wallet cool again.”

But Flowfold has grown up. It’s taken more than a year of work for the collaboration to come to fruition, but a small release of a center zip pack, a tote, an organizing kit, and a wristlet will debut in July, said Curt Nichols, L.L.Bean's corporate merchandising manager.

"Flowfold has a young entrepreneurial spirit that we appreciate and we share a lot of core values," Nichols said. "The co-lab will utilize a lot of what they stand behind with these minimalistic designs and performance fabrics."

The L.L.Bean collection will come in exclusive colors, such as an olive colorway with vibrant orange and brown accents that reflect the retailer's hunting heritage.  

In addition to the four products for L.L.Bean, the eight hiking packs tested on Kilimanjaro are the next version of the partnership with L.L.Bean. After collecting thorough feedback from the testers, the samples will be finessed down into two different models: one for the L.L.Bean line and one exclusively for Flowfold. L.L.Bean already sells some of their pieces.

Flowfold also has established a market on Amazon and will be sold on Backcountry by May 1. Additionally, 17 REIs are selling Flowfold’s crossbody bag and 14L tote backpack, and if all goes well, the retail giant might consider evaluating other products.

Selections of wallets and bags also can be found at more than 100 specialty retailers across the U.S. and can be bought through the brand's website.

In the weeks leading up to the trip, Morin said it was the first time he had seen head designer Max Harmon nervous. She finished stitching the bags about five days before leaving for Africa, with a small amount of time for the team to pack them and take them out onto the local trails.

“She knew that if a strap broke or a seam ripped out that this was going to impact somebody’s summit attempt on Mt. Kilimanjaro,” Morin said. “I just remember telling her before we left, that she was going to make unbelievable packs and she did.”

The packs endured five distinct and diverse climate zones, and were examined for ventilation, water resistance, sun exposure, and weight tolerance. They were designed to hold between 10 to 15 pounds of snacks, extra layers, and other gear, but at some points during the trip handled 30 pounds well.

“As much confidence we have in our testing process and our abilities to make high quality products, if you’re not little nervous taking something up 19,341 feet, then you’ve got to check your pulse,” Morin said.

Flowfold hikes to Kilimanjaro

The team makes their way to Uhuru Peak. 

So why Kilimanjaro?

Flowfold could have easily tested the new gear in Maine or a number of other places in the U.S. However, hiking Kilimanjaro was about more than ensuring the bags could withstand intense weather — it was about establishing a backstory and culture of the company.

“It’s not so much about getting a good product — that’s easy for us. We’ve been doing that for a long time,” Morin said. “But it’s effectively telling a story about collaboration, not just Flowfold and L.L.Bean, but between us, between the climbers, and between the mountain.”

As an owner of a startup, Morin said he has learned that success is found faster in taking initiative. He said he was going to reach the summit inch by inch if he had to because that’s how he — and the rest of the team — approaches his work for Flowfold. There’s no limit to what they'd do for the company, manifested in the fact that the ambassadors and team members paid their own way to Africa.

James Morin and Matt Brown at the Kilimanjaro summit

James Morin, left, accompanies Matt Brown as he reaches the summit of Kilimanjaro.

It was an emotional experience, to say the least. Morin documented the trip in a journal that he later published on LinkedIn, with spelling errors, swear words, crying confessions, and all. A video posted to Instagram shows Morin holding his glove over his eyes, welling with tears, and the rest of the team crying over the wind, overworked and overjoyed.

“The only words that I got out were, I’m so proud of the team,” Morin said. “I think the one piece of feedback that I’ve gotten is that if you really want to connect with customers, if you want people to understand your brand, just be authentic.”

Was summiting Africa’s highest mountain overkill? Without a doubt, Morin admits. But he said he'd go to Everest for Flowfold and he expects the brands he admires to do the same.

“We want our customers to go and chase moments — these things we’ve historically called peak experiences that you just can’t get anywhere else,” Morin said. “For us, that was Kilimanjaro.” 

Related

Grace Bender and Jeff Morton, L.L.Bean employees

Getting paid to hike the AT

On April 16, L.L.Bean sent off the first of 43 pairs of employees relay-style hiking the Appalachian Trail through August. Once the relay is over, collectively the teams will have passed through 14 states and by 20 L.L.Bean stores along the 2,180 miles. Their hike coincides with ...read more

Bean-be-an-outsider

KÜHL slaps lawsuit on L.L.Bean

KÜHL filed a lawsuit against L.L.Bean this week, claiming that Bean’s new campaign which features the phrase “Be an Outsider” infringes on KÜHL’s June 2015 trademark of the term “The Outsider” which they they currently use on two SKUs: the mens’ Outsider pants and Outsider Cargo ...read more