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A “High-End Normcore” Luggage Brand That’s Half Muji, Half 007

Chances are you’ll never use an SDR Traveller bag to discreetly tote $1 million. But the brand’s allure is in knowing that you could.

When you think of expensive, high-design luggage brands, “SDR Traveller” almost surely doesn’t come to mind. And that’s the way Jan Chipchase, founder of SDR Traveller, prefers it.

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Chipchase’s day job is running international field-research projects in “challenging environments” where it pays to blend in—like embedding with Saudi youth to learn their smartphone norms, or researching mobile-money usage patterns among the unbanked in Somalia. Chipchase started SDR Traveller to address his own work-related necessities: “The luggage needed to be discreet enough to pass unnoticed when the situation required, to cope with the best of a city’s pickpockets to the worst of its commute. A go-bag for the global traveller,” he writes on the SDR Traveller website.

[Photo: courtesy SDR Traveller]
What began with a single product—the D3 Traveller, an intentionally unbranded, nondescript but nigh-indestructible black duffel bag—has now grown into a full line of gear whose overall vibe feels halfway between the humble, function-above-all aesthetic of Muji and the globe-trotting, “danger is my middle name” sex appeal of Mission: Impossible.

[Photo: courtesy SDR Traveller]
Take one of SDR Traveller’s newest releases, for example: The “Expedition Tool Roll XL” is, on its face, basically just a rugged black strip of fabric that, well, holds tools. But oh, that copywriting! “We’ve run our fair share of expeditions across the globe. We appreciate the importance of carrying the right tools, and the cost of being stranded without them,” it purrs. “The Expedition Tool Roll XL is ideal for 4WD, motorbike, off-road bike adventures. Get it dirty. Lets the rains come.” Eat your heart out, J. Peterman: If you want to charge $175 for something to lug wrenches around in, this is how you do it.

[Photo: courtesy SDR Traveller]
Chipchase knows exactly what he’s doing: He calls SDR Traveller’s products “storyful.” But where J. Peterman conjured up fanciful tales around his products, SDR Traveller has Jan Chipchase’s actual, real life to provide its narrative reference points. When you read about how Chipchase designed a special bag “for the discreet, comfortable carry of up to $1 million in used bank notes while minimizing the risk of radio frequency tracking,” you know it’s because he actually needed to do that himself on one of his expeditions. (Chipchase never discloses details about his jobs, but he did tell me that there aren’t a lot of banks or ATMs in many of the places he runs his projects—like, say, Uzbekistan—so if he’s going to pay a local research team for a weeks-long project, he’s got to bring a lot of cash into the field.)

Are you ever going to find yourself in that position? I highly doubt it. But it’s awesome to imagine, isn’t it? And if you can buy a much smaller, more affordable version of that million-dollar money-duffel, made out of the same secret-agent-sounding synthetic fabric (Dyneema, if you’re wondering), isn’t it awesome to be constantly reminded of all that “storyful”-ness—even if you don’t end up using the product for any particularly swashbuckling purpose yourself?

[Photo: courtesy SDR Traveller]
Matt Webb, former CEO of Berg and a satisfied D3 Traveller owner himself, calls SDR gear “high-end normcore.” He means it as a compliment. It’s supposed to appear ordinary, even invisible—except to yourself, and to other people in the know. And those people are out there. Chipchase told me a story about checking into an Airbnb in Tokyo with his own D3 bag in discreet tow: “I arrived slightly early and met the Airbnb owner. It turns out he was an industrial designer making his own headphone brand in Tokyo, and we got to talking. He saw my bag when he was walking out, and he said, ‘Is that a . . .?’ And I said, ‘Yes, it is. I started the company.'”

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That’s what you’re buying for the SDR Traveller premium price. It’s not just impeccably designed, rugged-AF gear—it’s an admission ticket into Jan Chipchase’s world. You may never get to see that world with your own eyes. But holding a piece of it in your hands might be the next best thing.

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About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets.

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