Right from the start, industrial designer Ash Price noticed that men tend to design gear, while women design apparel. She wanted to change that. “It was really important to me to become a voice for women in gear design,” she said.
At REI, she found not one voice, but a chorus. The pack team is primarily women. Jenn Inglin creates the strategy, Ash designs the gear, Lauren Meyer develops that gear and Rebecca Randall-Lally curates for stores. Together, they created the Flash 45 Pack.
The old version was “unisex” (read: men’s) but the team wasn’t down with that. They agreed that women should get the same awesome pack that’s designed to fit their bodies. “Nothing is as heavy as pain to carry,” Rebecca said.
“We aspired to create a great pack for backpackers,” Lauren said. “From there, we applied different shaping and sizing tailored to men’s and women’s anthropometrics. But the functional features, comfort features, and load carry capacity are the same, no matter the shape of the body using it.”
Ash set out for the Appalachian Trail, where she camped with thru-hikers and questioned them about their gear—what they loved, hated, dreamed of. Rebecca and Jenn mined co-op employees and members for valuable intel. Then they regrouped at the REI Co-op gear loft with partners in strategy, design and merchandising. “The cooperative design that we do here is absolutely my favorite thing about working at REI,” Ash said.
Lauren agreed. “Ash, our sourcing team, product strategy, our test lab, our field testers—we all work together to discover and solve the problems that arise along the way. We brainstorm, make mockups and actively seek feedback. We have our roles, but Ash is just as likely to suggest a way to improve a complicated construction as I am to suggest a way to improve a visual feature. It’s all about constructive feedback, listening and working together towards the same goal.”
Once they had their design sketched out, Ash and Lauren went to Vietnam. “Sewing is more complex than many people give it credit for,” Lauren explained. “You have to piece everything together backwards and inside out. The sewers at our factory in Vietnam are really very skilled, and being present when samples are being made can spark an idea that may not have been discovered in a different context. It’s really efficient to collaborate with the sewers and patternmakers in real-time.”
“We worked really intensively on it for a full week, kept iterating on different details, analyzing the materials,” Ash said. Finally, they mastered the breathable back panel, ergonomic water bottle pocket and contoured hipbelt that makes the pack great, then fine-tuned the fit and suspension for a woman’s frame. Field testers in Seattle then took prototypes out on the trail. “So many people touched this pack,” Ash said.
The Flash 45 hit stores this spring—and Ash found her voice, amplified by many others. “I don’t know that we would ever have a women-specific Flash 45 if we didn’t have so many women on the team raising their hands and saying this matters,” she said. “That’s a huge motivator.”