Product Innovation SpotlightBillboards to Bags

By Erme Catino September 11, 2015

“It all began in El Salvador.” The phrase echoes from Alec Avedissian a few times as he explains Rareform’s origins. Avedissian and his brother Aric launched the upcycled billboard-to-bag brand in 2012 in Los Angeles, after a memorable trip to the small Central American country. The brothers had headed south to escape the corporate world, and it was their experiences there that truly brought the brand to life.

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Alec, who grew up surfing with his brother in Southern California, became an advertising executive in L.A. but sought a simpler, slower pace. He found it working at a fishing coop in Central America, and that’s where Rareform began to take shape. In El Salvador, “people were using billboards as roofing, given their poverty, and after noticing a tote bag made from a local billboard, I decided to try to make a surfboard bag out of the same recycled materials,” Avedissian explains. Billboards are typically made from waterproof and mildew-proof vinyl, so the fabric was already on the right path, and “people were digging the color, so we thought we can make more surf bags back in the States.”

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The idea wasn’t novel; there have been one-offs based on the idea. But Rareform was the first brand started specifically on the premise of upcycling billboards. The company quickly expanded its offerings from surfboard bags to snowboard bags, backpacks, totes and wallets. Each bag features a distinct one-of-a-kind color and vibe, given the varying material sources.

“When I worked in advertising, I saw a lot of waste,” explains Alec. “In creating Rareform, we wanted to create a product that we are proud of. We found that consumers like the eco-sustainability story, but they really like the art and personality side, wherein each bag is unique.”

Rareform sources billboards from around North America—Lamar Advertising is its biggest supplier—and recycles close to 10,000 pounds of billboard vinyl per month. (One billboard typically weighs 40–60 pounds.) Unlike textile sources that come in predictable rolls of fabric before being sewn into bags, “we have no rolled material and have to make sure the product looks good before we cut it,” explains Alec, highlighting one of the company’s unique quality control challenges. Because the vinyl reaches Rareform in piles rather than neat, orderly rolls and has spent time exposed to the elements, the team has to carefully examine and hand-pick the best pieces. “We pride ourselves on of our logistics,” says Alec.

The billboards are then cut and sewn into bags at one of the brand’s owned or contracted facilities in the U.S. For Rareform, producing in the States is simple because the raw goods are here. But Avedissian explains, the same reason he loves billboards is the reason he can hate them: No two are alike, which creates production hurdles.

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Domestic sourcing and manufacturing allows the company to turn products around faster and scale production, which helps with cash flow and gives Rareform flexibility they might not have if they waited for product to arrive from overseas. Avedissian explains, “the surfbags, snowboard bags, and totes—the real backbone of the company—are produced here, while smaller items, such as iPhone cases or molded products are produced overseas.”

And while logistics are at the heart of Rareform’s operations, education plays a key role in the brand’s marketing. “People don’t know what billboards are made of, so we want to be a story-driven brand, and communicate [the story] to retailers and consumers,” says Alec. “We want to show them why recycled billboards make for good bags.” The business has been growing steadily, and Alec says the growing retailer network, including Quicksilver, and requests for collaborative designs are a mark of the brand’s growing success.

This year Rareform will be launching an art live series, for which it will choose an artist to design a billboard in L.A. Once the billboard has run its advertising course, people will be able to buy products from that specially designed billboard. The brand is also introducing a messenger bag. Alec explains, “our dad taught us to surf, and we sort of fell into the business through surfing.” And while Rareform can take its upcycling process into other materials, the brothers say they plan to stay focused on billboards. “There isn’t too much we can do in L.A. in terms of getting rid of them, but we can at least keep them out of the landfills.”