Movement is a common theme in conversation with Jules Saint Gerome. Softly spoken and politely intense, he speaks in a stream of consciousness that mirrors the passing wake of a sailing boat. Ripples of nuance and insight that link a peripatetic working life with a thoughtful consideration for how we engage with our natural environment and the challenges this can bring. Playful in his questioning of the human condition, Jules draws on a rich raft of experience when describing the origins of his bike bag brand; the name chosen as a reference to the Italian mountaineer Reinhold Messner’s championing of an ascent of Everest ‘by fair means’ without recourse to supplementary oxygen.
‘I grew up in the Australian outback,’ Jules explains. ‘By the age of 7 I was rounding up livestock and spending most of my time outside, alone. And I suppose Fairmean originated in this pretty much unbounded environment.’
It was while majoring in sculpture at the Royal Institute of Technology in Australia that Jules bought various examples of 1950s furniture that he could refurbish before selling on; discovering during the process of deconstructing and reupholstering that he was subconsciously reinterpreting the designs as he went along. A creative approach to life that’s encompassed opening a café in Melbourne, a move to London and time spent in a motion graphics studio before another relocation to Tokyo where Jules enrolled in film school. The idiosyncrasies of train travel in Japan providing the inspiration for the first iteration of the Fairmean bike bag.
‘For me, the design process starts with desire. My first steps with road biking go back to when I had someone visiting me in Japan. I’d bought an old 80s racer – super minimal in the sense of two steel triangles – and once I’d experienced riding it with my friend in the mountains I was encouraged to do more. And then somebody lent me a bag so I could travel with my bike but it proved to be totally inadequate. Too bulky and difficult to use. I could have put my bike on the roof of a car and driven out of the city. But it’s really something to just leave the house, spin down to the station and an hour later you’re climbing a mountain luggage free. So one of the biggest challenges was the antagonistic relationship riders had with the use of these bags. Traditionally just a square of black nylon with some straps, invariably difficult to use and even, in some cases, causing damage to your bike.’
‘I knew there was no reason why the bag couldn’t fit inside a jersey pocket and the process of easily covering and uncovering the bike would enable you to get on and off a train without difficulty. So I started with a mouthful of pins, some paper, a bike on the table and a desire to travel in a fluid, smooth manner. I used to sail so I’ve spent a lot of time around fabric; considering what it can be and do. A sewing machine and some silk and you’re jumping out of an aeroplane. You can cross an ocean or shelter from the elements on Everest.’
First with his own bike before making bags for the people he knew, Jules approached the problems and solutions dictated by different frame geometries and tyre sizes; the initial bags starting out as fully custom with a bike being dropped off at his house where he’d make a pattern before a fitting process that minimised the volume of material needed. Gradually over time Jules began to see ways of generalising the design without losing the distinctive silhouette – instinctively understanding that this served to identify the product without recourse to a brand name – with the design of each bag utilising every square centimetre of fabric and the form very much deriving from its function.
‘In the same way that Messner describes the act of climbing a mountain as so very elemental, any piece of equipment that allows you to travel unimpeded demands a certain respect. There’s nothing superfluous and this goes to the heart of the cycling experience itself.’
‘When I look at Fairmean,’ he continues, ‘and take a value analysis approach to try and understand my own brand, I suppose it comes down to asking what people are actually doing when they use my product? Simplistically they’re covering a bike and putting it on a train. But on another, deeper level, it’s about riding with other people; having, creating and sharing an authentic experience of making that journey. And it’s this idea of self-reliance that is super pertinent with regard to Fairmean because as a society we’re becoming increasingly reliant on things other than the self. I don’t necessarily mean technologically but also mentally. So the very core of what I do with Fairmean is to design and make products that augment travel and self-reliance in a minimal, direct way.’
Manufacturing every bag personally, Jules has considered adding other products to his Fairmean brand but, at present, believes his bike bag does something so very specific that he doesn’t want to diverge from this focus; to make something that somebody else has already created.
‘I’m the entire team [smiles]. But, in another sense, it’s me and everyone who uses the product. Every time someone purchases one of my bags it’s like an extension of this family. There’s times when I’ve changed the design of the bag after a particular piece of feedback but I see that as a strength.’
A collaboration with Rapha Japan led to Jules supplying several bags for the Tokyo and Osaka clubhouses before another relocation to where he’s now based just outside of Paris; Jules deciding to temporarily take down his Japanese website after the move to France so that it could be re-modelled. But the orders never slowed down with customers sending him messages through Instagram; the quirky nature of this current business model not lost on Jules when he considers more mainstream methods of marketing and sales.
‘I forward the product information as a PDF and we go from there. It’s ridiculous, crazy, archaic. In lots of ways it would be much easier to have a website where customers could simply choose a colour and size before hitting the ‘buy’ button. But by inserting this commercial layer I don’t get such an extended surface area of contact with people which I find invaluable. I get information that I wouldn’t necessarily be privy to if orders were placed online. I’m not going to know who you are, what you’re riding and where. And at this stage, it’s still not too extravagant to invest that sort of time with people.’
‘The challenge is scale,’ Jules points out. ‘Demand doesn’t like to move predictably so I like to keep a modest inventory. Maybe this attitude is holding me back but at the same time the initial responses to a product and a brand are not something you can buy or craft. So at the moment, at least in my mind, I’m still in that intimate phase of staying close to the people that are using my bags. A few iterations away from something I’d feel comfortable having several hundred units manufactured.’
‘The bag has changed a lot since the very beginning but it’s still hard to be satisfied with a standard range of bags if you want them to be lightweight and fitted without any excess fabric. Maybe it’s a little sadomasochistic but I’ve come this far and never had a bag returned. So it’s working and my customers are really satisfied with the bags I produce.’
In answer to who these customers are, Jules confirms that in Japan he still has strong links with the Rapha Cycling Club and their community of riders; very diverse but with a shared demographic. And as bike bags in one form or another have long been a utilitarian object due to the transit rules, Jules discovered his Fairmean version was quickly adopted but, in considering the transfer ride itself, he believes there’s a subtle difference between Japan and Europe in how people actually use his bag.
‘A typical scenario out of Tokyo would be a Saturday morning, family commitments later in the day, so you’re up at 5:00am to catch the train ready for some good riding. It sounds a little cliched but it’s very much about a compact experience; minimise the junk miles, maximise the good stuff. Europe is so super connected that my bags are used by people commuting between cities, even countries, for work. They might have a 3 day business trip and they’re planning on getting in some riding so they’ll want to take their bike with them on the train.’
At present his own riding centres around a twice-weekly trip into Paris and occasional loops through the forests surrounding his home; 160km there and back routes with a church spire forever on the horizon. Riding, as Jules terms it, where you need to go. With nothing in your head for a few hours save the simple pleasure of travelling through the landscape. Another reference to movement that’s picked up in one particular example from the cultural icons he chooses to feature on his Instagram feed.
‘I posted a portrait of Keith Richards because I feel he’s a beautiful example of how to make a living by being yourself. His authenticity – the turbulence that his ‘wake’ leaves behind – is so very thought provoking. And, for me, design should be that way too. An emotion; a movement through your own appreciations and fears and doubts. The challenges of Fairmean have always been my own limits. Simple limits like just being tired or coping with the occasional disappointment that design throws at you. But I look at Messner and, in a sense, he wasn’t climbing mountains but climbing the human experience. And Fairmean excites me because it’s a way to connect with people. Yes, it’s a business, but if you’re willing to limit your volume then you gain a degree of liberty. Maybe I’m idealistic but I’d like to think that’s possible.’
All images with kind permission of @leebasford except for the pink bag shot taken by @streetviper