Jan Chipchase - Discreet gear for discerning travellers


SDR Traveller founder Jan Chipchase relies on Dyneema® for the deliberately low-key looking luggage and accessories the brand creates for the discerning global traveller.

Please introduce yourself and what you do.
JC: I’m the founder of Studio D, a small research, design and strategy studio based out of San Francisco. We help clients with a global remit to better understand what is happening in the world, and specialize in working in challenging environments. I’m also the founder of SDR Traveller, supplier of ultralight, strong and very discreet luggage and accessories.

SDR Traveller seems to deliberately fly under the radar, creating very specific and quite exclusive items in limited runs. What led you to creating the brand?
JC: A bit of background. The studio runs human behavioral research. For example this year we were on the ground in countries like Myanmar, Saudi Arabia, Somaliland and Zimbabwe amongst others. Over the years we have built up a good understanding of what motivates people, and how this is likely to impact decision-making in any given context. The focus of the studio’s work ranges from ultrahigh net worth individuals in Mumbai to slum dwellers in Chongqing and pretty much everything in between. We also spend a lot of time at the edge of the electrical/cellular/data grid. Field work requires travel up to half of each year. Despite trying out pretty much every form of luggage, nothing quite hit the spot.

“We appreciate the gear is specialized and are fine with that”

In 2011 I commissioned a custom duffel (the D1) from an ultralight Dyneema® Composite Fabric (then Cuben Fiber) manufacturer with a view to creating a single piece of luggage that: had sufficient capacity for a month on the road; deflected people’s attention to what was inside; minimized the risk of theft; supported versatile carrying styles; and was ultralight and indestructible. I used it for a year’s intensive travel to understand how it performed under different conditions, before starting to iterate the design (the D2).

Another year later and friends were asking whether I could make them one, so we made a limited run (by then, the D3) and had ten paying beta testers. They filed trip reports into a document that we referred to as the D3 Owners Manual, and gathered real-world feedback on every aspect of the design. This gave me the confidence to invest in production.

In the studio we’re mostly working to our clients’ tight deadlines. We decided early on that, with SDR Traveller, we’d take as much time as it required to figure out the properties and value of products before bringing them to market. We’re comfortable designing for our own, very distinct travel needs. For example drawing on the unique insight into the the psychology of packing, even if this limits our market.

Can you provide an example of that?
JC: Sure. We run a lot of street research, which can be run-of-the-mill in a city like Tokyo, but requires a heightened sense of spatial awareness in a city like Jalalabad in Afghanistan, close to the Pakistan border. In that environment where you’re obviously the foreigner in their midst, body language, posture, speed, whether to make eye contact, what you carry, how you carry it, all provide cues as to who you are and what you’re doing there. Whether you’re a friend or a threat, who you might represent. It’s not just about learning to read the street, but in knowing how the street is going to read you. The consequences of being wrong range from trivial things like being socially blanked, to the more serious such as being kidnapped.

We appreciate the gear is specialized and are fine with that. There’s not too many people who do what we do, although a fair amount of people aspire to have a lifestyle of continuous, paid, travel.

Can you share anything about the people using SDR Traveller products? What kind of people are they generally?
JC: Our core customers travel extensively, find themselves in diverse situations—from the mountain trail to the boardroom—and are willing to invest in luggage that will function exceptionally well in these contexts. They include company founders, directors, and a lot of folks from the design and start-up world. We also have a subset of customers that have an extreme value for privacy.

Why do they come to you and how do they use your bags?JC: This first year has been word of mouth. Our customers travel enough to appreciate that we offer a specialised product. We only sell online, and our social media presence is limited to light postings on @SDRtraveller on Instagram and a closed @SDRtraveller Twitter account where we’re a little more experimental. Our outreach is enough to give a good social media strategist heart palpitations, if we had one—we’re on the lookout for the right person for this role. In fairness, we also wanted to give ourselves time to figure out what SDR Traveller wants to be, and to tell our story, at our own pace.

How did you arrive at a Dyneema® composite fabric as the ideal material for use in your bags?
JC: When scouting around for someone to build the first prototypes, I spent a lot of time learning from the products of ultralight pioneers such as ZPacks and Hyperlite Mountain Gear, and more recently Japanese brands such as and wander. We also prototype with the collect apply folks out of Kyoto - they have a nuanced appreciation of materiality, that also comes through in the designs.

Could you tell us a bit about how you incorporated Dyneema® and about the results?
JC: In keeping with our philosophy of simplicity, we wanted to see how far we could go with a limited swatch of materials. It’s built with Dyneema® from the ground up.

The D3 is made of two layers of Dyneema® —enough to make two duffels— with one layer suspended inside the other. This adds protection; the air gap adds structural support; and it maintains a relaxed finish, even when fully packed. Visibly overstuffed luggage draws unwanted eye. Cost isn’t an issue for our customers.

Please give us an insight into what the process is like when working with a material as strong as Dyneema®.
JC: We rely heavily on the expertise of the workshop team, and their experience of working on ultralight, engineering-driven designs. Over time, as we’ve also come to appreciate how it wears, we’ve been experimenting.

If you could come up with the ultimate Dyneema® fabric for your bags, what would it be like?
JC: For now, that’s a private conversation.

Outside of how you use it, what other possibilities do you see for a material with such specific properties?
JC: There’s good potential for emergency shelters.

And finally, would you share with us which innovations outside of your immediate field you're most excited about at the moment?
JC: Autonomous mobility is a significant enabler. The question-shaping the next decade is what it enables and for whom.

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