Blair Kemp of FSP Outdoors Talks about Building a One-Person Bag-Making Brand, Why Bags Become Sentimental Objects, and How His Obsession Has Released All Forms of Creativity

Blair Kemp started making bags out of necessity. He was at his mom's house in the Western Mountains of Maine about to go on a trip. So, he watched some videos, took out his mom's sewing machine, and made a duffle bag. Over the years, that experience turned into an obsession and he has evolved from making bags for himself into FSP Outdoors, a single-person designer/maker of bags and accessories made for a life of heavy use. 

We spoke with Blair about his appreciation for outdoor spaces, how necessity morphed into obsession, and his favorite projects at the moment.

Have you always loved the outdoors?
I grew up in the rural Western Mountains of Maine where outdoors was kind of the only option. When I was young I did a lot of hiking, skiing, fishing, and hunting, but never had a true appreciation for the outdoors. A deep respect for the wonders of the natural world came later in life, through the discovery of new outdoor activities and time spent learning, sitting, and thinking.

How has your relationship with the outdoors changed as you've gotten older?
I am much more captivated by nature now. It used to be that activities like camping, climbing, surfing, and skating were the spark to get me outside. Now, more and more, I am content just being outside and appreciating wherever I am for what it is.

Why did you start to make bags?
When I was between the ages of 17 and 25, I traveled working for a touring band. That experience made me have a backpack on all the time, as well as live out of a bag for months on end. I became attached to certain bags and forms of organization. One week while visiting my Mom in rural Maine, I got her sewing machine and made a duffel bag. Then, it kind of just spiraled from there.

How did making a duffle bag out of necessity develop into an obsession?
It was a slow evolution from wanting to make a bag for myself to making bags for friends to thinking maybe I can sell bags to realizing selling bags is fucking hard. The obsession evolved fast from just designing and sewing bags to trying to figure out marketing, web design, creative direction, brand identity, and it sort of just turned into an all-consuming puzzle to solve. The end goal of the puzzle is sewing and designing bags for a living but there is so much more involved. The pieces aren’t all there yet but the hope that someday I’ll be able to put it all together is what keeps me obsessed.

Do you still make all FSP Outdoors bags yourself? How has your operation changed with time?

I make them all myself. The operation hasn’t changed that much really – I’ve upgraded machines and methods but that’s kind of it. I still don’t have nearly the variety of tools and machines that most manufacturers would have. My business model has changed in the last few months. Prior to this year, everything was made to order. Now, I’m releasing bags in batches. It allows more time to focus on a collection rather than just keeping my head above water fulfilling orders. We’ll see how it works.

Could you talk about the name of your brand? What about Fansipan left such an impression on you?

Fansipan is a mountain in Vietnam I visited with a friend before meeting a tour in Australia. It was impactful because it was a transitional time in my life. I had made my first big backpacking bag for that trip. I was testing it during a month in Vietnam backpacking, and a month on tour in Australia and South East Asia. I came home with a lot of pictures from the mountains in Sapa where Fansipan is. While looking through the pictures, Fansipan was painted on all the buildings, and it looked cool. It represented this grand abstract thing. While reading about the mountain, I read that the top was almost always covered in clouds so you never have a view, I liked that metaphor for the journey not the destination or some bullshit like that. Since then, I’ve steered away from using Fansipan at all because it got annoying when everyone thought I was making fancy pants. Now the brand is FSP Outdoors. FSP is used as an acronym for different words until they become boring. Currently FSP stands for Fantasy Sport Packs.

How are your bags not only an expression of functionality but also of your values?
I think there is some overlap there. My goal is to make an item that someone will grow attached to because of amazing experiences they share with that item. There is too much waste in this world and basically everything is fucked. But if I can encourage meaningful experiences and offer something that’s designed to last forever, is beautiful, and makes life easier, a person will grow attached to it. They will never want to throw it away and that can keep waste out of landfills and oceans.

Is there something about bags that makes them more likely to become sentimental objects?
Personally, sentimental objects are related to memory, and I put a lot of value on memories made with people I love in new places. When you travel, or explore, or are just immersed in new experiences a bag is usually a necessity, and those memories are imprinted on the bag, too.

I've read that FSP Outdoors has not only allowed you to pursue an obsession for making bags but has also served as a vehicle for other important projects to you. Could you describe what FSP Outdoors means more holistically to you?
FSP has given me a platform to release all forms of creativity. Photo, video, planning projects, designing, and just a reason to do things with friends and make new friends all over the world. It’s also given me a reason to do beach clean ups, fundraisers, and go on countless hikes and climbs to test out new products. It truly means everything to me and has changed the way I see the world.

Of the bags you're making now, which is your favorite? Why?
It’s always the newest one. Currently, that’s the redesigned Lo Alpine Day Pack. It has my attention right now. As I am making the bags for this collection for Hatchet Outdoor Supply Co., this daypack is a bag I’ve been meaning to redesign for a while, and it’s finally getting my attention and I really like the way it came together. I also got new fabric from Challenge Sailcloth that’s 100% recycled polyester and working with this new material has been exciting. It makes me feel better to use fabric that is technical, but not virgin-plastics-based material. It also uses a nontoxic glue to bind the waterproof layer so that’s a big plus as well.
As far as a general favorite, the Travel Roll is my favorite product. I think it makes organizing items so easy and convenient for general travel, camping, and everyday life. That’s the one product I wish everyone would try.

Follow FSP Outdoors for the latest creations and adventures and come by our Brooklyn shop for the FSP Outdoors pop-up from May 14th - 21st with an opening reception from 1:00 pm till 6:00 pm on the 14th.

Photos by Reggie McCafferty

Interview by Storr Erickson