OTC Endorses: ETWAS Bags

This article was originally written in 2010 after Will Lisak, founder of ETWAS Bags first got in touch with OTC.  It was in the form of a challenge.

Will commented on a post about Jack Bauer’s bag, from the television show “24,” stating that his bag was tougher than Jack’s. After getting to know more about Will and his company, ETWAS, German for “something,” we had little reason to doubt.

So, it was with satisfaction that we recently saw Will and his bags profiled in Issue 2 if the outstanding new menswear and lifestyle magazine, Port.  It’s a wonderful examination of this prolific and highly principled guy, focusing on Will’s absolute commitment to long-term style and minimal impact.

Some brands talk about civic and social good, ETWAS smacks you across the face with it.  More than that, Will backs it up all the way, as you will see below.  And, by the way, these clean, classic, modern bags are outstanding.

So, with ETWAS’ belated but growing appreciation among the style/craftsman/heritage cognoscenti, OTC is happy to remind everyone that we knew all this way back when.

Will is a graphics design graduate whose dad taught him how to make small leather goods while growing up in western Pennsylvania. In fact, the tannery near his childhood home is where Will now gets the exceptionally fine and thick hides for his ETWAS bags.

A pragmatic guy, Will designed his original bag to simply fit a need at hand. He wanted a bike bag that served the practical purpose of carrying stuff while reflecting his aesthetic and environmental concerns.

Will tells OTC, “I wanted to create my ideal bag, not something was going to be dated in a few years.” The resulting prototype was simple, plain, sturdy and functionally stylish. It’s reminiscent of a classic dispatch case but also embodies distinct elements of a messenger bag.

Two narrow but sturdy straps secure a single, giant compartment. On either end of the bag, D-rings provide additional functionality. The solid brass hardware is sturdy but simple, almost discreet. On the front of the bag, those two straps can also be used to store a small notebook or folded newspaper.

The bag’s body consists of three pieces: the center wrap that creates the front, back, bottom and top flap; and the two side panels. This clean, almost minimalist design creates the illusion of compactness, but don’t be fooled. It’s actually a big bag. The overall message this bag sends is one of near-familiarity. You think you recognize it, but quickly realize that, no, it’s something different.

What’s also distinctive is its inherent imperfection. Since it’s entirely handmade – no machines whatsoever – there is a rustic roughness to the bag’s finishing. The edges are raw, except on the darker stained versions.  On the leather’s unfinished underside, you may very well spot template markings from when the maker went a bit off course.

So, each bag bears the nuances and hallmarks of the person who made it. My own bag’s minimal idiosyncrasies don’t bother me at all. Quite the opposite; I often wonder about the craftsman who made it. Because of the personal nature of their construction, each bag takes about five hours to make; the connection between maker and owner is almost tangible.

The real star of this bag is the outstanding leather that Will sources. Thick and stiff, it takes time to wear in and though it will never really soften in the traditional sense, it will conform to the owner’s body and ease over time. It’s just beautiful stuff – from, as it turns out, a tannery close to where he grew up. The regular compliments I receive are evenly split between the bag’s overall look and the leather itself.

When you buy an ETWAS bag, you are investing in the kind of manufacture that is the antithesis of name brand large-scale production. While not inexpensive, with the original version starting at $600.00, Will could easily charge much more based on material and labor costs alone. With ETWAS, you are buying outstanding durability, one of a kind design and a genuine belief in keeping local, staying green and dedication to quality.

Will’s commitment to thoughtful production is evident in the fact that there is no ETWAS factory. Work is primarily done in a Brooklyn co-op facility. But everything needed to make an ETWAS bag can be found in the Design Box, a totally portable workshop that allows each craftsman to set up shop wherever he happens to be.  It’s more of a collective effort than it is a traditional start-up.

The individual leather worker is the brawn that crafts every bag by hand. And by handmade, I mean no machines at all; not even for the Goodyear stitching on saddle-thick leather end panels.

They use a reinforced palm cushion to help drive a giant needle through the hide – no easy task. And true to his green beliefs they don’t even use any artificial lighting. When the sun goes down, they’re done for the day.

There are now three models available, the original Standard #1, a more compact version called the Light Pack and a tool bag-cum-purse.  Will is working to get his bags into more stores in Manhattan and to increase the brand’s online awareness. OTC wishes him luck and is honored to be an ETWAS kind of guy.

To learn more about ETWAS the company and its dedication to low-impact manufacturing, environmental sustainability and craftsmanship, please visit the company’s website.

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OTC Recommends: The Leather Document Folio

Most of us regularly tote around briefcases, computer or messenger bags, rucksacks and even the odd updated map case.  The bag, long a fixation of mine, is a staple in many guys’ lives.  And bags seem to be everywhere – more so than in the past, really.  We have more to carry around and and often want less of it in our pockets.

However, the simple task of transporting papers and a file or two in style can leave many of us at a loss.  Whether a business meeting or the simple desire to pare down and try something with functional flair, that gray space between bag and manila folder is sometimes tricky.

To whit, I offer you the the leather document folio.  Simple, elegant, clean and actually quite versatile.

Whether you’re jetting off to Paris or sitting down for a three o’clock staff meeting, your accessories should always be stylish and well thought out. While there are a variety of folio styles, the zippered style that opens up on three sides is a favorite of mine.  It lays flat on a table and allows for quick access.  I also like the classic larger under arm “college professor” folio.

True, folios have limited space and can never really compete with the functionality of a messenger bag or roomy elegance of a soft sided brief bag. You always have to hold it, or tuck it under your arm, and often there is no outside slash pocket for a paper or metro pass.  But such limitations are to me a big part of their charm.

By necessity I am forced to shed most of the stuff I habitually carry around but never really use.  It is simplification by requirement.

There are variety of other formats when it comes to leather folios, from a simple, single zippered pocket to the stylistic flair of an envelope style tuck-in flap.  Some are wider, to accommodate a little more – maybe a thin laptop, iPad or book.  The variety is endless, and that’s what makes them so interesting and useful.  For example, my Jack Spade banker’s envelope is just one big pocket, while an older folio from Italy contains a beautifully crafted selection of sleeves and pockets.

What to carry? A wallet.  A phone. A pad, a pen, some calling or business cards, and a few important documents should do the job.

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I grew up sailing 420s on Long Island Sound and still have a real love of the water. Sailing, as with many physically challenging sports, makes you appreciate the quality and construction of your equipment and accessories.

For example, Sperry topsiders are beloved by sailors because they actually work well and last. They look pretty good too, especially after being waterlogged a couple of dozen times.

Storage is another big issue, and a good bag is worth its weight in waterproof sailcloth. There are several companies that manufacture tote and duffel bags out of recycled sailcloth – my wife has a cool one with the original number “4” stitched on the side.

But only one company, True Wind, is manufacturing its bags out of brand new Dacron sailcloth, the same stuff that is normally turned into the sails that power some of the world’s top racing boats. From the ground up, True Wind’s bags are uniquely designed and built like tanks.  They were kind enough to send me a Port Laptop bag for testing and review some time ago and after months of use, it’s holding up incredibly well.  What goes into the bag is what makes it so durable.

Their sailcloth is custom woven in Ireland by Hood Sailmakers, the world’s oldest Dacron sailcloth manufacturer, and the only sailmaker in the world that weaves its own cloth.

Hood’s legacy goes back to its founder, the legendary yachtsman Ted Hood, and was the first company in the world to use man-made fiber (Dacron) in sailmaking. Almost from the beginning, Hood sailcloth has been the cloth of choice for some of the largest and most prestigious cruising, classic, and racing yachts in the world.

For True Wind, using custom woven sailcloth gives them total control over the cloth’s color, hand and finish. In production terms, that means the cloth is of consistent high-quality from one bag to the next. Speaking of production, each bag is made individually by hand, and completely made in America.

The price point for True Wind bags is higher than some other sail cloth bags, but as owner Meredith Marquis pointed out to me, you really get what you pay for. Premium materials and attentive domestic production make these bags legitimate heirlooms.  And True Wind is a genuine family business; Meredith and her brother Roger who grew up sailing of the coast of Long Island, founded and still run the company.

Everything that goes into Marquis’ bags is well thought out. The solid brass hardware even comes from the same manufacturer that produces for Coach. All of the other materials, right down to the thread, is marine-grade and of the highest quality.

From a design perspective, True Wind’s bags are genuinely unique. The distinctive stripe pattern takes its inspiration from maritime signal flags; “Y” to be exact. Most of the recycled bag brands all use the same design of numbers and draft stripes, which are the thin strips of color that go across a sail to help the sailor see the shape of the sail. While this random element of “found design” can be appealing, sometimes those bags can take on too-rustic a look.

Lastly, since True Wind’s sailcloth material is brand new and its bags purpose-built, I feel that I could beat the heck out of one and not worry about it. Bags made out of recycled sailcloth are, to me, more of a fashion item – perfect for a cool tote bag, but perhaps not for a duffel bag headed towards an airline baggage handler.

To learn more about True Wind bags, check out the company’s website. By the way, their bags make a great holiday gift and can be monogrammed.

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A Classic: The Canvas Tote

I have a lifelong appreciation for designs that respect a product’s utilitarian roots.

Classic and traditional styles have always done that. In fact, the hallmark of the true preppy aesthetic is the re-purposing of utilitarian items for everyday life: foul weather gear becomes a fashion statement, prep school ties and jackets appear in the office, and the steamer trunk great uncle Dan used at Yale is now a snazzy coffee table at the beach house.

A great example of this approach to life – utilitarian yet stylish – is the canvas tote bag. The most famous version of this functional workhorse is made by L.L. Bean. In fact, L.L. Bean literally invented the canvas tote bag category. The bag was originally developed to carry blocks of ice (back in the day when block ice was used to keep foods fresh in the ice box).

A nicely aged tote

From these humble beginnings, the bag quickly became recognized for its simple yet elegant functionality. L.L. Bean started to offer the canvas tote in a smaller version and called it the “boat & tote.” It was perfect for lugging around sailing and boating items and the more abuse it suffered the better it looked. So began the WASPy affinity for this multipurpose wonder.

As the Official Preppy Handbook cheekily pointed out, every New England family has several of these lying around the house. In some ways, these canvas totes are a sort of status symbol. That you know what these bags represent – where to get them, the history, even the perceived lifestyle they imply – makes them recognized and desirable.

Heritage Research, a workwear inspired British brand, even convinced L.L. Bean to produce a limited run of the original 30oz cotton duck ice tote bag.

Courtesy of Selectism.com

The L.L. Bean canvas tote bag has been liberally copied by many competitors. The basic design has even been reinterpreted by suppliers to Wall Street brokerage houses and white shoe law firms. Their logoed bags, given as employee gifts or awards, have become New York chic collector items. Go figure.

It is not uncommon to see these bags on the subway commuting to work with their owners. They are neutrally appealing and bring a bit of the outdoors to the office without being at all kitschy. The midsized L.L. Bean version is perfectly proportioned to hold everyday stuff along with lunch or a morning bagel.

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Jack’s New Bag, Courtesy of Ralph Lauren

As most of OTC’s readers know, I am a bag guy. I commute to work by train, which of course necessitates a good bag, but I also have a thing about carrying too much stuff on my person.

The search for the elusive perfect guy bag has been, and continues to be, a mission of mine. I have had some successes – Jack Spade’s Canvas Day Bag is a great option, as is Ghurka’s classic and pricey Examiner.

I have also written on the most famous of all man bags, Indiana Jones’ modified British Mark VII gas mask bag.

Jack Bauer (Keifer Sutherland), of the television show “24”, has done a lot to bring the man bag back to the forefront. The original “Jack sack”, as Bauer’s varying bags came to be called, became a cult hit. Inexpensive and readily available, it’s also a great bag in real life; roomy, good pockets, durable and classically functional looking.

The original Jack Sack

I received a number of requests to track down the identity of the current season-eight bag. This one is leather and a bit more fancy than Jack’s typical military inspired bags. So, I went strait to the 24-obsessed experts at The Jack Sack and now have the answer. It’s from Ralph Lauren.

Season 8’s bag of choice

The bag is the Double RL leather Mail Bag and based on the classic American letter carrier bag. Only a few months ago I had this very same bag in my hand while on a visit to the Ralph Lauren store in Georgetown. I really liked it, but at nearly $900, I gave it a pass.

Ralph Lauren also makes a more elegant version of the bag in the form of their Deerfield Leather mail bag, but that one is priced around $1,200.
The leather on this one, however, is amazing.

Ralph Lauren’s Deerfield

The original reinterpretation of this iconic work satchel was made by J. Peterman and is still available at less painful $300. A few years ago I tested this bag, a gift to me from John Peterman, and it’s still one of my all-time favorites.

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