Canvassing opinion

Neatly fusing function with authenticity and eye-catching good looks, canvas bags are now must-carries for savvy urbanites of both sexes. Elisa Anniss reports.

September 06 2010
Elisa Anniss

Until now, the ability to age well and develop a patina was probably the least important characteristic of a “man bag”. But as waxed cotton clothing becomes sought-after, canvas bags with a utilitarian, almost weathered appearance are turning the heads of savvy urbanites. These men, and to a lesser extent women, prize a new understated aesthetic, and are increasingly interested in the provenance of their accessories.

Country sports brands such as Brady, Chapman and Filson are no longer the sole preserve of traditional outfitters. In fact, like a Perthshire salmon, these labels have leapt to a new life in places such as Shoreditch in London, Mitte in Berlin and Downtown Manhattan.

According to Karl Heinz-Muller, the owner of menswear and womenswear store 14oz in Berlin, busy businessmen have developed a penchant for luggage and bags by Filson. “They like the brand because it’s authentic and long-lasting,” he says.

“The Brady Ariel Trout fishing bag [from £125] is a great bit of kit,” explains financial marketing consultant Alex Legge, a keen fly fisherman who also appreciates the metropolitan relevance of his beloved bag. “It’s as useful in the fast currents of the River Findhorn as it is pedalling back from work on a rainy day. There is nothing delicate about this bag – it’s reliably robust and beautifully made of canvas and leather, with a rubber lining that saves its contents from getting wet.”

Former bankers Daniel Chamier and Nigel Costain have been navigating this sea change in fashion ever since they bought traditional bag company John Chapman, complete with a Cumbrian factory and a vast archive of designs. Because the bags are built to last and the company offers a repair service, most fishing fanatics won’t be replacing their bags with the kind of frequency needed to sustain a 21st-century business. So the savvy pair have expanded the range to include bags for laptops and files, totes and shopping bags, picnic bags and backpacks.

The customer base might have broadened but the famous Chapman quality remains unchanged – as does its take on canvas. “The word ‘canvas’ is a bit of a misnomer,” says Chaumier. “Traditionally, it referred to a material made from jute or hemp used for sails or tents. Today, it’s a generic term that means all sorts of things,” he continues, adding that the bonded cotton canvas that Chapman uses (two layers of cotton drill with natural rubber latex sandwiched in between), and not waxed cotton, is the traditional material for this category of products.

Many dedicated brands have a compelling story to tell. Founded in 1999, US accessories company Billykirk specialises in bags that use waxed cotton, waxed twill and cotton duck canvas. It taps into the heritage-brands craze on both sides of the Atlantic, employing Amish workers in Pennsylvania to craft its product. “The Amish make the shoulder straps and hand-stitched luggage tags for our travel bags and laptop cases,” says Chris Bray, one of Billykirk’s founders.

Bray believes that there’s a growing interest in genuine, laboured-over products with provenance. It’s also the theme behind a new book by Kurt B Reighley, United States of Americana (Harper Collins). “Reighley hits on this resurgence of workwear and durable, outdoor gear that was primarily used by blue-collar workers, hunters and fisherman,” explains Bray. With Billykirk, he and his co-founders have looked to their youth spent in Minnesota – hunting ducks on lakes, using gear that was “meant to be abused and stand the test of time”.

Alongside the companies with decades of heritage are those whose growth is down to a shift in social trends or appetite. Many of the stores and labels in London’s Shoreditch, for example, resonate with an experiential urban vibe and a 21st-century metropolitan mindset that is also nostalgic; fusing city with country, past with present. It’s an aesthetic that’s proving to be extremely seductive to a young but sophisticated clientele.

Labour and Wait in Redchurch Street is a modern-day East End retailer that abides by this principle. “The whole concept of Labour and Wait is to supply products that have evolved through their function, not overdesigned ‘fashion’ items,” explains co-owner Rachel Wythe-Moran, who opened the shop with Simon Watkins in 2000. To both men and women, it sells two styles by Brady – a fishing bag (the Large Ariel Trout Bag in triple-layered waterproof canvas, £145) and the Folio Bag (£110), a Brady archive design made exclusively for Labour and Wait.

Brady is also available nearby at Present on Shoreditch High Street, alongside a wide range of canvas bags from lesser-known labels – colourful knapsacks by Yuketen, shoppers by Canadian label Want Les Essentiels de la Vie, as well as totes and document cases by Danish company Mismo.

A few steps away is Ally Capellino’s Calvert Avenue boutique, with a tongue-and-groove interior that’s as utilitarian and considered as her waxed cotton bags. “Our customer hates flash; they’d take a label off, even if it’s inside,” says Alison Lloyd, the designer behind the brand whose ethos is understatement. Since 2008 she has also collaborated with Apple on a signature accessories line, AO Ally Capellino, which includes cotton canvas rucksacks (£140), holdalls (£145) and satchels for laptops (from £125). Lloyd started out designing clothing but shifted to bags, mostly in waxed cotton, in 2000, when the concept of the “man bag” was in its infancy.

“The reason I like the material is that it looks leathery and responds to wear and tear – it’s alive,” she says, citing the Frank (£199) and Timothy (£196) designs as favourites in her core Waxy collection. “Women buyers came first; men were resistant to bags back then. However, over the past three years the bags have become more popular with men than with women. Because it’s a look that remains consistent, men keep coming back for more.”

Many of the male customers are creatives who work in design, graphics or architecture, whereas the female customer is more varied. She could be in the legal profession, carrying documents in an Ally Capellino bag. Going forward, Lloyd is diversifying with a collection called Mrs Waxy (from £140) – washable bags aimed at yummy mummies. And in 2011 there will also be panniers: “A lot of our customers cycle every day but they don’t wear all the Lycra gear,” she says.

Cycle accessories are also a growth area for Brooks, best known for its leather saddles. The collection of London-inspired bags – the Brick Lane roll-up panniers (€195) or the Camden tote bag (€99) that fits snugly within the Hoxton wire basket (€125) – have an aura of provenance and functionality. Two years ago, the company decided to create modern designs in polyurethane-impregnated canvas inspired by its archives. Every bag has design features with the urban cyclist in mind.

“In uncertain economic times a consumer gravitates towards purchases that will stand the test of time,” explains Ed Burstell, Liberty’s new managing director. “Right now anyone with a real heritage is exploiting it, while everyone else is busy manufacturing one.”

Men’s outfitters such as Albam, Aubin & Wills and Hackett have their own branded versions of traditional canvas or waxed bags. Hackett has taken its inspiration for the quilting of its Rally collection from its classic paddock jacket, the outer shells being in 100 per cent waxed cotton from the British company Millerain. Prices start at £180 for a messenger bag. Aubin & Wills, meanwhile, uses water-resistant canvas in its Saddlescombe pannier (£69).

“Alongside the trend for waxed cotton in fashion, these items are part of the new ‘authenticity’,” continues Burstell. “And they simply get better with age.”

See also

Bags, Handbags