Style | Swellboy

Swellboy on… the grande luxe washbag

How airport security could become an opportunity to show off one’s excellent taste

Swellboy on… the grande luxe washbag

June 16 2011
Nick Foulkes

I am not a huge fan of air travel – strange, really, since I seem to do a fair bit of it. It is probably a deep human failing, but somehow I cannot summon Tyler Brûlé’s enthusiasm when faced with phalanxes of duty-free booze and Toblerone, fighting it out for my attention with Prada handbags and iPads.

Nor am I a huge fan of the security arrangements that are in place to stop people like me trying to blow up aeroplanes. I once had a very long discussion with a young man at Geneva airport who was convinced that there was a metal shank in my shoe – whereas I was equally adamant that Eric Cook had never used a metal shank in any of the pairs he had made for me. I must remind myself that in future there is little point discussing bespoke shoemaking techniques with airport staff.

On the whole I have resigned myself to being a passive victim of modern screening – standing there in my socks clutching my unbelted or unbraced trousers waiting to pass through the metal detector and on to a frisk (one day I would like to arrive at the airport in my pyjamas and dressing gown). However, there are moments of Archimedean epiphany, such as the one when I realised that instead of submitting to the tyranny of the zip-up transparent bag I could instead see it as an opportunity to come up with an elegant solution that would enhance my life.

More often than not, the elucidation of higher truths takes place in the company of men of taste. Mark Birley and the “silent” tapestry-covered backgammon board is one example; my encounter with Arnaud Bamberger and, more particularly Arnaud’s washbag, was definitely another.

As Cartier’s man in Britain, Arnaud can draw upon the resources of the Richemont Group at any time. Think of him, if you will, as a Francophone James Bond on assignment to our barbarous island off the northern coast of Europe, with the Richemont Group’s artisans as his Q Department, busy knocking up all manner of objets de luxe to take the sting out of life.

Anyway, I had reason to be in Cartier the other day; I was admiring a secondhand London Cartier Pebble Watch from the early 1970s, when Arnaud dragged me excitedly into his office to show off his latest objet, a bespoke (overused as it is, there is no other word) washbag made for him at Dunhill’s factory in Walthamstow, east London. It was gorgeous, and I mean gorgeous, a beautiful piece of luggage in miniature – but what was really inspiring was the transparent pocket inside; the seed from which an idea grew.

I had been to the Dunhill leather works in Walthamstow and I have to say that I was impressed – the only drawback is that it is, well, in Walthamstow. I have nothing against E17; it is just that it is rather a long way to cycle from Swellboy Towers in fragrant W12. It seems that I was not alone in finding that Walthamstow was not in the West End, so Dunhill has very cleverly decided to relocate Walthamstow, or at least one of the workshop’s top craftsmen, Tomasz Nosarzewski, with his bench and his leathers, to Bourdon House, the global epicentre of Dunhillness.

I had come to the conclusion that what the world needed – oh, all right; what I needed, with an urgency and imperativeness seldom experienced – was a zip-up transparent washbag that redefined the genre. I am not a man to do things by halves and the idea I had was so radical that I called upon Dunhill’s panjandrum of hard product, soft product and sur mesure, the legendary Carol Pierce, to be present at the meeting. And so it was that one bright morning I found myself on the upper floor of Dunhill discussing the merits and colour fastness of chrome versus vegetable-tanned leather and the type of transparent plastic that would be required.

After about half an hour, during which I ransacked the entire stock of Dunhill bags from the cavernous to the merely capacious, we settled upon a shape and set of dimensions and a leather colour – I opted for English bridle, not out of any latent patriotism, but because it would wear better. I have yet to see if it will work; however I am confident that it will transform the tedium of the airport security X-ray machine into a 24-carat opportunity to show off.

The only thing is that, knowing my luck, the war on terror will be over by the time my al-Qaeda-compliant grande luxe washbag is ready.