If you’re feeling in the mood to look at pictures of things that carry stuff really well, look really great and feel really fantastic, well let me tell you, you’re in the right place. We caught up with James Kemp to tells us more about Bag N Noun, who we discovered through 3939 shop.
Read it after the leap.
SL: When did Bag ‘N’ Noun begin, and what was the inspiration behind it all?
JK: The “NOUN” in BAG’n’NOUN actually stands for “Necessary or Unnecessary”, and this is the name of a clothing brand that our founder, Takeshi Ozawa, started in the mid ’90’s. Before that, Takeshi had a boutique which specialised in rare 60’s clothing from the UK and a lot of French military surplus. This was back in the early 90’s. Anyway, back to the NOUN line- It’s a very simple European workwear/military/minimalist-inspired line of clothing- mostly for men, but we do have some women fans too. BAG’n’NOUN was an extension of that- Takeshi has always been a fan of bright colours, and bags and accessories were an area where he could really go to town. A big part of the bags is not only the design and the colour, but also the fabrics and components used. BAG’n’NOUN, as a bag collection, was launched exactly 5 years ago.
SL: How would you describe the ethos of Bag ‘N’ Noun?
JK: It’s to make bags which are not rational or logical, and to make carrying a bag fun. That first bit sounds a bit weird, but to give an example, black is a great colour for a bag. You can use it in dressy situations, in casual situations, and being black, the colour goes with anything. It’s a sensible colour for a bag.
That is exactly what Takeshi wants to avoid- he doesn’t consider these things when he designs his bags.
For the #11 Canvas Series for example, some of the colours are Ocean, Kelly, Mustard… bright, vivid colours that are truly fresh and very funky. Using one of these bags, napsacs or wallets is a lot of fun.
Takeshi also believes that a functional bag (multiple pockets, clips, knick-knacks etc) is something that you just can’t use for a long time. You get sick of it, your needs change (for example, you get rid of your laptop and start to use a tablet) and after a while it just becomes boring. He believes you should choose a bag with your heart (values) and not with your head (logic). If you do this, and you really like using the bag, it’s fun to use and well made, you’ll keep using it for years.
SL: At the time of writing, your website was warning of a “proliferation of poor quality copies” of your products. Why is Bag ‘N’ Noun so desirable to imitate but so difficult to copy – what is it that makes you so unique?
JK: I touched on this briefly before, but the reason is that the bags aren’t just a shape in a particular colour. The canvas used for example- depending on the model, there are 3 different grades of canvas, and then within the grades, different quality cotton- this is one thing that really makes them special. Takeshi designs the bags with the shape and the material he wants to use in mind- and this applies to the straps and handles too. You’ll notice that the leather used in the straps in the different series is actually a different thickness, different stiffness and a totally different leather.
When you use the bag, you are completely unaware that everything has been so considered- right down to the shape of the plastic cap on the drawstrings for example in the new 60/40 series which will be released at the end of September. Using the bags, touching them, carrying them, carrying your stuff with them everyday- it’s a really tactile experience and you’re communicating directly with the bag. When you *touch* one of the copies (which actually seemed to have died down, by the way) you instantly know that the level of quality, the detail in the stitching, the type of zipper used, the ropes for the drawstring- the level of quality just isn’t there.
SL: Often, it seems that manufacturers try to make a bag appealing by suggesting it has many different functions, with multiple compartments, pockets, pouches etc. Your bags, on the other hand, are extremely simple but very considered, so could it be said that the best bag is the one that exists for one particular function and executes it absolutely?
JK: That’s a really good point and there are some funny anecdotes there. I have a couple of the Toolbags which I use pretty extensively- I suggested to Takeshi that he should make a key-holder clip to conveniently hold keys, and an internal pocket for smartphones, and a pen-holder etc etc.
He just looked at me, was silent for a few seconds (with that look of “you just don’t get it, do you?!”) and then said helpfully, “well if you want something like that, go buy a Porter”.
One of our overseas retailers also suggested that the Napsac should have a lock on the drawstring (like what you find on a hiking backpack), but again, Takeshi’s response to this was that it’s the physical act of tying the knot, interacting with the bag- these things are more important than pure convenience. I think the whole concept of tying and wrapping is quite fundamental to Japanese culture- you just need to go to a Japanese department store to see how wrapping goods is almost an art.
Finally – the only function of a bag is to carry your stuff and keep it safe. If you can do this stylishly and in a fun way, then that’s all there is to it.
SL: Bag ‘N’ Noun products have always been produced in the city of Osaka. Just what is it about Osaka that made you want to produce your bags there – as opposed to any other Japanese city, or indeed, anywhere outside of Japan?
JK: I don’t think there was a specific, conscious decision to focus on Osaka- it all started very organically. Having said that though, Osaka has traditionally been a city of manufacturers and merchants, so there’s a lot of skill and knowledge here. Even today, the manufacturing sector is huge- spanning the range from hi-tech electronics, weather satellites, down to clothing and shoes. Takeshi was born in Osaka- he’s lived there all his life, and has known, through the fashion business, many small, family run factories that have made his clothing and accessories in the past. When he started the bags, it was just natural that this started somewhere close-by… and even as the brand has grown, he’s determined to keep everything local. For the bags he uses only one factory- they made his first bags and he contains to use them. He’s adamant he will not make bags anywhere else. Just that one factory in Osaka.
As for the fashion, in the NOUN line, we just released a line of jeans that are made in Okayama (an area famous for its denim) and the shirts are made in Nagoya.
I should point out too, that some of the canvas used in the bags (in particular, the #9 Quality Canvas Series” is custom-woven for us on 1930’s looms at a factory in Kyoto. Takeshi is really focused on doing things properly- even if it takes longer, or even if it isn’t “efficient” in the business-sense of the word. His bags are a reaction, I guess, to the mass-produced, low quality bags made in places like China, where cost is the only factor driving production.
SL: Can you tell us a bit more about your means of production – are all the bags made by hand, where/how are your materials sourced and are there any forthcoming collaboration we can look forward to?
JK: Yes, they’re all made by hand, and all made by the same single which means that there is only so much we can produce. We had a lot of trouble earlier this year keeping up for the demand of the #9 Quality Canvas Series- and even now, there is a 2 month lead time. Materials are all sourced locally- and where possible, are made in Japan. Some of the materials Takeshi has made to order (like the canvas used in the #9 Quality Canvas Series).
For the Travel Series he actually uses the Sunbrella fabric- an really tough, colourful outdoor fabric from the USA, and in a previous limited edition series, used fabrics from the Australian company Woven Image.
We’ll be releasing a new series of prints over the next few weeks (they should be on our website now) and are releasing a 3 month limited edition series made from the Gold Duck Canvas- they’ll be on sale from September through to the end of November.
SL: Many fashion brands these days are very aware of sustainability and environmental ethics. How much do these things influence Bag ‘N’ Noun and how do you reconcile your ethics with your sense of style?
JK: Takeshi doesn’t deliberately set out to make sure his bags consider sustainability or environmental ethics, but having said that, he tends to work in a very old-fashioned way which is inherently sustainable.
The bags are all made by only one factory in Osaka, everything (where possible) is done or sourced in Osaka, and parts like zippers are chosen for durability, not cost. The Reverse Tote series is a great example of “accidental sustainability”- they are made from a custom-woven canvas (spun in Kyoto) which is woven very tightly. This gives the fabric much stiffness, which means that the canvas doesn’t need to be coated with PVC to give it rigidity. The bags are designed in a way that they use the entire width of the fabric- right up to the selvedges. It’s a really elegant, efficient design which doesn’t produce any waste during manufacture- but it was designed like this because nobody had ever made such a stiff canvas and used it in a bag, and because the canvas is expensive to manufacture, he wanted to use all of it!
SL: Do you have any new additions to the collection on the horizon or is there any sort of collaborations?
JK: Yes, there are new editions. We just had our 2011/12 Autumn/Winter collection exhibition, and we announced some limited edition bags in the Gold Duck Canvas, and also some limited colours in the Travel series. We’ve also just started selling a print collection (for this summer) which is an interesting change for us.
SL: Finally, why is an excellent bag so important to have?
JK: Because your stuff is important- your precious things, wallet, books, phone and so on go into your bag. We want something fun and stylish to carry our stuff and I’m sure you know the feeling when you change bags for a day- the inside of the bag is different and it throws you at first, you feel almost lost, and quite unsettled when you can’t immediately spot your wallet or your phone in your bag. Having an excellent bag that takes of this for you-without you really needing to think about it, and to do it in a way that’s fun, that feels good to hold and that puts a smile on your face- surely these are the most important things.
Words: Alex Jackson