This is a story of unexpected confluences.
I read in the most recent issue of Bicycle Quarterly that esteemed Japanese bag makers Shoichi and Tomoko Watanabe planned to retire at the end of July, marking the end of many years making traditionally styled bicycle luggage in their Tokyo shop. Having long been enamored with their work I was filled with a feeling of gratitude for their craftsmanship and creativity. No sooner had I read this, than two different customers came to me with circumstances that a Guu Watanabe style bag would be just the solution for.
Shoichi Watanabe at work (photo credit: guu-watanabe)
Years ago, as I began making bags I scoured the Guu Watanabe Flickr photostream. Their process was a source of wonder; to see their endless variety of bags, what tools they used, their templates, colors and configurations. I tried to pick out their techniques--did they use edge binders? How did they cut their leather? Their work became an example to me, even if I had far far to go in developing my skills. Doing my best to learn however I could I found myself pouring over images of these Japanese masters on the Internet. If that's what you have to do, then you do it. I gleaned all I could from peering into their shop from half a world away.
Peering over Shoichi's shoulder (photo credit: guu-watanabe)
Here's where a bit of confluence comes into the picture.
Shortly after reading that Guu Watanabe would close, I had two different customers come to me with set-up constraints that would be well addressed by using a Guu Watanabe design. In both cases the projection of the stem reaches out farther than the connection point of the backstop on the rack. This offset means a conventional rectangular bag shape would be contorted between these two points since the stem/decaleur would force the top of the bag forward of the backstop where it is connected to the rack at the backstop sleeve. A little tension here is okay, but not too much.
Shoichi had a solution for this scenario and I passed on a sketch to both of these customers suggesting his design as a means of accommodating the constraints of their set-up.
See how the side panel expands rearward in the bottom half of the bag? This is a feature of many Guu Watanabe bags; not only does the bag shape solve the offset issues presented by the stem-rack alignment issue shown above, but it also adds some capacity within the bag while tilting the rear pockets a bit outwards towards the rider. Both features are potential benefits, depending on the needs of the rider. I look forward to implementing this design when the opportunity presents itself.
As chance would have it, a recent customer took note of my Instagram post about this bag design being a useful solution in certain circumstances and offered to send his Guu Watanabe front bag for me to take a look at it. How about that? I’m a bag geek through and through and always welcome the opportunity to examine, evaluate and understand the designs and work of others, so I was so excited to receive this bag in the mail.
The bag is a wonder to behold. What strikes me first and foremost is the overall shape: it's so bold and distinct! The canvas is super stout and the details are highly specific to Shoichi’s work. The stitching is flawless and the leather is rugged. I took note that he sews a fabric cover to his internal stiffener, a detail I’ve never seen before. He also constructs the bag cover with side gussets that limit how far the top opens and also potentially keeps any water out that might come in from the sides. Somewhat curious to my eye is the snapped down map case; it’s not removable but it can be unsnapped and stood up. I’m not sure what this feature achieves, but it’s interesting to see nonetheless. I count myself lucky to see this bag up close.
I am sorry that I did not get the chance to meet Shoichi and Tomoko at their workshop when we toured in Japan in 2017, but I am grateful to have had the recent opportunity to see a small bit of their work in detail. Before returning the bag, I plan to make a template for future reference and might just have to make one for myself, if a customer doesn’t ask for one first.
There’s always more to see and learn within this work.