Road Tests :: DEFY BAGS Recon Messenger

It’s here, the Road Test review of the DEFY BAGS Recon Messenger (“Recon Wide” on their site), priced at $322 (Carryology readers, check at the bottom for a code good for 10% off anything on the Defy Bags site).  Before we dive in, lets talk about Chris Tag and Defy Bags.

“My name is Chris Tag. I’m a Chicago art director who grew up in Dayton, Ohio. From as long ago as I can remember, Dayton was a proud industrial auto manufacturing town. When I was a child, I vividly remember being at friends’ houses when their dads would come home from working long days at the General Motors plant. Their rough and dirty hands seemed to tell the same stories they did; that they loved hand-crafting cars. Now that and other factories are shuttered.

What do closed factories have to do with a small company called Defy Bags?
Everything.”

Chris is a great guy.  He signs his emails with “DEFY SOMETHING”.  Meaning…go against the grain, do something different, in a unique way.  That’s Defy Bags, that’s Chris Tag.  The more I learn about design and successful businesses, the more I learn it is about the people behind the brand; that is where it all starts.  Defy Bags’ main logo is simple, bold, black text and reads “HANDCRAFTED IN THE UNITED STATES by DEFY BAGS Chicago, IL”.  Based on the content of their website, and the products which I could only see in the form of digital pixels, they certainly gained my attention.

After lusting over the complete Defy Bags collection, I wishfully sent off an email to Chris, and he was stoked to hook me up with his “favorite carry on”, the Recon messenger.  Now I can also say it has become my favorite carry on bag.  More on that later.  All of their products are handmade in Chicago, one of the great American cities.  I swear the spirit of Chicago and the Industrial Revolution are present in the soul of each of the products they offer.  The products ooze turn-of-the-century factory floor.  Not that they are cranked out of a factory, but rather, I can imagine each one of the products in a 1920’s factory floor, on the shoulder of a surly-yet-smiling worker arriving to put in a hard 12-hour day of honest work.  A romantic idea, sure.  Intended?  I think so.

“DURABLE GOODS
Defy has been proudly manufacturing durable goods since 2008, with each and every hand-crafted product inspected by me. All goods are crafted to be: simple, clean-lined, sturdy and manufactured to a level that would make my grandfather proud. We art direct each minute detail to ensure every bag feels truly one of a kind. And oh by the way, we mostly use vintage or reclaimed durable materials to do so. Well, that and imported solid steel and brass Austri Alpin Cobra buckles from (Austria) that are load bearing up to (2,000) lbs and used by special forces around the globe because of their world class quality and construction. Pardon the pun, but at each and every turn we like to Defy expectation.”

Material and Hardware

My favorite part.  This bag has got to be a materials-sourcing nightmare.  Good thing that is for Defy Bags to worry about, and not you or I.  These materials are serious.  The primary fabric is 24 oz. vintage M35 military vinyl truck tarp, taken from military trucks.  They source the tarps at auction, then wash each of them in an industrial washer before cutting patterns for the bags.  In fact, I detected a very faint scent of Simple Green cleaner when I got the bag, which I thought was cool.  Each bag ends up being unique, as each section of the tarp shows its patina differently, handsomely.  Don’t worry, the material hasn’t even begun to start its life, and is ready to take years and years of abuse you can throw at it.  You could blast this material with a pressure washer and no water would pass through.  The bag itself isn’t waterproof (but it is heavily water-resistant, meaning it can take a downpour no problem at all, but you can’t take your laptop scuba diving, ok?), but the fabric is.

The fabric makes you want to touch it more, with a semi-matte dark, dark gray (only 1%-5% off of true black) exterior and a rich military green interior, which also gives a good amount of visual contrast for locating small items inside.  The trim is made from reclaimed bicycle inner tubes, which has a really unique feel.  The branding tab, a tiny piece of black Horween leather (also based out of Chicago) with a hand-stamped text logo, keeps it minimal and classy.  There is seatbelt webbing throughout the bag and for the shoulder strap, and I love how it is used horizontally for pen slots and mini pockets in the front organizer panel.  Clever.

Both the bicycle inner tubes and the seatbelt webbing are reclaimed.  The bicycle inner tubes are taken from bicycle shops around the Chicago area who accept them for recycling/reclaiming, rather than seeing them go into the trash.  The seatbelt webbing is real, not the faux seatbelt webbing used on most bags.  You can feel the difference right away – it’s softer, more velvety, has thicker fibers, and is stronger.  They cut this seatbelt webbing directly out of totaled new and old vehicles that they find in scrapyards (no, not from their own cars).  Again, all put through industrial washers to make those rich black shades shine.  Already a great materials story.

The attention to detail when using these materials is impeccable.  Each of these materials tells their own history, with various markings throughout.  Let me add, this is minimal.  Just the right hint of patina, not old and beat up, nothing like that.  My Recon looked crisp and new when I got it, and it still does.  You’re not going to get a bag with a giant road rash mark on it; that part of the fabric will be discarded from the pattern cutting process.

(above, a stack of Recons, ready to be shipped out to lucky customers)

Chris is careful to highlight certain details, and to hide others that aesthetically don’t make sense.  For example, the excess webbing hanging from the buckles to cinch the front flap closed has two short lengths of bicycle inner tube sewn to the end of each.  This is great for feeling around to find the ends, something to grab onto, a nice experience.  Looking at the bag straight on, the inner tube facing you is solid black, but on the back side facing away from you are two little blue line markings from the manufacturer of that particular inner tube.  Rather than have these blue lines show on the front of the bag, they were flipped over, where you won’t see them and it won’t compromise the look of the bag.  Super small and smart detail, but I noticed it. Would two tiny blue lines change the complete look of the bag if they were showing on the face of the bag?  Probably not.  By why risk it?  Attention to detail is key, and that goes for everything.

The hardware is all of the highest quality.  The two D-rings on the side are metal, along with the military-grade attachment clips for the shoulder strap, as well as the adjustment hardware piece on the strap.  All metal.  And after serious use they are still matte black, no paint chipping off showing bright chrome underneath which always looks tacky.  These components were clearly chosen for longevity.

Speaking of longevity… they’re only using the best buckles in the world for the closure system on the front panel.  Military-grade AustriAlpin Cobra buckles, imported from Austria.  The bag uses two of them, the 2″ single-side adjust models.  These buckles cost just about as much as a Jansport backpack… EACH… AT WHOLESALE PRICING.  Yeah.  Almost $20 per buckle, wholesale, not retail.  And there are two of them.  For reference, most military-grade high-end quality plastic buckles (which we still love and work great) are around $0.20 each, sometimes more, sometimes less.  Starting to see why this handmade bag costs $322?  For the hours that go behind the sewing machine, and these expensive, quality materials and hardware, $322 is a damn bargain.  Just like the other materials, the buckles are worth their cost and the headache to source and import them from Europe.  They can each support up to around 2,000 lbs and they have a seriously durable black finish (they both still appear as new, after several thousand airline, bicycle, and car miles).  Made from steel, brass, and aluminum, these buckles will probably outlast you and probably a couple more generations after you.  The experience of opening them feels like you’re reloading an AR15 rifle each time you open up the bag. I like the feeling that I’m reloading an AR15 when I’m grabbing some chewing gum from my bag.  Side note, in our previous Buckle Analysis writeup I ignorantly leaned toward the Raptor buckles, but now after having serious firsthand experience and doing much more research on the issue, the Cobra buckles have proven to be a far superior product.  Test after test and user experience proves it.  Cobra buckles are without question the best buckles on the planet, 100%, no doubt.  Anything else is a far 2nd.

Additionally, I like the height of the buckles on the front panel.  They sit up off the ground, to prevent unnecessary wear on the extremely durable finish.  There is enough excess webbing to really cinch down when you want to keep everything packed tightly.  A lot of companies don’t get this simple feature – placement of the buckles, as well as the length and placement of the webbing (both sides).  Overall, there are zero complaints when it comes to material and hardware choices on the Recon.  If I could make this same bag with different materials, I wouldn’t.  Easily 10 out of 10 in this area.

“OUR PROMISE
Defy guarantees against any defects. If you find a flaw in our craftsmanship just contact me and we will fix or replace your item at no charge. If you’re not happy, we’re not happy.”

Aesthetics

It may be the buckles alone, and I think they play a large part in it, but people will come up to me and start a conversation about this bag.  I think this conversation-starting ability stems primarily from its understated, minimal, bold and unique design (the rest is the buckles). This bag looks great.  People notice it.  Expect discussion when you wear it.  You can be nice and talk carry with a stranger (as we recommend here at Carryology), or just walk away.  But this conversation-starting aspect is something to be noted.  “What kind of bag is that?”, “Those hooks (buckles) are cool yo!”, “What do you do for a living?”, “What is that made out of?”, etc.  I find the bag is a great-looking briefcase for my design meetings with clients and/or for factory visits.  And usually I’m traveling when I have a meeting.  So the Recon switches from my carry on bag into a professional-looking brief whenever I can get to the hotel to swap out the carry on stuff that I don’t need for meetings.  Looks great doing both.  There isn’t much else to say here.  You love the look of this bag, or maybe you don’t, or maybe you think it’s OK.

“CRAFTSMAN
When I started tinkering around with sewing on an old industrial leather machine, it reminded me of learning to work on cars as a boy with my father, or wood working with my grandfather. It conjured up the unmistakable smell of his woodshop. Of the uncompromising perfection in everything they did. Attention to detail and pride were second nature. A job wasn’t done, until it was done well. I’m trying to carry on their forgotten tradition. I believe you don’t just create with your hands and brain. But with your hands, brain and heart. That’s where the art comes in. That’s what starts to make you a Craftsman.”

I think it looks great.  I gravitated toward this bag immediately.  The only other bag that really grabs my attention in their collection is the FIT messenger, in white, in red, or in yellow.  However, the FIT has different pocketry organization than the Recon, which leads to the next item…

Pocketry

Simple.  Upon opening the flap, there is a front organizer panel with 2 drop pockets, a large cavernous main compartment, two convenient drop pockets on the rear wall of the main compartment, and a rear laptop/magazine slip pocket that makes up the rear wall.  I said simple.  Simple isn’t bad though.  More pockets doesn’t mean better.  It makes it easy to locate items, and easy to organize items.  There are no zippers or Velcro anywhere on this bag.  I went back and forth with this for a while.  At first I liked it, then I didn’t, now I’m back to liking it.

This bag is awesome at carrying medium/small, medium, and large objects.  Teeny items can get lost.  I was wary of putting my loose USB thumb drive in one of the rear pockets in the main compartment, since they couldn’t seal closed with a zipper or Velcro, but then I just stopped thinking about it.  The USB thumb drive is still there, it hasn’t jumped out and run away.  Plus, the material has a bit of “grab” to the texture.  Just enough to prevent stuff from easily sliding out.

Another thing, I use this bag as my primary carry on bag when I travel.  I carry my Dopp Kit in here with me (sometimes they take my $2 razor replacement blades for my vintage safety razor, sometimes they don’t).  My Dopp Kit contains all my small toiletry stuff, plus other random EDC/emergency items (lighter, needle/thread, etc).  I found that with using a bit of Inception Packaging (if you put your tiny items in a smaller bag), this Recon gets even better.  You don’t have to think too much about this pocketry arrangement.  I find everything I own has a nice little spot.  Mints, one of the drop pockets.  2 Moleskine, same.  Three pens drop into the horizontal seatbelt webbing.  The tiny pockets in the seatbelt webbing I haven’t used much.  They would be good to keep business cards that you collect.  Personally I keep my business cards in a small metal case I received as a gift, so that they stay crisp, and my card case doesn’t fit in there.  So I keep the case in one of the drop pockets, which is a great little home for it.  These little pockets in the seatbelt webbing wouldn’t be good for any objects with volume (like a USB thumb drive, a bouncy ball, etc.), but would hold flat items (like business cards) nicely.

Overall, I like the organizer made from the seatbelt webbing; it’s trick.  And again, it might be interesting to see a zipper or Velcro on one of the pockets…but logistically, it’s nearly impossible to source either of these for reclaiming purposes if Defy Bags were to keep the same philosophy as they do for the rest of their materials, and I think they would.  Also, it’s nice to see a design so simple.  Zippers and Velcro have their own feel, which changes the feel of the bag.  Albeit a minor experience change, it would be there. Maybe Chris didn’t want to incorporate those two tactile/audible experiences with the Recon. I will admit, I personally dislike the sound of Velcro. Maybe you like that noise, but that is a little weird.

In the rear laptop drop pocket goes a MacBook Air (for testing, while I wait to purchase my MacBook Pro), and a few magazines.  Plenty of room left over, even for the thickest laptops.  This pocket could easily hold a 17″ laptop.  Another great feature for this laptop pocket is that the bottom seam of the pocket is ABOVE the floor of the bag, meaning when you put your bag down your laptop isn’t the first thing to touch the floor.  Nice.  There could be a strap to keep the laptop in there, but gravity works great.  Then it would have to close via Velcro, and we already talked about that.  Plus, gravity never fails.  There is no padding in the laptop compartment, but I don’t think that it is really necessary (the previous feature helps to justify this too).  If you’re really worried, you can use a simple sleeve.

Along with the previously mentioned items, I also carry a Lumix DMC-TZ5 digital camera in a mini zippered camera case, some red markers, Sharpies, a few koozies and an extra bandana (because I live in Texas), power cords for phone and laptop, some extra business cards, and other various weird items that I’m not allowed to reveal by Court Order.  They all fit.  Pocketry-wise (“pocketry” is a completely made-up Copyrighted Trademark of Carryology and its affiliates, including the planet Jupiter), this bag is simple and easy to navigate through.  Almost too simple, but not too simple.  “Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.” -Einstein

Comfort

Manage your weight and carry expectations with this bag.  It is a great “carry on” bag – in fact, my favorite.  Not a great “carry ALL” bag to bring home 3 bottles of wine, a hunk of wood, 3 lbs of coffee, plus all your other stuff.  The Recon is part of my go to travel system.  I carry one large backpack filled with all my clothes and heavy stuff.  99% of the time I don’t check a bag because I don’t like waiting at the bag check carousel, I don’t like the potential of my stuff getting messed with or stolen, and I don’t like paying for checked bags.  So, I wear a large comfortable backpack (like Triple Aught Design’s FastPack EDC which I’m testing currently, or the BLACKHAWK Phoenix Patrol which I previously tested).  I hardly notice the backpack is there because I choose backpacks with comfortable suspension, and I practice packing uber-minimally.  Big backpack on my back, Recon on my shoulder to quickly access my carry on gear.  And just enough items in the Recon so the weight is manageable on one shoulder.

However, on my most recent trip with my girlfriend out to Big Sur we brought back a little too many items for souvenirs, and were forced to take 10 lbs out of her checked bag to be under the maximum weight without charging us an extra $50 or so… and those 10 lbs of wine, wood, and coffee ultimately went into the Recon, which was already packed (perfectly, may I add).  Though the Recon handled the additional load flawlessly, my shoulder did not.  The Recon is a comfortable shoulder bag when you pack it reasonably.  When you approach 20+ lbs of items, the seatbelt webbing will put a lot of pressure on you, and pressure hurts after a while.  For my around-town purposes and lightweight carry on, it is a dream.  An optional shoulder pad from Defy Bags might be a worthwhile accessory (edit: classified sources are hinting this may or may not become a reality in the future, but I cannot confirm this), but there are plenty of other brands that make some nice shoulder pads.  Personally, I won’t be adding one, even if Defy Bags made a killer one, because I don’t over-pack the Recon with too much weight.  I like it for what it is, a great-looking bag that fits my around-town and carry on needs.  I would consider the Recon more of a “shoulder bag” or a “shoulder brief bag”.

When used for bicycling, wearing it cross body like a traditional messenger, it does work but it does slide around a little, sliding from the middle of your back down to the side while you’re peddling, since there is just seatbelt webbing to grab onto your shirt for friction.  It works, but not perfectly.  The ideal way to use the Recon is to wear the shoulder strap either on one shoulder or across your body, leaving the Recon at your side rather than across your back.  When wearing it on your side without a laptop for a stiffener, it will tend to bend a little on itself, around your hip, mainly in the middle of the bag.  Only slightly, and that is only if you don’t have a laptop in there.  It also stays firm with 3 magazines in there.  With none, it lacks a little structure, but I never really minded that because it’s not a stiff or rigid briefcase, and it isn’t supposed to be.  Just something I noticed.

The adjustability of the shoulder strap is easy.  We’ve all used this system before.  Lift to lengthen, slide to shorten.  Easy enough.  It would be kind of cool to use a more interesting hardware bit here, but not necessary.  Back to the “simpler” thing again.  Plus, the flat hardware makes it streamlined along your shoulder.  Perhaps a more iconic, beefier shoulder strap adjustment hardware would be painful on your shoulder, requiring a redesign of the strap.  Lastly, the strap can be removed if you want to opt for another style or brand altogether, which is a nice option since many brands sew the strap onto the bag body.  Lastly, the upper grab handle is in a perfect spot for grabbing and carrying at your side like a brief bag.  No padding or anything, but it keeps it simple and refined.  I wouldn’t say it’s “uncomfortable” in my hand, but I never really carry bags by a grab handle for a long period of time, as I like to keep my hands free when traveling.

Conclusions

The Recon is an amazing messenger shoulder brief bag.  It is now my go to carry on bag for my Level 2 travel quiver (roughly speaking, Level 1 is 1-3 days somewhere easy, maybe a road trip; Level 2 is 3-14 days with multiple climates or needing additional materials for work/play, usually via plane; Level 3 is 7-21 days in multiple climates and/or international with additional materials for work/play, planning on planes, trains, auto, etc).  I travel differently for Level 1 and 3, but for this type of travel, my most common type, the Recon is perfect.  It carries everything I need, with a little extra room for stuff I pick up along the way.  It can be painful when over-packed, but as mentioned, manage your weight expectations and don’t over-pack your bag (and don’t let your significant other over-pack either, so you won’t have to carry their extra stuff).  I really like how the bag converts from a great-looking travel carry on bag to a great-looking professional brief bag suitable for meetings.  When I say “great”, it is also interesting, unique, and different from most everything else out there, which is a big plus for me.  This bag is really nice for around town, but it is my go to carry on shoulder bag.  $322 is a bit steep, but after the nightmare of sourcing and purchasing these high quality materials (each with their own stories), the cost and indestructible nature of the drool-worthy hardware bits, and the hours upon hours of craft that goes into each bag is accounted for…the cost makes perfect sense, delivering a huge value to the end user.  I expect this bag to continue to be a pleasure to use over my lifetime, and for people to continue to start conversations with me about it.


Update (August 30th, 2012):  Chris Tag just sent me over an email with great news.  Just for being a reader of Carryology, you now get 10% off anything on the Defy Bags site.  Enjoy!

“Before I forget Taylor, I wanted to extend to all Carryology reader’s a coupon code should they buy from Defy.

Simply offer them an ongoing 10% discount by entering ‘defyfamily‘ in coupon code upon checkout.
That’s as a thanks to you guys and them for the great, ongoing support!
 
DEFY PAYING FULL PRICE.
 
Chris Tag
Founder_Defy Bags”

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