James Kamo has always ‘had a thing’ about bag aesthetics. With a focus on sustainable design, function and originality, he designs and makes beautifully crafted packs for clients around the world on his trusty 1960s Bernina Record sewing machine. From old Japanese kimonos with intricate patterns to vintage clasps that he finds online he creates packs that are as individual as their owners.
Kamo’s obsession with bags is long lived. After a foundation year in Menswear Fashion Design at London College of Fashion, he did a degree in Performance Sports Design at Falmouth University in Cornwall. And when it came to producing a final collection for his degree, he decided to focus on producing backpacks as well as clothes.
Fast forward a few years and this one man brand is making packs for customers around the world.
Kamo’s approach has been strongly influenced by some of the big names in the sportswear market and sustainability and innovation have always been at the core of his work. During an internship with Hurley’s innovation team, he became obsessed with trying to make a backpack using the least number of pieces possible thinking this might be the way forward. “I quickly realised that less pieces doesn’t necessarily mean more efficient use of fabric - so I started seeking other ways of being sustainable in my design and manufacturing”.
After his stint at Hurley, he spent time with the Nike innovation team. “Big companies like Nike have incredible material libraries. You can spend hours finding the ideal material for whatever brief you might have - waterproof, durable, colourful - whatever you want it’s there. They had an amazing sewing room where I could hang out after hours. I’d sit at a sewing machine and literally make a bag from start to finish. I’d be there all night”.
Though the experience at Nike was inspirational, with his own creations Kamo chooses to be resourceful and use what he has to hand. Though each bag is bespoke, scraps from one bag might form an integral part of another. Using new and old materials - from old Japanese kimonos with intricate patterns to vintage clasps that he finds online he creates packs that are as individual as their owners.
This resourcefulness is hugely influenced by his obsession with Yvon Chouinard - the founder of Patagonia, whose attitude to the fine balance between sustainability, innovation and creativity has formed the bedrock for Kamo’s own approach.
"I’m a big fan of Chouinard and I love Patagonia’s brand philosophy - an understanding that any product is essentially doing ‘harm’ by even existing, but that having the intention of not causing un-necessary harm is where we as designers and creators should start from. My most treasured item is a pre-Patagonia Yvon Chouinard bag. It hangs on my wall by my sewing machine as a constant inspiration."
Kamo doesn’t design a bag before he starts making - he relies solely on 5 questions that he asks each customer before he begins:
“These are pretty important questions. Obviously what the bag is for is going to influence how I design it - if it’s for day to day commuting, carrying around a laptop and books, then a zip top bag works best. If you might use if for your groceries, then a roll-top is great because you can extend the pack and fit more in. For hiking, the fold top with drawstring is still a winning design.”
“Left or Right-handed is also a big one. If I’m putting a vertical zip pocket on the front of the pack, it needs to be on the appropriate side so when you slip it off one shoulder you can reach the pocket without taking the pack off.” And the animal question? That’s to give him an idea of someone’s personality.
“It’s a very organic process. I tend to write down the different answers to questions in my sketch book, play around with them, and start from there”.
This is a guy who really knows his packs.
As his brand has grown, so has his waiting list. “I tell customers they’ll get their pack when they’ve forgotten about it. This might not be entirely true - but it gives me the scope to be really creative - no immediate deadlines and the space to create something truly individual. It also weeds out the people who aren’t really interested in the concept of Rucksack Village!”
His studio is nomadic - based in Brooklyn for a while he has since moved back to California where he grew up, close to his favourite break, Trestles. His love for the outdoors began early - family camping trips to national parks around the US, and years spent as a Boy Scout - camping, hiking, rafting, kayaking. But it wasn't to last.
“I went through a phrase from about age 12 - 15 of hating backpacking. I’m not sure why, I guess I wasn’t as dirty as I thought I was - having to be without showers, toilets, all that stuff. I remember we were meant to go on a 5 day hike and I offered my mum all my savings - a few hundred dollars - to allow me not to go! She refused, thankfully, and I’m glad I was essentially ‘forced’ to see beautiful landscapes and recapture my love of the outdoors. These days I’m a bit of an armchair mountaineer - I love adventure documentaries and books. But I’d love to visit Antarctica and maybe one day go into Space”.
From ensuring a pocket is the right size for someone’s favourite brand of ice-cream, or sending a girl who likes rainbows packets of skittles along with her pack - each of Kamo’s creations is truly original.
“I like to add personal touches. Sometimes I’ll use scraps of fabric to make bespoke packaging for the bags. I love hand lettering and illustrating so this often comes into play too - in the design of the address label or with a personal note inside. Whatever comes to me - there’s no formula”.
“Because I don’t begin with a design, there is always the chance I’ll make a mistake, but I don’t see them as true errors. A ‘mistake’ becomes part of the finished pack - and leads to more creative solutions. I really don’t know what the pack is going to look like until it’s finished. Sometimes this can be distressing while i’m making it, but I’ve been happy with all of the finished packs so far.”
It takes Kamo about a week to produce one pack - from the choosing and ordering fabrics, the admin, hand-painting designs, cutting and sewing. “My bed becomes a cutting room with a bit of hardboard stuck on top and I sew on my 1960s Bernina Record. These old machines are brilliant. They have no plastic components like today’s machines, they’re built to last and are great with heavy fabrics like the Cordona that I use for the packs".
Though each of his packs is original, Kamo’s vision is always to look backwards as well as forwards - to seek inspiration in designs and fabrics that endure, as much as those that innovate. “I use a Kletterwerks pack everyday. They have never had to change anything - all of their products have been well designed and thought through since the beginning. Designs from the 1970s still work today. OK, they might be adapted to house a laptop or made with more durable fabrics, but they’re essentially future-proofed, by accident. And that makes for an ideal pack”.
“I’d love my packs to get to the top of the Cairngorms, or into the Himalayas”. Anyone who fancies taking a Rucksack Village pack to the the Himalayas or elsewhere can order one from James here:
James’ favourite outdoor brands:
Images courtesy of Margarita Cortez and James Kamo.