Market Research: Bao Bao Issey Miyake’s “Black Small Carton S Messenger Bag”
Tony Tulathimutte Handles His Baggage, a Big Breakup, and Unbearable “Lightness”
- Text: Tony Tulathimutte
Full disclosure: I generally look like total shit. My main criterion for shirts is that their shapelessness will conceal my own, and for pants: “roomy pockets.” I have the fashion sense of a stand-up comedian with 38 Twitch followers and recently I realized that you don’t need to shower if you wear a hat. I could fake the fluency for this essay, but it’s easier to just admit upfront that I have no context whatsoever regarding couture. Visual art, same. And architecture. Really anything to do with shapes.
Yet this bag I’m considering right now is nothing but shapes. It’s designed by the Hiroshima-born Issey Miyake, and its surface is smartly tessellated into triangles of lacquered black vinyl that let the bag fold and collapse into all sorts of math-y configurations. Its zipper is nested in a crease between the panels in a vaguely labial way. The slim adjustable strap is incongruously plain, made of moiré seatbelt webbing, which contributes to the bag’s new-car smell. The interior is simple: just a zippered lining pocket, and some metal strap adjustors. It can’t fit a water bottle, wine bottle, book, or laptop, making it useless for my purposes 90% of the time, but I feel like it would look good on a femme Terminator, or like someone named “Zlata.”
Even I know that fashion is a gestalt. So I know that any prestige this tote confers will evaporate the moment I pull out my wallet, because my wallet has a Pokémon on it. (Meowth.) In fact, the incongruity makes me look like an even bigger scrub than if I wasn’t wearing it at all. It is sobering to think that you could drop $650 on something that makes you feel insecure—that it is even possible for an inanimate object that you own to make you insecure—and I can imagine the type of person who would regard this as a challenge to be met. Not this dingus.
I don’t really like to linger in front of mirrors, so I started wearing the thing out to see what kind of hoots and hairy eyeballs I’d attract. I took it on the train, to the gym, and to bars, feeling at once conspicuous to the casually dressed New Yorkers around me, and upstaged by the more put-together. One evening I brought it to dinner at a Lebanese sculptor’s apartment, on what I’d sort of hoped would be a date, until she invited her Belgian boyfriend, who invited his Slovakian and Austrian friends—all of them ended up being professional designers who took to the bag eagerly. One said, admiringly, that Miyake was the only fashion guy doing new things with material; then she went on some tangent about PVC that quickly transitioned to full-on German. That night ended with me alone and stoned at my corner bodega, where the cashier delivered a well-intended but fatal burn: “Cool bag, whose is it?”
“I feel like it would look good on a femme Terminator, or like someone named “Zlata.””
Wearing the bag in public was making me feel like a cross between Akaky Akakievich from “The Overcoat” and Buffy the Vampire Slayer in that episode where she can hear everyone’s thoughts. I’ll be honest, the last few months had been one miserable plot point after another—first a big breakup, then illness, insurance drama, and way worse—so to head off unnecessary stress I eventually started carrying it around inside my usual larger messenger bag, which I’d found by googling <mens messenger bag leather cheap good> and looking for one with pockets for a flask and pill case.
If I felt sheepish about wearing the Bao Bao, though, I loved researching it! Adderall was the only thing keeping me from submerging fully into tarry depression and it led me, as always, to spastic googling. I guess this Issey Miyake fella is supposed to be known for his technical innovations in fabric manufacturing or whatever, but what impresses a slob like me is that he designed Steve Jobs’ signature mock turtleneck. (I’m surprised that it was designed at all, and not generated by some sinister psychographic optimization algorithm.) The consumer version’s official name is the “Semi-Dull T,” which is also my Bandcamp name. Jobs ordered over a hundred of them made, to last him the rest of his whole life.
Then there’s the name, the Bao Bao. Based on my knowledge of Chinese, which is limited to wishing distant relatives Happy New Year, I’d thought it meant “bun,” but my friend Jenny tells me that bao could mean several things, including “bag,” and that bao bao is what five-year-olds or rich girls would say to sound cute. Later I found out that it’s actually the Thai word for “light,” as in the opposite of heavy. This pan-Asian ambiguity is fitting, considering the bag’s widespread popularity in East Asia, especially China and Thailand, a trend said to have started over a decade ago when Thai princesses and airline attendants started wearing them.
The worst part of coming down from Adderall is how song fragments or phrases start ricocheting around in your head when you’re trying to sleep. In this case it was all the proverbial uses of “bag”: You’d have to make a bag to afford this bag. If you had this bag, and who knows who you could bag? Or who would bag on you? It’s just really not my bag. It’s in the bag. Douchebag, scumbag, dirtbag, ratbag. They seem to cluster around primal moods—possession, aggression, and desire in general: your baggage. This is going to make me sound like an ancient sea turtle but I hear the teens say that when you’re overemotional, you’re in your bag.
I have certainly been in my bag with this bag, which after two weeks slid to a dark corner of my desk. I’d begun to regard it with anthropomorphizing pity, like the way Marie Kondo feels when she sees balled-up socks. Here is a costly bag that aspires to be attractive, to be used and envied and to reflect style onto an appreciative owner. And here I am hoarding away my pointless loot like some lame dragon. My friend suggested that I offer it as a surprise gift on my next date. I don’t know, maybe anyone who goes out with me deserves a signing bonus, but offering a $650 bag on the first date—especially one with such a fetishy gloss, and especially from me—sounds like something you’d do right before confessing your unconventional desires. But my friend was right: I might own the bag, but it isn’t really mine. (Cool bag, whose is it?) To wear it would require me to be a different person entirely, possibly a better one—one I’ve been far too bummed out to become.
“I’d begun to regard it with anthropomorphizing pity, like the way Marie Kondo feels when she sees balled-up socks.”
Around this time, my ex-girlfriend texted me about coming by to collect her stuff from my apartment, and if I were wearing a mood ring it would have looked like a fucking strobe light. We hadn’t seen or heard from each other since the breakup three months ago but it’s fine, we’re fine, I still follow her on Instagram and uhhh, everything’s fine. I went over to the closet I hadn’t opened in months, where she kept her things tidily arranged (she’s a librarian), and took out her backup dress, black like all of her clothes. She identifies as “haute goth.” Which is, of course, a perfect description of the Bao Bao: sleek, black, angular, as if it might transform into a cybernetic raven at any moment.
Well, shit, it was obvious—this wasn’t my bag, it was hers. She might read it as a goodwill gesture, which would be good, or maybe some weird power move—anyway I knew her well enough to know she wouldn’t decline a free expensive gift. Into it went her tights, leg razors, the cotton pajama shirt with BLACK MAGIC in iron-on letters, the shampoo and conditioner I’d sullenly sniffed once or twice after the breakup, vitamin C tablets, sheet masks, an empty ringbox, green tea lip balm, a popper-sized bottle of facial cleanser called Purity, a souvenir coaster from Death & Co, the container for a novelty bath bomb that turned the water pitch black. By the end it got fairly heavy for a bag that meant light, but I had found its use.
Tony Tulathimutte is the author of the novel Private Citizens and founder of CRIT, a writing class in Brooklyn.
- Text: Tony Tulathimutte