The Good Bag by canvasco

canvasco shows how to upcycle.

Since 2003, the Bremen-based label canvasco has been using old sails to create practical shoulder bags, gym bags, and most recently fashionable rucksacks. The conscious use of resources through upcycling means that these bags are environmentally friendly. By having his green lifestyle bags produced in a women’s prison in Lower Saxony, founder Jan-Marc Stührmann also contributes to the resocialization of prisoners. 

A good bag is like a ship on stormy waters. Laptop, documents, mobile, keys, lunch box — in the turbulent hustle of the everyday, the portable galley provides a place for all the essentials. Wind and weather is no longer a match for your well-protected possessions. But a shoulder bag is also an anchor, something that you can cling to in moments of uncertainty. And this is especially true of the sailcloth bag from the Bremen-based label canvasco. These robust urban bags have been around for almost 15 years: In them, you can fit just about everything, and with them, you could easily spend several weeks traversing the Atlantic. What’s more, the shoulder bags are water-repellent and washable, and the shoulder straps are said to bear 6,000 kilo-grams. Each of the six stripes on the wide, colourful straps represents a hundredweight hold. They could even tow a boat!
Founder Jan-Marc Stührmann happened upon his business almost by chance. During his teacher training, he realized that education was too bland for him. He was then hired by an advertising agency, and it was there that he got the order to redesign a sailing magazine. For Jan-Marc, himself a keen sailor, this was a welcome task. He came up with the idea of packaging the magazine in sailcloth, and a sail maker in Bremen allowed him to take some decommissioned materials for a pittance. Jan-Marc liked the material so much that he got a friend to make him a bag from it. On the streets, he increasingly found people asking where he got it from, which prompted him to found a label. The name canvasco was quickly decided upon, a combination of canvas — the sailcloth — and Vasco da Gama, the sailor and explorer. That was 2002. Since then, he has shipped more than 150,000 bags worldwide.

Jan-Marc’s bags are produced in Germany: “For me, that was always the only option.” His intention was to bring a lifestyle product onto the market while also making a contribution to society. As a young man in upstate New York, the former Waldorf pupil spent a year working in an establishment for the mentally handicapped. It was a time that gave him a lot of pleasure and had a profound effect on him. There, Jan-Marc learnt that “everyone can make a contribution; they just have to work within the limits of their capacities.” Back in Bremen, the young business-man approached Martinshof, a famous workshop for people with disabilities. But he was told that the creation of the bags would be too difficult. Then a friend gave him the contact for the Vechta prison in neighbouring Lower Saxony. So he swung by the sewing workshop with a prototype. “The warden was immediately taken with the idea,” he says. “He asked: ‘How many bags is it to be, then?’” They started with 50 sailcloth bags in 2003 and today it’s 1,500 per month.
Alongside this, canvasco models are now being manufactured in a prison in Hildesheim and two further social institutions. In Vechta, leather bags are currently also being produced. “Previously, the seamstresses at Vechta made bedding for the German army and fixed clothing for hospital personnel — not exactly esteemed tasks,” explains Jan-Marc. “The women see the lifestyle bags as a step in the right direction. They often ask if they can make one for themselves when their prison sentence comes to an end."

Around half the women are there due to breaches of narcotics laws. The rest are in for everything from theft and robbery to murder. Working as seamstresses gives the inmates an every-day life, a structure, and an occupation. “In my opinion, 90 percent of the women really don’t belong there,” says Jan-Marc. Very few people are born criminals. Difficult circumstances, such as violence in the family, initially bring about certain actions. “Many of the perpetrators were victims to begin with,” he says. Through working on the canvasco bags, many of them have a real task for the first time; besides that, the bags also act as a bridge between life on the inside and life outside. That’s why seamstresses are told if a customer is particularly happy with one of their products. The bags are occasionally shown on TV, even in Germany’s cult crime series “Tatort.” “It obviously has an amazing effect to see that you have created something really special."

Of course, there are critics. “Some people can’t get behind the idea at all,” comments Jan-Marc, “and others believe that a prison can’t possibly produce good quality.” It is true that very few women have prior experience using a sewing machine — “but you can learn.” A canvasco bag is created in several standardized steps. Every seamstress comes to learn them all, but they start off with the easiest. Naturally, some women are more talented than others, “but in the end there are always quality controls, so anything that is faulty simply gets rejected.”
A further accusation that Jan-Marc gets a lot is that the production of his comparably expensive bags — the classic “Retro” model sells for 179 euros — is “conveniently subsidized at cut-rate prices.” “That is obviously not the case. Tailoring in prisons can’t possibly be cheaper than the free market,” remarks Jan-Marc. “If it were, it would constitute a state-subsidized distortion of the market.” There are strict regulations regarding production in prison, just as there are for the payment of inmates. The money that the seamstresses get for their work is the 13 euros per day stipulated by law, says Jan-Marc. Part of the sum is saved until their release and the rest is given to them immediately.

A further accusation that Jan-Marc gets a lot is that the production of his comparably expensive bags — the classic “Retro” model sells for 179 euros — is “conveniently subsidized at cut-rate prices.” “That is obviously not the case. Tailoring in prisons can’t possibly be cheaper than the free market,” remarks Jan-Marc. “If it were, it would constitute a state-subsidized distortion of the market.” There are strict regulations regarding production in prison, just as there are for the payment of inmates. The money that the seamstresses get for their work is the 13 euros per day stipulated by law, says Jan-Marc. Part of the sum is saved until their release and the rest is given to them immediately.

Today, the fruit of the seamstresses’ work has long crossed the Bremen boundaries. The items are sold in around 380 shops in Europe and overseas. Part of the business comes from collaborations. For a while at Daimler, customers got a canvasco bag containing the car’s documents when they bought a new car. “It’s clearly something that lasts a bit longer than a bottle of Prosecco,” laughs Jan-Marc.

“The other good thing about us is that you can personalize the bags.” These customized models can even be found in selected 25hours Hotels, like the ones with the “25h” logo on them or the ones at the 25hours Hotel Bikini Berlin, which have an ape design, alluding to the nearby zoo. The sailcloth bags are on offer to hotel guests to either borrow for excursions or to buy. “That happens surprisingly often,” says Jan-Marc.

Fundamentally, each Canvasco bag is unique because every cloth is different and each particular construction yields a different first cut. What’s more, the configuration tool on canvasco’s online shop now allows bags to be personalized.

In terms of coming up with a new model or pattern, Jan-Marc prefers to work with students over a permanent design team. “They gain something from it because they get a real client while they’re still studying,” he says. In the end, the fact that it is also cheaper for him does likely play a role. Generally, he always welcomes fresh new ideas with an open mind; there are no hierarchies at canvasco. For example, his employee Marie Beckmann has just designed her second bag: a rather fashionable rucksack that is going on the market now. In the future we can no doubt expect to see these backpacks with increasing frequency on the streets of big cities. Their minimalistic form, and the urban grey with the bright pink zip, is right on trend. Keeping up with the times is essential for any company, as Jan-Marc knows. As long as people produce sails, there will always be discontinued sailcloth, so the future of the material supply is not something canvasco has to worry about. But the concept of upcycling has possibly had its zenith. So alongside canvasco, he is also currently working on a new label, which he similarly intends to produce in Germany to high ecological standards. The primary focus will be on achieving a smarter, more elegant design. How will it look? Jan-Marc laughs, not giving anything away. “I’m not at liberty to disclose that yet.”

“Previously, the seamstresses made bedding for the German army — not exactly an esteemed task. The women see the lifestyle bags as a step in the right direction.”

canvasco.de

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