The Adventure Life with Steve Casimiro Gear: Twice is Nice for the Carriers of Rice


Text and photos by West Coast Editor Steve Casimiro

Skip the attempts at creative writing, let’s get right to the point: This super-rad Keen messenger bag is made of recycled rice sacks, which were discarded, discovered in a corner of Keen’s shoe factory in Panyu, China, and repurposed as this one of a kind carryall. Giant recycled rice sacks, how cool is that?

The Cornell, which goes on sale in another month or so ($70; www.keenfootwear.com), is part of Keen’s new Harvest line, all of which is constructed from the sacks that held the rice eaten in the factory cafeteria. The first Harvest bags, which are available now, were super-femme—totes and purses with names like Pettygrove and Quimby—but the Cornell is a straight-up messenger bag, compatible with most common male psyches, demographics, and archetypes. It has one adjustable strap, a big compartment, a few organizing slots, a couple of zippers, a lightly padded laptop sleeve, and holsters for pens. That’s about it, but hey, it’s a messenger bag—pretty simple stuff.

The idea was sparked when one of Keen’s designers was scrounging around the factory on a mission to make trade show name badges without spending any money, said Eric Groff, who oversees Keen’s packs and bags. The badges were successful (and free) and a little later, Groff and another designer hit on the bag concept.

“In China, the workers basically live at the factory and they go through lots of rice,” Groff said. “What’s crazy to me, it comes in this incredible graphic paper. It’s beyond me that they choose these great designs for hauling around rice, but they do. We go through hundreds of these bags a month and once they’re done, they’re thrown away, pristine. They go from the rice factory to our factory and they just sit there.”

Because the messengers are built from whatever rice sacks are available, each Cornell is a crazy quilt of stitched-together patterns, with a multitude of designs, logos, Chinese lettering mixed with English, and a huge palette of colors. Pretty obviously, each bag is thus unique. Every time I look inside mine, I crack up at a little cartoon figure giving me the thumb’s up. Is he a rice grain? An albino soy bean? I try not to overthink it—he is who he is, and don’t we have enough limiting labels in society today? He’s simply the hidden mystery man approving my every move with a happy, “You go, bro”.

There’s more to the bag construction than rice sacks, though. The brown paper, backed by water-resistant polypropylene, comes from haul bags used in the factory. “It’s used for old leather or rubber scraps,” said Groff, “shoe molds, whatever they take from one point to another. They use these bags once or twice and then throw them away. It’s literally just waste going on the door.”

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The bottom of the Cornell is made of used inner tubes bought from a scrap materials shop near the factory. Aluminum hardware comes from shoe molds that have been melted and reformed. Only the zippers, soft lining on the laptop sleeve, and a few small details are new.

For spring 2009, Keen is considering duffels, other bags, accessories, even sandals that incorporate the rice sacks. Said Groff, “There’s really no end to it.”

Nope, there isn’t. Not until Chinese people stop eating rice. To which the little man in the bag just smiles and says,”You go, bro.”

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