My new bag is awful, and I love it

This is my new bag. I did not need a new bag — I own many — but the strap for my main briefcase broke a week before a trip, and I was too impatient to wait for the free replacement to arrive, so I bought a new bag. Also, it was on sale. I’m a sucker for sales.

I’ve had my eye on ONA’s camera bags for years. They are handmade with full-grain leather imported from Italy and have a retro aesthetic that pairs wonderfully with high-end camera gear. Unsurprisingly, they also have a steep price tag that reflects those materials, craftsmanship, and aesthetic (hence, buying one on sale). This is the Brixton, which according to ONA, is designed to hold a 13-inch laptop, a DSLR or mirrorless camera, and up to three lenses or accessories for it.

I love this bag. It is my favorite bag for entirely aesthetic reasons. The lightly waxed leather is the perfect medium-brown color, it already feels broken in like a well-loved baseball glove, and it matches my personal style choices (or at least what I aspire my style to be) to a tee.

But it is also a terrible bag, and I can’t recommend it to anybody — unless, like me, you love terrible and pretty things.

On the surface, a bag purchase should be a practical and functional decision. It needs to do the things a bag should do first and foremost. I rely on my bag to dutifully come with me during my daily commute and carry all of my necessities: laptop, camera, tablet, chargers, cables, multiple phones, headphones, notebook, pens, gum, and so on. It also needs to work for longer trips, where it might be employed to carry an extra battery pack or two and noise-canceling headphones on top of the stuff I normally lug around. It needs to be comfortable, flexible, and easy to use, while still carrying all my crap in an organized manner. I’ve spent many years (and lots of money) trying to find the ideal bag that does all of this well.

This ONA bag is the opposite of a practical and functional bag, though you may not be able to tell from the first glance. It’s not until you start using and living with it that you realize it is, in many ways, an objectively awful bag.

It starts with its weight: before I even put a single item in it, that thick Italian cowhide that I love so much makes it tip the scales at over four pounds. My daily carry puts the bag closer to a dozen pounds, and when I’m traveling its total weight is closer to 20 pounds. It will surely keep my chiropractor in business for a few years.

Since it’s technically a camera bag, the Brixton comes with a few padded Velcro dividers to keep my camera lenses from banging into each other. I typically only travel with one lens on my camera, so I removed all but one of the dividers to make more room. As a result, the main compartment is basically one large pit where my camera, travel mug, laptop charger, tablet, and whatever else I throw in there knock around. It doesn’t have any interior pockets aside from the aforementioned dividers, so small items just fall to the bottom. The interior organization is so poor that I’ve been forced to buy another bag to go inside this bag for my cables and other small necessities.

There are five pockets on the outside of the bag: two on the front, two on the sides, and one on the back. Of those, only the two front pockets are actually useful; the side pockets are so tight that I can just barely squeeze a single phone into them (forget about using them to hold a water bottle or umbrella), and the back pocket is equally slim, so it basically only holds a few paper documents. Who carries around documents anymore?

The two front pockets are roomy and flexible, but they lack any sort of organization. There are no pen slots or small interior pockets for batteries or memory cards, so like the main compartment, smaller items just fall to the bottom. There’s no tether for my keychain, either. The front pockets are secured with brass hardware that’s heavy and clumsy to use. The hardware is, of course, beautifully aged with a pre-worn patina.

There is no quick access opening for this bag. To get into any of the actually useful pockets, you have to open both metal clasps and lift the entire top flap of the bag open. This makes it really hard to quickly get anything out of the bag when I’m wearing it, even though it’s ostensibly designed with photographers in mind, who might want quick and easy access to their camera on the go.

One thing that I do appreciate about the Brixton is that it is fully capable of carrying all the stuff that ONA claims it can. I’ve been able to load it up with my mirrorless camera plus three extra lenses, and I was still able to carry my laptop, tablet, USB batteries, noise-canceling headphones, and more. It won’t fit a 15-inch laptop, but its boxy shape does mean there’s a lot of room in there. The only downside is that it’s really heavy when fully loaded, which leads me to my biggest gripe with this bag.

A good strap is a necessity for any bag, for obvious reasons. The straps on this bag are dreadful and perhaps the worst things about it. The shoulder strap is not very wide, has a tiny pad, and is about 12 inches too long. When I adjust it to hold the bag at a comfortable length (which is a laborious chore, in and of itself), the metal slider blocks the pad from moving to the correct position, so the strap digs into my shoulder. The grab handle on the backside of the bag is small and stiff, and since it’s not mounted in the middle of the top flap, the whole bag tips forward when I pick it up by this handle. There is no pass through on the back to secure the bag to the top of a rolling suitcase so at the airport I have to clumsily wrap the shoulder strap around my suitcase’s telescoping handle. Even worse, the straps are not removable, so when one inevitably breaks, I’ll likely be on the hunt for a new bag once again.

Wearing this bag is not especially comfortable, thanks to its heavy weight, that long strap, and the bag’s boxy shape. It doesn’t conform to my body well, nor does it compress down when it’s not fully loaded, so it sticks out farther than I’d like when I’m crushed in a crowded subway car or trying to thread the needle through a crowd at Grand Central Terminal.

It does, however, look fantastic.

This bag is not waterproof, but that might be the least of my worries here. It does have “weather flaps” that fold in when the top cover is closed and conveniently get in the way whenever I’m trying to get something out of the main compartment.

You may have gotten this far and are now wondering why I spent so much money on this bag in the first place when there are obviously superior capital-B Bags available for a lot less. I normally would agree with you. For a long time, the high price and obvious impracticalities of this bag kept me away. But now that I’ve bought one, I have zero regrets. Each time I look at it, I’m reminded why I love it. It is a bag I hope to use for years, despite all of its shortcomings and flaws. It will only look better as time goes on and it bears the marks of my daily use.

My day-to-day job as a product reviews editor requires me to make a lot of pragmatic, rational decisions. I evaluate things based on how well they work ahead of what they look like. Products that prioritize functionality earn high scores; there’s very little room for emotion or irrational verdicts in this line of work.

That also fits in with my personality. A friend recently described me as a “low-risk” person, and well, I couldn’t argue. But I am throwing out all of my safe, practical rules for this bag and loving it anyway, simply because of the way it looks.

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