Dispatch: Afghanistan

T.M and a view on approach to Kabul

Dispatch: Kabul

Afghanistan has been entwined with America for more than 20 years of war, but to say Afghanistan, to see it on the news, does not call to mind an idea of who the Afghans are. Even to the hundreds of thousand like myself who served in the war,  Afghans remain unknown. With that in mind I approached Esquire about an Afghan assignment in early 2020. In Early 2021 I spent a month in Kabul photographing Afghans as President Biden’s withdrawal announcement loomed over a period of relative peace.

Why Afghanistan? Why Style? You can find out for yourself on Esquire as of today, and read my own narrative of the project below.

Fashion, that is clothes, how they are worn and what is communicated with them is found best at the extremes. To my experience these are the cities on the leading edge of culture, and the small blank spaces on the map in the American conscience, passed over by the homogeny of industry. I can think of no more unjustly a blank space in the American mind than Afghans. With President Biden’s announcement of withdrawal imminent I set out in late February 2021 to document Afghan style.

In Kabul, from the street kids born into the war, to old men whose empty sleeves and folded pant legs where pinned back in the last 40 years of it, each one stared me in the eye, unwavering. They stand tall behind peddlers carts, on crutches, arm in arm with friends. If they had work they showed it to me eagerly: rings, rags, hand quilted velvet, glistened vegetables, calluses like cherry tomatoes. I learned never to photograph butchers.

Piran Tamban (a matched long shirt with wide cropped trouser) and the 9ft long Patoo shawl are the national costume, and nowhere besides Kabul will you see more variation on it. Color, embroidery, hem shape and headwear can easily distinguish the region an Afghan calls home. The accessories of note are military field jackets and vests made iconic by Ahmad Shah Massoud, who apposed the Taliban, and Cheetah sneakers made famous by them.

Kabul was one of the last cities in Afghanistan to resist Taliban contention largely due to ongoing peace talks. The capital had been beyond their control but not their daily reach. Small bombs targeting government employees, local journalists and activists were a daily occurrence. From the center of town I never heard them. The shooting heard occasionally were unrelated. When I ask about gunfire down the street, I’m told “They shot a thief”.

For all the anxiety and danger I expected to find in returning, it was the un-expected return to tribe that shocked me. T.M and Jim, longstanding Kabul correspondents are my guides. Fast friends, and fast Fridays spent tearing up Kabuls emptier quarters on two wheels, or well worn rugs at house parties.

After a few weeks I developed a little report with the familiar faces of  Kabul’s streets. Those Afghans I could speak to asked: “what do Americans think of Afghans? bad people? bombs? terrorists?”. 

I lied. Because Americans do not think of Afghans at all.

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Observer Denim

Photo by Jim Huylebroek

After years of perfecting my own denim, I am offering them to the public. Denim is a known quantity, but OD’s (Observer Denims) require explanation…

“ Don’t they get dirty? ” Sure, but 4 years of riding motorcycles, crashing them, scooters, crashing them, sailing, shooting, remote villages, bustling fashion capitals, bustling conflict capitals, hail, overflowing gutters, 20w 30, & A-, has all come out in the wash, tap cold on delicate.

Junn wears a size 34 with one wash

I’ve never gone without packing them, or a week without wearing them. OD’s can be worn as easily with a tailored jacket as they can a field shirt. Worn with a patina, or boiled with a weeks worth of coffee grounds they are even suitable for conflict environments. 

Improvements to the denim format start with the Self-Belt system. Adjustable with one hand the self belt system removes the need for a belt, & helps adjust for weight fluctuations on the road. The self belt system can be routed overtly from the center waist or covertly from the side seam.

Self-Belt application

Another innovation, the Self-Hem system allows you to cut your denim to one of 2 pre-sewn hem lines, saving your OD’s from fraying excessively & you a trip to the tailors. Wash you’re OD’s before hemming. 

The pattern of the O.D’s are an amalgam between my preferred silhouette: very high waisted, suppressed waist, with a clean, straight, athletic cut from the hipline, & feedback from 7 samples sent out for testing to Observers around the globe. I’d urge you to compare the provided measures to a few of your own pairs before purchasing, if in doubt size up from your measured size as OD’s adjust down.

Proprietary nickel plated bass hardware & serialized tags

The Hardware & fabric for the OD’s are equally considered. I developed proprietary Observer nickel plated brass buttons & rivets, painted with white enamel as a little nod the surfer’s pendants I grew up with. The fabric is an ideal 11.5 oz Cone Mills broken twill denim. With Cone Mills demise the last of American Selvage Denim blinked out of existence, this is some of the last yardage available after the mills closure. The broken twill gives the denim a casual texture, that cleans up well with tailoring & takes stains better than any other fabric trialed.

The OD Pre-Order closes 07/20 with an expected ship date of 08/31, you can order your own pair here.

Robert wears size 30 with 5 months of wear

Dispatch: Bodrum

I depart London the first day of winter ( one day too late ) toasting it’s empty streets & renewed lockdown from a long abandoned apartment overlooking Pall Mall with Dan & Marcus. 

It’s been a summer of small boats & the more I study them the more heroic they become. Volitive, skilled, masterful subjects to the weather & wind. All the more inspiring for putting off safe harbors. A 100ft Gullet out of Bodrum is more a small ship than a boat, cabins for 16 with a crew of 3, & only the duty less passengers of Carl, Fabian, Konstantin & myself aboard for a week.

When I arrive Bodrum is still in it’s summer season in every way but the crowd. With the aim of keeping it that way I join Konstantin aboard & we depart for a nearby quiet harbor, until Carl & Fabian arrive just after dusk by zodiac. We settle in to cruise north east for the next few days, winter follows closely behind in dark swift moving clouds.

Whatever the weather the water proves warm & crystalline day & night, while the islands & coves we more at change in extremes, from the rugged rocky aegean format one day to old growth coastal pine I’d expect of America’s pacific north-west the next. 

4 months aboard the USS Kearsarge & 6 days broken down on Carl’s boat a month prior are my frames of reference for packing for sea. The first priority is coffee, followed by whisky, wrapped in a bullet proof sweater, tossed into my Seebag with about 6 cameras. The very best breed of sweater for the sea is one from North Sea Clothing. Scottish made, with much of the wools natural oils retained to keep the wet out & warm in, it’s a burly coarse beauty ideal for a sea blown breeze under the stars. Best yet it will make you look the rugged yachtsman you absolutely are not.

Seebag’s aboard & ready to go ashore

It’s a trip with no agenda, besides thought, & each has his fill. Konstantin is just beginning to find his passions in life, Carl is starting life anew, Fabian has 220 unread text messages to unread.

Iv’e got too many options, a few less finding out the Greek sea border is closed, along with about 130 more borders to Americans.

The blue of the ocean matches the sky so that the horizon disappears. Days are lost to the sun & each evening to Cuban Cuba libres, backgammon & the after sun scotch of choice: Glendronach 15. Bet’s are settled with high dives that nobody really minds.

Working our way back along the Turkish coast, nights are punctuated by strange guttural noises from the shore, seemingly projected our way. We joke uneasily about Odysseus’s lost crew.

Swimming ashore the following day a wild mustang challenges us at the first hill. As we are on a 3 fingered peninsula I cajole the others into primitive group hunting tactics to procure a photo of the wild horse. We have all come ashore in boardshorts, a lucky few in shirts, & all this is forgotten in the frantic chase through heavy brambles & thorns. Perhaps a mile later we are no closer to a photo, despite packing out a 200m telephoto in my Seebag’s removable-market bag. Separating our numbers in shoulder high thorned vegetation the stallion easily outmaneuvers us. Regrouping I find each member of the party is completely bloodied from the waist down, & Fabian has lost his phone. We conclude our pursuit of wild horses.

The following morning we pass a ship breaking yard, & take out the shore boat to investigate. Two aged sailors labor away amidst a dozen massive hulls in no particular hurry. An old sweater & even older dog are the days remarkable features.

Carl’s Seebag at the shipbreaking yard

Istanbul is next on the agenda. The weather bounces between Indian summer & torrential downpours, unwavering however is my friend, tailor & guide Edo of EGR Sartoria. Early mornings on the Bosphorus, the hair raising hum of minarets coming alive across the city, The Orient Express bar, deserted, & better for it as always. We make the pilgrimage to chief Emre at Dukkan for the worlds best meats, twice. In Sultanhammet Gibi is a welcome reprieve from a bustling city of hawkers. A private dinner & cocktails with an un-expected but endlessly successful marriage of Thai & Turkish cuisine.

Edo of EGR Sartoria

I will likely always have my points of departure with Istanbul & certainly with contemporary Turkey, but the relief of spending a few weeks in place not dominated by the virus can’t be understated. Particular to the Turkish mindset, & summed up by a bumper sticker we repeat like a mantra each time we step into a cab. ‘’NO SEATBELTS WE DIE LIKE MEN’’

In Observer news, 30 – 11 – 2020 will see the pre-release of Observer’s first perfume & proprietary vessel, followed shortly by the Whisky Wallet & the return of an entirely new Team Hat. Please sign up for the Dispatch’s mailing list to hear about it first.

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Breaking into Europe

Breaking Into Europe

There was work overseas, finally. 6 months after 2 weeks to beat the curve, time to get back on the road. Buying the ticket was the first taste of volition, forward motion, and meaningful rebellion in a half year of hell.

Traveling to Europe as an American during Covid is neither easy nor impossible. What guidance you can find online is contradictory, and likely to have changed a dozen times between buying your tickets and arrival. With work taking me to the UK & after a judicious study of the U.K’s guidelines I had two choices: 

1 – quarantine for 14 days in England, or

2 – quarantine for 14 days on an approved list of 40+ other countries before transiting to the UK. 

Needless to say I had only one choice.

Of those 40 countries only Turkey (with e-visa) Greenland, Aruba, Jamaica, Croatia, and Italy (for work, with substantial substantiating paperwork) are open to Americans. From the U.K almost all of Europe is open to you. I applied for and received an e-visa for Turkey, this would serve as my backup. Italy however was my goal.

Research into Italy proved more confusing at each turn. The Italian Consulate (open only for phone calls, from 2-3, exclusively on Wednesday’s) sent me a stock email with dead links. I found two relevant, but slightly contradictory forms, The Self Declaration Form, and Self Certification Form. Between this and other sources it seemed after arriving I would have to either: 

A- quarantine 

B- quarantine after 4 days 

C- Carry on as usual. 

Covering my bases I took a covid test 50 hours before flying, printed a full itinerary, purchased medical insurance, and arranged an invitation letter from a company I planned to develop an Observer design with. Arriving at the airport, nearly it’s only traveler, I was told by the airline that it was their responsibility to screen me for Europe (a unspoken rule that proved true across the entire month of travel, and a rule found absolutely nowhere online.) At the airline’s request I showed them emails proving my business intentions in Italy, and purchased, on the spot, tickets departing Italy.

My foremost issues with the global handling of covid is the absurd level of bureaucracy leveled at a crisis that is only combated at the personal level. This combat I take seriously. To fly as safely as possible I purchased, and wore for the duration of the 14h flight an OPS-CORE SOTR respirator mask. Designed for military units operating in highly contaminated environments it offers a complete face seal much like a gas mask, exchangeable filters, and best of all no fogged glasses or that fucking mask-breath-smell. Beyond the higher 99.97% filtration I also gambled that the subtle Bane cosplay would send the right message to any authority figures. The valves proved a point of contention on American flights, but showing that they had filters resolved any issues.  Additionally I wore my ballistic “safety” glasses to cut down the risk of eye contamination (3% chance says science).

The toughest hurdle would prove to be behind me, with my passport stamped in Paris connecting to Napoli, no questions where asked. Maybe it was the mask.

I arrived in Naples with 30 pages of documentation, A freshly pressed Anglo Italian suit & Seebag in hand leveled at the Dogana (Italian immigration police). Failing that Istanbul is 4 hours away ( I budgeted a few extra days should things go wrong, so that my plans for London wont be interrupted). Iv’e rehearsed the border-grilling session a thousand times in my head.

The questions never came, no passport check, no inspection, no stamp. After the baggage claim a un-uniformed man with some sort of ID strung around his neck asked me where I came from, I took him for a pushy taxi driver and replied “Paris” (True, and advantageous ). He retreated to what could have been a medical stand.

In a Taxi, in the wind again, laughing. As the first rays of Italian sun hit me the sneaking depression and anxiety of 6 months dropped from me like a sheet. Im in Italy for business, my hours are 2200 – 0500 at Flanagan’s bar, no need for an appointment, I’m there every night.

Office hours at Flanagan’s

Every morning 1000-1500 I ran, scouting the city, or swam along the lidos of Possilipo, burning, floating, forgetting. Naples spills directly into the sea, more like Rio, less like a sewer, unlike Los Angeles. The Seebags removable liner bag proved ideal at these urban beaches. It drew no more attention from thieves than a common market bag, conversely the hi-vis rescue yellow was easy to spot at a distance while swimming. 

The Seebag’s removable liner bag during an amphibious tasking

Naples has a reputation for thievery, it’s no more than another set of city rules you need to learn if you want to have a good time. I left my watch at home, kept my phone tucked away, and used my Seebag’s liner bag for the first few days, learning the rules. Playing by them I wore my watch to the inside, and my camera tucked in either my Seebag or Indy. Nights I stuck to disposable cameras. More than what not to do, learning the rules is also learning what to do. My mask rested on my left arm at the bicep, as all the Italians do. I take it as an adaption from the mourning bands they still wear in the south.

Kerim, at Flannagan’s

After a week it dawned on me I am the only American in Italy. How many times did I pray for a summer without tourists? At what Faustian price where my prayers answered? When Kerim lays down his brilliant succession of cocktails along the Negroni road ( Ottro Teatro, Boulevardier, Paper Planes ) I thought I made it away with with my soul intact and Europe to myself. The devil gets his the following morning, along the first quarter mile.

Giuseppe & Seebag

The rough side of Naples is the charming side, if you can’t see it, don’t go. 6 euros and 3 Michelin stars later you can have a pizza margherita on steps that where probably last cleaned by the Romans. If you like yachts go to Capri, if you like old sailboats, old sailors and old friends tour the waterfront with Giuseppe, down from Florence hunting more vintage for his brand Peplor.

Yachts in Capri, with Antonio Cocca

They where wrong about Naples, at least partly, its not rough all over. If you stumbled into Flannagans or The Grand Tour any night and yelled “Doctori” half the room would turn around. Doctors, Lawyers, Actresses all home on quarantine, all stare back at you, demand a shot, and they settle the bill by highest temperature.

Doctors, Lawyers, Bankers & Actress’s….

I haven’t drank so much, or swam in so much sun since the Recon days. Im drinking like Im 20 with the stratagem of a wicked old man, everyone else is under the table, I’m never up before noon. But all good things must end, I pack my Seebag for London, for work, really.

dead inside, burned outside via David Gohar

Im a moving image of efficiency through Heathrow, Tango in hand, Seebag cross body with Paperwork and passport indexed on the outer pocket. I fill out my PLF (passenger locator form) cross the (electronic) border, (empty) customs and derelict baggage claim alone, unchallenged but surely surveilled.

London is quiet, but the charming streets carry on, more precariously, and just as vigorously as before. I drop by all the old haunts, Savile Row, more ghost town than usual aside from the torch in the night that is coffee at The Service. I track down a good celebratory stick with Max Foulkes. I cannot drink anymore but do anyway with Dan Graham.

Beirut via Athens is next. I do my research in preparation. The American consulate spells out an explicit ban, but the Greek tourism website’s opening statement reads “traveling from EUROPE”. Another covid test, more travel insurance, Itinerary, my Beirut ticket in hand. The Greek system of entry involves an online  questionnaire in great detail, of which approval is granted or denied only on the day of your arrival. You receive a QR code and number as a pass ( if it starts with 1 or 3 you’re tested and quarantine for a day, 2 or 4 you don’t) Explicitly it’s stated the burden of screening is placed on the airline you fly with.

I headed to the airport hoping for the best and having prepared for the worst. The airline grilled me at check in, they hold me just before boarding to verify by radio:

 “are Americans allowed?”

I hold my breath 

“yes”

2.5 hours later we land and I was promptly jailed, alongside some North Africans with real things to worry about. No amount of paperwork, or even pre-approval seemed to matter with an American passport. The gravity of the situation sunk in when they confiscated my tie. By 0600 I’d managed to procure a return flight (all the way home) over a barely there 2g signal. I grabbed my Seebag and head to the gate, flanked by police. 

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The Seebag & Pre-Order

Seebag in olive drab Nam color way

The Seebag is both the oldest Observer design, & the one that spent the longest in development. Living out of military kit bags for years, a proper go bag / carry on took on more value to me than perhaps any other design. This is furniture, hearth & home for those on the road.

Handles, weight, efficiency & ergonomics were consistent failure points of other bags, so these became the foundation for the Seebag. The Seebag’s handles are not fixed but adjustable. Firstly, to offer each Observer a perfect fit in all positions, secondly so handles can easily be serviced or replaced & lastly so the handles evenly cradle & compress the carried weight. Each handle is made from pebble grain leather, its compressed nature & texture allows it to break in better than other leathers, taking your shape with time. Handles adjust in length on the Seebag’s bottom with custom Austrialpin aluminum hardware.

Aluminium Austrialpin buckle allows the Seebag handles to be adjusted in length
Aluminium Austrialpin buckle allows the Seebag handles to be adjusted in length

The arc-wedge shape addresses two other frequent failures of weekend bags, small openings & poor ergonomics & weight distribution. The Seebags zipper opens far wider than its base, making organization & retrieval easier. The wedge shape makes the bag exceedingly comfortable and stable against your body.

The Seebag’s inline bottle pocket with elasticated adjustable retention

Pockets & seams are something I avoid. Every seam is a potential failure point. Pockets add seams, & their shape normally confines Observers unnecessarily. The seabag has only two canvas seams on its body, & three in the leather encasing it. It’s one pocket is sized to fit everything from small water bottles to large wine bottles & falls in-line on the same zipper the bag opens with. Through an elasticated adjustable retention system, bottles can be retained even if oversized or without zipper closure. It’s unlikely water will cease to be a necessity to mankind in the foreseeable future.

Carry on / weekend bags fall into two camps: lined and unlined. Lined bags can be easier to clean, but often conceal manufacturing shortcuts, & add weight. Unlined bags dirty easily, and may stand up to less abuse than lined bags. 

The Seebag’s removable liner doubles as a market bag

The Seabag is neither. The Seebag’s removable liner is itself a stand alone market bag perfect for errands, beach runs or as an overflow bag on return trips. Made of carbon laced competition sail cloth, it gives The Seabag a rigid structure without adding noticeable weight. The high-vis yellow is in deference to visibility, both packing in low light & for search & rescue crews should you become lost or very drunk.

The Seebags exterior is laid out to be highly ergonomic & secure in either hand. Through magnetic closure, optional shock cord closure & storable pockets, the contents of the Seebags pockets are your’s & your’s alone. Tucked discretely on the backside of the Seabag is a tone on tone double MOLLE panel. This is ideal for attaching whatever mission specific accessory you may need from a plethora of MOLLE compatible designs available.

The Seebag worn cross body

Carry methods are probably the most important & least considered aspect in weekend / go bag. Most bags sit awkwardly on the shoulder, or worse bang around at the hip or leg level beating you as you race to catch Taxi/train/plane. The wide, malleable & adjustable handles of the Seabag fill your hand comfortably, fit high & securely on the shoulder & spread when worn cross body for incredible comfort & stability.

The Seebag pre-order closes August 10 or when stock is exhausted. 12 Seebags will be available in each color. Seebags will ship out no later than September 7th. Free shipping is included. Should you have second thoughts, or be unsatisfied at any point you may request a refund. If you have any shipping concerns, contact me directly.

Care & Maintenance

Longevity, legacy of use, & patina are the basis for selecting the materials for Observer designs. This has lead me to favor leather & fabric that time imbues with incrementally greater beauty but forgoes the short term performance benefits of synthetic finishes. This places a greater responsibility for care & maintenance on Observers.
The following is my experience based guide on maintaining & preparing your Observer Equipment.
Method:
I recommend Observer leather goods be cleaned & treated every 4 months, as non-seasonal designs, & in the hope that they are put to use daily.
All removable straps & accessories should be taken off for cleaning.
A brush down with soft bristle brush should be conducted across the design, a more detailed cleaning along the stitching lines, with special attention paid to fold areas, high abrasion points & folded edges. Avoid brushing the hand painted edges.
While harder to reach cleaning the underside of leather straps is important.
insure to brush out the inside of the product cleaning out any dust & debris that has accumilated
Please note any loosened/ split stitches, fraying edge paint. Both can be serviced by Observer, & often a local cobbler.
After cleaning apply a conditioning treatment gently with a soft clean rag by hand. Use medium even force when applying. After allowing time to dry any excess should be removed, & a lighter second layer can be applied if needed.
regardless of the brand of conditioner 12 hours minimum rest time should be allowed for the design to fully absorb the treatment. Mind your clothes after a cleaning. But not too much.
I base the following maintenance guides on age & operating environment.
Initial treatment (4, 8 months):
I recommend Saphir Huile De Vision (Mink Oil) which conditions leather against dryness & cracking but effects the color less than any other product I have tried, & leaves no residue rendering a even, matte finish. Mink Oil however does almost nothing for preventing stains from rain.
Rainy and high humidity environments ( or 8 months +)
For wet weather environments, or approaching a year of heavy use I recommend Pecard’s Motorcycle Leather dressing. This dressing both restores and conditions leather as well as defends it against rain & humidity. This will darken your leather noticeably, but draw out a greater patina.
Well worn designs ( 2 years + )
For well & heavily worn Observer designs I recommend Pecard’s Antique Leather Dressing. Used by many museums to preserve archival pieces this gently conditions, draws out Patina but does not overly soften the leather which is better for longevity.