As the cold, grey bleakness of the Berlin winter mellowed into spring earlier in the year, we moved away from our tiny box apartment in Kreuzberg and set our sights on a brand new hood.
We now live in Neukölln, further south, above a bar on a street corner in one of the few original ‘altbau’ buildings that weren’t levelled in the War. Spending 24 hours in Neukölln is a liberal experience, and to get around with your gear in this raw, multicultural hood, you need the right accessories. Though it may be understated, Berlin can be rather picky about its understatedness – ostentatiousness is certainly out; cool is difficult to pinpoint; meanwhile, pragmatism remains just as crucial (we are still in Germany, after all).
We thought it would be a fine idea to give Officine Federali’s newest black rolltop a run to see how an Italian urban fashion offering might fare in the raw southern streets of the concrete Deutsch capital.
Officine Federali was founded by Milan-based designer Fabio Carminati, who gleaned ample expertise in bag and leather design at places like Napapijri, Armani, Moleskine and Hugo Boss. OF produces exemplary fashion-driven urban carry designs, where Italian hands join vegetable-tanned leather, military waterproof cotton and technical materials like Cordura to create beautiful carry accessories designed to last for good. We were instantly drawn to the black rolltop from OF’s “Black Skin Total Black Capsule Collection”: sleek, sexy and understated, and as we’d soon find, highly suited to the Neukölln experience.
Aesthetically, certain bags are a tough sell in Berlin. People ride bikes to get everywhere, so it’s a city of messengers and waterproofed, plastic top loaders. We’re a world away from Milan or Paris; aesthetically, people don’t dress up so much as dress down, and the accessories people choose tend to reflect this tenet. Nonetheless, neighbourhoods like Neukölln are judicious with their gear, and many don’t generally get around with second-rate stuff. Top quality is a prime consideration, but the sort of quality that doesn’t draw too much attention to itself.
In this regard, the Officine Federali instantly proved an excellent choice for our sort of urban environment: fashionable, yet covert, far from ostentatious. For a fashion backpack, very little seemed to be lost in terms of practicality. The OF blended in coolly in Berlin, but it still made a statement: a formidable candidate for the wear, tear and stare of this uber-discerning, no shits given capital. It’s pretty hard to cover all bases while being suitable to both genders – Berlin culture is right on the pulse when it comes to gender neutral clothing and accessories, and the OF came through in great strides here. While HK championed its use – relishing in shoulder straps that (finally) weren’t too wide for her frame – I felt great with it on my back too. This is a truly classy, all-purpose, urban unisex offering. We looked forward to wearing it in.
24 HOURS IN NEUKÖLLN
Living a colourful expat life in Paris, writer Henry Miller often used the phrase ‘taking the lead’ when he dived into unknown depths of the Parisian nightlife, letting instinct guide the whole way. Berlin life can be equally unpredictable, but it’s good to pack a few essentials for the ride. For a standard 24 hours in Neukölln, we pack a DSLR for shots, wallets and coin purses for the buyings, a few brews for the wanderings, a journal and pens, some boat gear (pump, oars) for a little canal sailing, and later on, grill supplies for an evening cook up at the nearby abandoned airport. An expat just like us and Henry Miller, the Italian OF rolltop showed its mirth, worth and certainly took the lead in gritty old town Berlin.
11am – Rise
Typically a night city, it goes without saying that mornings do not begin early in Berlin, except for its dog walkers, and revellers who still think it’s yesterday (or last week). After a late rise, we either head directly over the road to K-Fetisch, the café collective and meeting point for the neighbourhood; otherwise a short wander up Wildenbruchstrasse to the landwehrkanal where ‘Zimt and Mehl’s’ outdoor tables by the waterline are hard to pass up in the glowing late morning. They also do a mean Frühstück, a German institution, typically a huge plate of cheese, meats and fruits, and good strong coffee.
1pm – Canalside Wanderings
Though winter is another story altogether, Berlin comes into its own in the summertime. You really earn a winter here after the grey, bleak months of vitamin-D deficiency and hibernation. There’s no better way to spend a sunny Saturday than shaking off a hangover down by the canal, breezing through the kiez with a hair of the dog beverage, or Club-Mate: a yerba mate caffeine explosion, choice tipple of Berliners for life. You get your cold brew on the go from a corner Späti (a convenience store, aka ‘latey’, known for its long opening hours). Tremendous fridges bursting with assorted cold brew await, and the happiness guaranteed with it.
“For a fashion backpack, very little seemed to be lost in terms of practicality. The OF blended in coolly in Berlin, but it still made a statement: a formidable candidate for the wear, tear and stare of this uber-discerning, no shits given capital.”
Down the canal, you notice that, despite the affordable rents in the area, many Berliners prefer to opt for downsized, hassle-free domesticity in a waterside caravan or, in some cases, dilapidated coach, replete with canal views and ease of use. Neukölln: Berlin’s preferred hub for urban camping.
At this point we notice that the OF’s interior is surprisingly spacious and fits a lot more than you’d think: a blue neoprene pocket will hold a 15-inch laptop with ease, while three smaller pockets are still sizeable enough to fit a mini tablet or iPhone 6 (so many bags these days only cater to the smaller devices, so this was a revelation). A single zippable exterior pocket is equally spacious, handy and effortlessly accessible. Shoulder straps are tough yet soft, and so too, the back canvas. You’d think they wouldn’t do well with excess weight, but this was far from the case. In fact, this bag is one of the more comfortable we’ve ever strapped on: even when crammed with digital SLR, lenses and other assorted bits and pieces.
3.30pm – Boating
If you’re lucky like us, and your friend from home appreciated you putting him up so much on a recent trip that he decided to surprise you with an inflatable boat in the mail, then a lazy Saturday like this is perfect for a mid-afternoon session floating about old school on the swan-littered waters of the canal. We usually drift west to the fork in the water where the canal veers off to Kreuzberg, and north to the River Spree. A couple of beers, some rays. Time well spent.
“This is a truly classy, all-purpose, urban unisex offering.”
We really love the mix of materials in the OF rolltop. The vegetable-tanned leather on the underside gives the bag a hard-wearing robustness: vegetable tan is a stiffer choice, while the roll top and body demand softer leather, which looks great and feels awesome to the touch. The strong silver buckles allow for an effortless adjustment glide, and the roll top function is a real ease-of-use stand out, especially when you’re on the go and need to throw a bunch of chunky things in all at once (particularly when you’re on an inflatable boat).
7pm – Tempelhofer Feld
The sun is still juiced up high in the sky at seven and it’s almost time to eat. Dust off your mini grill, pick up some briquettes from the local Lidl and shoot up the hill to Tempelhof, the enormous recreation park that was once Berlin’s busiest wartime airport. Named after the Knights Templar, who once galloped and roamed across the vast fields of this area, Tempelhof is an awesome experience: exemplar of Berlin, where families of all ilk, cultures and walks of life gather to grill meats, drink beer, fly kites and relax in the sun. A year and a half of living in this city, I never tire of the Tempelhof experience.
After a day of action, it’s worth noting a couple of things about the OF. Ultimately, when it’s packed, it looks great. But when it’s barely, or only half full (like when all the bratwurst and grill meats in it are gone) it can look a little introverted and rumpled, appearing as if it’s trying to escape your back rather than sitting pretty atop (the fact is, it’s still just as comfortable, but looks much better when padded out).
The hand-worked materials really stand out on the OF in the late day Berlin sun, but the front canvas panel presents a couple of challenges. Berlin is a gritty city: dust, dirt and ash can too easily plague canvas if you’re not too careful, marking up easily, becoming tough to clean (especially at an abandoned airport, though this is a fairly idiosyncratic issue). Ultimately, with a little canvas protector, you’re golden: a relatively trivial problem for this sort of city use. However, you may want to keep your eye on it when taking it off-road down to the lake, beach or forest. It’s resilient, but not impervious to the elements. For all its versatility, it remains at heart a classy, refined bag, and wants to be treated with at least a bit of decorum.
“…the OF’s interior is surprisingly spacious and fits a lot more than you’d think…”
10pm – Klunkerkranich
It won’t get dark in Berlin until around 10pm during summer, so days are suitably long. Subsequently, bars are wise to provide ample outdoor area for long, lazy good times out. One of the best in the hood sits at the very top of the ‘Neukölln Arcaden’ parking garage – Klunkerkranich, an elevated oasis of sand, wooden crates, German haus and delectable cocktails. It has one of the best views in Berlin, and for one of the flattest cities in Europe, that goes a long way.
1am – Heiner’s Bar
Heiner is the fella we rent our apartment from – he runs the bar directly beneath our bedroom, and used to live upstairs for a while too. Heiner’s bar isn’t called ‘Heiner’s. He never got around to giving it a name. It’s an old kneipe bar that used to house an underground post-war gambling club and today serves the neighbourhood its nightly dose of convivial times and affordable booze. An ornate horse greets you in the front window, against the typical-Berlin bar scene of smoke and candle luminescence, with full house of locals downing large pints of Jever and Urquell, settling in for sessions long into the night. Given that we live immediately upstairs, we find ourselves here a fair bit. Some would call such proximity dangerous, but at least the walk home is short. Sometimes we wake at 8am to the distant hum and rumble of the night’s last drinks directly beneath us, people still out and up, making the most of their evening. Quite comforting actually.
“It’s resilient, but not impervious to the elements. For all its versatility, it remains at heart a classy, refined bag, and wants to be treated with at least a bit of decorum.“
3am – Late Night Snack
We had to pick up many new cultural conventions when we moved to Berlin, but one that we didn’t need to learn – given Australia’s long-term embrace of such late night culinary bookends – was the kebab. I mentioned that Neukölln is Döner central, and the options here, at whatever time of day or night, are plentiful. There’s a joint around the corner from us called Samsun, which does a mean Dürüm for 4 Euro; when it’s open, we also love Sahara, the Sudanesische falafel house a little further down.
24 hours later. The Officine Federali is still standing (and we are not).
The OF Lowdown Summarised:
Great urban companion
A beautiful black leather delight (but better when packed full)
Not just fashion: deceptively comfortable on the back and shoulders
Rolltop function makes for easy dumps and pull outs
Canvas is neat, but poses some dust and dirt challenges
Classy, understated cool.
*Photography by Honor Kennedy