Beneath the Surface is a monthly column by Robert Lim that examines the cultural side of heritage fashions.
I love to travel. In part, it’s an opportunity for new experiences – finding something new and exciting I couldn’t even imagine before is an endless and satisfying quest. Beyond the adventure, learning about others’ culture and perspective has been an invaluable education and one I still draw on continuously.
To keep myself as open to all of this, I’ve thought a lot about how to travel as efficiently as possible and tinkered with items that help facilitate that goal; I’ve boiled down some of these thoughts into three axioms below.
1. Travel as unencumbered as you can.
I try to pack smartly for what I need. If I have to worry about a pile of luggage and where to stow it, I’m less likely to focus on the purpose of my travel. While waiting at a baggage claim for your checked luggage is probably a necessary evil these days, if you make the decision to carry-on only, commit to it by not being the person trying to cram their suitcase into a crowded overhead bin.
My go-to personal item travel bag these days is the Nike ACG Responder backpack that Errolson Hugh designed for Nikelab based on Nike’s SFS Responder Backpack. If the goal of a designer includes solving problems so you don’t have to, this one is loaded with features that do just that.
These features include a quad zip function allowing for easy unloading, which also allows you to pull the top flap up to access your cargo in an unconscious motion unlike backpacks with zippered compartments you need to pull in a U-shape. I have a company backpack that operates this way and have no idea how its designer didn’t figure out how counterintuitive it is to open a flap up, by pulling a zipper downwards first.
The detachable side pockets that integrate into a MOLLE system (Modular Lightweight Load-carrying Equipment–those straps stitched onto the outside of a bag) are carried over from the SFS Responder and are a genius way to integrate the functionality of having mesh side pockets for water bottles into a more universal option with zippered shut tops. The tear drop design also distributes the load evenly and maintains a constraint on how much you can put into it (even thought it’s tempting to fill your bags to the brim at the start of travel, it’s never a good look to lose your balance when putting on your backpack).
2. Travel with flexibility in mind
This means being sensitive to the various permutations of environment you may encounter, including changing weather and social contexts. These can be solved by a creative approach to layering, specifically dual purpose pieces – the kind any sales person meant when they said “you can dress this up and down.”
London is one of my favorite destinations. I used to visit completely casually, while also wanting to sample the full range of experiences it could offer as a world-class city. I learned quickly that, unlike America, you’re generally expected to dress according to your age and station (broadly so, but particularly in work contexts).
To this end, it’s really helpful having a technical blazer handy – my favorite one is the Ultralight Blazer from Outlier because it maintains a classic (and contemporary) look but travels well. Traveling well means it’s light, is a water resistant soft shell which dries quickly, plus can be crumpled up and never look worse for wear. I get cold on airplanes and it’s a great piece to use to keep you warm and looking like an adult when you fly (or looking fly as an adult – sorry, I’ll get my coat).
It’s worth a sidebar to talk about technical fabrics – the denim and workwear pieces that we love were developed to maximize both utility and durability for specific labor (it’s also true of Milspec, see here for more of my thoughts on that). While there are still plenty of people out there doing the kind of work for which those pieces were designed, the rise of a fashion-conscious, traveling professional class brings on a whole different meaning of work: trans-urban meetings where appearances matter, while remaining agile in indeterminate weather conditions.
It’s youthful, classic, practical and can be as tough as nails – technology working for us, not against us. Happily, there are more and more brands catering to this; among the better ones I’ve found are Acronym, the aforementioned Outlier and Arc’teryx Veilance.
Layering is key – if you vibe more fashion-forward, layering is in Engineered Garments’ DNA and I love to use their chambray shirt for just that. Chambray is another great travel fabric – it’s light and still looks fine when slightly rumpled; it’s pictured below under a fleece cardigan (a garment-dyed Stone Island piece, for you eagle-eyed readers).
Above is a Roy chambray underneath an Acronym DS-LA3 in Schoeller Dryskin fabric used as a shirt jacket – while my personal sensibilities may cause a degree of mental dissonance with some readers, I hope I’m not losing my point on how versatile a simple chambray shirt can be.
3. Travel with dignity
This means build some downtime into your schedule and sometimes splurge on nicer accommodations to make you happier to spend time in your home away from home. I flew out to the Pacific Northwest last summer, first stopping through Seattle then continuing down to Portland.
I could have rented a car or taken a puddle jumper flight between the two, but opted for the Amtrak train. If you haven’t taken a train recently, it’s like an airplane without most of the rules – you don’t have to show up as far in advance or throw away your bottled drink before you board. You can work, or read, or sleep (or write!) along the way and you’ll often get a completely new view of your surroundings.
Passing by Vancouver, WA into Portland, I saw what seemed to be the most spectacular power plant – it looked like a citadel and completely unlike anything I’d ever expect traveling through the area. As it turns out, it is a massive malt plant operated by Great Western Malting, a company founded in 1934 and now owned by a self-described international agribusiness. Hey, I suppose all that beer in the supermarket has to come from somewhere. Passing by, I felt that I had already seen the region from a fresh perspective.
On the subject of dignity – I’ve been flying with TSA Pre-Check clearance for six months now and it makes a difference to not have to prove you’re not a terrorist. It’s operated by the US government for its citizens and involves finger-printing and a background check.
For this (and a fee), you keep your clothing and shoes on, don’t have to empty change from your pockets like you’re broke and don’t trudge along like line of cattle waiting to be imaged. For those of us who retain memory of a time when even unticketed passengers could go to a terminal gate, it’s like rolling back the years back when travel was a luxury, your focus on where you’d land and what awaits.