It’s certainly not every day that a man stops me in the street to compliment the backpack I’m wearing.1
Transitional bags from the Fjällräven Kånken (have fun trying to pronounce that one!) to the Knomo Chiltern have certainly been all the rage lately. As part of that group, the côte&ciel Saar Small fits in perfectly, marketing itself as a premium bag retailing at $265 (as opposed to the Lo & Sons T.T. at $260—see review here). One of the côte&ciel’s biggest selling points is that it easily transitions from a purse to a backpack, making it a great accompaniment for anyone considered part of the fairer sex.
Because that’s the one thing about picking the carry-on, right? You’ve only got one shot at it, and backpacks are easier to travel with, but no one wants to go out for a night out on the town with one.
In fact, it is one of our favorite bags we have reviewed on the site to date, if not the most favorite, sitting right next to the Cenzo Duffle and Muji suitcase. It performed with flying colors in every environment, from investor meetings to hot dates, and even enjoyed a nice slide down some mud in the Georgian countryside.
In terms of pure versatility and functionality, this bag is able to do it all. (If price is a concern, check out the Everlane Modern Twill Single Snap Backpack, starting at $55. Both pretty much excel at their respective price points, though the latter isn’t able to cover everything the côte&ciel is able to do.)
Size, specifications and all that good stuff.
The bag measures 14.2 inches x 14.6 inches x 3.4 inches (36 cm wide x 37 cm high x 10 cm deep). In comparison, it is a smidge wider but much shorter than the T.T., and that’s a good thing, because carrying around the T.T. can sometimes feel like carrying a mini-survival shelter kit.
The bag is also a bit lighter than the T.T, and has a reduced capacity at 7 L compared to the T.T’s 11.9 L. That being the case, it didn’t turn out to be much of an issue, since we were able to fit more things than we anticipated in the bag.
In a nutshell, the Saar Small is slightly smaller and lighter than the T.T., and manages to hit the sweet spot that the T.T. doesn’t manage to hit in terms of size, capacity and portability. (There is more compromise in terms of organization, however.)
The material is made out of black waxed canvas, with rubber detailing. The waxed canvas was an unappreciated touch until we went hiking in the dead of winter — the bag held up effortlessly to significant amounts of water and snow (at times, in near white-out conditions).
It’s also relatively easy to clean because of this, and though I wouldn’t suggest that anyone go dunking it in a bathtub full of water, its semi water-resistance alleviates any fears about spot cleaning it with liquids. It does pick up animal fur (and copious amounts of it were shed!), but that’s often easily removed with a lint brush.
From a design standpoint, there is certainly a lot of thought put into the bag: The rubber straps and detailing—which looks like bonafide leather but are incredibly durable—elevate the bag beyond mere coffee shop status into a fairly respectable tote that can be carried to more formal meetings.
This solves the main complaint we’ve had with Lo & Sons nylon bags; though they are fairly durable, they have a tendency to look especially worn after time. This was particularly the case with the Cambridge and the T.T. Meanwhile, the Everlane backpack doesn’t seem like a bag that’d be particularly water-resistant: though it should do fine for more everyday weather and climate situations, it’s definitely not a bag we’d take out into the wilderness.
In terms of the zippers, there weren’t any issues, though there were some minor issue with loose threading a couple of days in (it didn’t get worse, though, thankfully). Its unclear how the stitching on the bag would hold up long term and whether this was an isolated incident.
(Sometimes, bags really start showing issues around the six-month mark, but for the most part, all of the really bad ones show significant issues around the three-month mark. Given the fact the issue didn’t get worse, we still have some fair confidence in the côte&ciel’s durability.)
Transforming from a purse to a backpack
Finally, the secret sauce that elevates this bag from great to pure awesome. It can be worn as a purse, as a backpack, slung over one shoulder, or as a front backpack to balance a load.
(In terms of wearing it as a front backpack, it was comfortable. Of course, it’s not going to be as comfortable as a proper daypack; though that’s arguable, because some daypacks are really terrible to carry like that because they have zero structure. The côte&ciel actually has some structure.)
In order to switch the bag from a purse to a backpack is pretty straightforward. There are small button-like “latches” attached to the straps. By turning them into T position, the latches are used to secure the strap to the body of the bag. (To unhook the strap to free it and turn it into a backpack, turn the latch into the I position.)
Interestingly, the adjustable straps can be used to change the drop length of to fit different torsos. However, if it’s latched at the top buckle, and then switched to “purse” mode, this has the unintended effect of making the strap extend about four inches past the bottom of the bag. For the most part, this seems like a weird aesthetic quirk that is unavoidable in the bag’s design.
There’s also a fascinating structural component: To obtain convertibility, the straps criss cross each other and scrunch at the top. (Interesting: Bundling scrunchies and scarfs around the loops created are an ingenious way to utilize these straps.) While this doesn’t necessarily seem like anything at first, it does matter a bit when it comes to security, which we’ll cover in the next section.
Internal organization and security
Like most bags, the côte&ciel could use a little bit of work. Very few bags manage to hit the sweet spot of having enough organization without being overkill. (Seriously, nothing worse than for an anal-retentive packer to feel like that they “have to” stow away everything properly.)
Initially, côte&ciel rolled out the bag with a small, card-sized internal zip pocket. Since then, its enlarged this internal compartment, a bit to accommodate a larger range of gadgets. Anything that fits this sleeve’s internal measurements from 9.8 in x 7.1 in x 1 in (25 cm x 18 cm x 2.5 cm) is fair game.
Straight to the point: Laptops are definitely not going to fit in here, but its the perfect place to stash an iPad or a Kindle.
(The iPad mini that we dropped into the compartment fits in effortlessly. The Kindle Paperwhite squishes in with even more room to spare! My personal favorite is stashing in a bunch of notebooks, or using as a space to stash an Instax Mini 26.)
Here’s a quick overview of what would fit and what would not fit into this device pocket.
|côte&ciel Saar Small||9.8 in x 7.1 in x 1 in||25 cm x 18 cm x 2.5 cm|
|Amazon Kindle Oasis||6.3 in x 5.6 in x .33 in||15.9 cm x 14.1 cm x .8 cm|
|Amazon Kindle Paperwhite||6.3 in x 4.5 in x 0.36 in||16 cm x 11.5 cm x .9 cm|
|Apple iPad Mini 4||7.9 in x 5.3 in x .3 in||20 cm x 13.5 cm x .7 cm|
(Though an 11.6-inch MacBook Air wouldn’t fit in the device pocket, it fits fine in the bag. It does not seem like larger laptops would fit in.)
One interesting observation we noticed was that the device pocket lies opposite the bag strap side, meaning to create somewhat of a flat “back,” there needs to be a larger device often sat across from the device compartment. But with or without a laptop, there often wasn’t much discomfort because of the solid and thick canvas.
But for internal security, the bag excels. There is a top zipper, which we really like, as opposed to button clasps and other types of flap attachments. This is great for preventing people from simply snatching things outright, in either purse or backpack form.
In backpack mode, the criss-crossing straps also provide a nice bonus. Because the straps have to be scrunched for conversion, it inadvertently creates another layer of security. As the first shield of protection, the top can be zipped up, and the straps can be secured as an additional safeguard. In many ways, it is great for protecting internal contents. Um, we may have touted a few wine bottles around in it.
(The main upside/downside is when the bag is swung around like a crossbody, it can take a minute or two to get to the contents so things are not quickly as accessed as they generally are. But at least there is a benefit to the inconvenience.)
Getting the show on the road, and packing it all in.
Let’s establish this again: Cow poop. I bring this up, because it’s not often I dare to bring an “urban” bag on a hiking trip, and fall in a shitload of cow poop. Quite literally.
In fact, this is single handedly the one instance that makes us official côte&ciel converts. That’s the one thing this manufacturer seems to offer over a lot of great-looking boutique brands: Not only do they look great, they also pass muster out in the wild where it counts. Brava.
In terms of fitting contents, it did a great job of holding all the essential travel basics, a Canon D3300 kit (not a small feat!), and was capable of holding other knickknacks like a sweater and a scarf for those chillier moments. Though on occasion, we’d add the full toiletry bag to it when our main backpack ran out of space, this was often cutting it close.
Here’s a basic rundown of what was regularly stuffed into the bag.
- Midori Traveler’s Notebook (+passport)
- Canon D3300 kit + charger
- Flight 001 F1 Seat Pak (fully stocked)
- Amazon Kindle Paperwhite
- Apple iPad Mini 2 + keyboard + stand
- Scarf, sweater, gloves, headgear (inclement weather)
- Bottles of waters, snacks, hardboiled eggs
- Wallet & keys
Not a ton of complaints here.
Summing it all up neatly.
Oh wait? I have to write more?
The côte&ciel Saar Small somehow manages to pull it all off. Aside from being seriously chic, it is a rugged bag that is exceptionally designed. It’s expensive, but I think you clearly get what you pay for here, and the bottom line is that I’m willing to pay more for ONE bag that does it all, instead of having multiple bags that fulfill multiple functions. This is a favorite, and it deserves a serious gold star.
- This really did happen. I sort of wish he had been paying attention the carrier of said bag instead, but whatevs. ↩
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