SCENE: A PACKED New York City subway train, headed toward midtown in morning rush hour. Professional women, nearly all scanning smartphones, balance bags on their knees, in the crook of their arms, on their shoulders, or, cringingly, between their shoes on the germy floor. I clock a weathered Goyard purse, a boxy Kate Spade bag, a structured Prada “Saffiano Executive Tote Bag,” a cotton tote printed with the name of an art fair. In them? Judging from conversations I’ve had with dozens of women, the contents could include anything from gym clothes to flat shoes to legal briefs to laptops to lunches to breast pumps. A “work bag” is arguably the most important fashion investment women can make—able to serve as a mobile home office, to make or break an outfit.
Too bad it’s so hard to find a good one.
Noëlle Santos, a 31-year-old entrepreneur who is launching a bookstore-cum-winebar in the Bronx, carries three bags: a laptop case, a Dooney & Bourke red purse and a canvas tote. “I love my three bags, I just wish they were one,” she said. In fact, last year she posted a plea on Facebook : “Can you recommend a fashionable bag that offers protection for my 15-inch laptop, space for a planner and makeup bag, and keeps my business cards, phone and keys accessible? If you’re looking for a market opportunity, design bags just for female entrepreneurs. Please!”
I sympathize with Ms. Santos, and the other women I spoke to who haven’t yet resolved the whole work bag conundrum, including a Los Angeles sales executive who carries a green men’s briefcase discarded by her brother. While men have historically carried briefcases and also have the option of backpacks and messenger bags, women typically want something more elegant. After years of working in fashion, I’ve accumulated a motley crew of highly impractical bags, including enough Jane Birkin-style straw baskets to start a bonfire in my closet. And yet, when I need to carry a laptop to a meeting, I throw it in one of my indestructible L.L. Bean totes or a floppy, decade-old Céline Cabas tote with zero pockets, and make a mental note to find a better solution.
- The Everyday One Cuyana’s tote is a pleasingly anonymous option. Note the sold-separately organizational insert. Classic Tote Bag, $ 215, cuyana.com
- The Novel One Customizable in colorful canvas and leather trim, this big-in-France bag will never feel stuffy. Carry-All Tote Bag, $ 553, luniform.com
- The Collapsible One There’s a reason Longchamp sells an estimated 11 totes a minute: they’re so practical for work. Le Pliage Neo, $ 245, longchamp.com
The goal: a go-everywhere, carry-everything tote that is extremely functional but doesn’t look it. My personal wish list also includes: lightness, subtlety and an absence of clunky hardware. As an editor, as opposed to, say, a C-suite exec, I can get away with some level of casualness.
Once I began searching for this elusive bag, it became an obsession. My late-night e-commerce scrolling chased me constantly (thanks, invasive cookies), proposing slideshows of options. I found myself breaking eye contact with women to look down—like a lecherous man but with more noble aims. I’d grill them earnestly: “What’s important to you in a bag?”
There were as many answers as women. Often, a big factor was how the bag would affect the way they were perceived at work. Kellie Jurado, 30, a postdoctoral immunobiologist at Yale, carries a burgundy Michael Kors Jet Set tote bag in part to distinguish herself from the backpack-toting students swarming around her on campus.
- The ‘I’ve Made It’ One When you have graduated from humbler options, this tote spells success. Intrecciato Roma Bag, $ 3,750, Bottega Veneta, 800-845-6790
- The Modern One Mansur Gavriel‘s crisp but unassuming bags are ideal for a low-key CEO or a low-stress yoga teacher. Folded Bag, $ 995, mansurgavriel.com
- The OMG One Hermès’s bag will never project discretion, but it will last forever, i.e., how long you’ll want to carry it. Victoria II Bag, $ 5,150, hermes.com
Lisa Rubin, 41, a former litigator who’s now a women’s rights activist and writer, remembers the pressure to literally keep up with her mostly male colleagues while rushing to court: “I needed a handbag that didn’t slow me down as I was trying to keep pace with men who were taller and speedier; if you lag behind, you’re not part of the conversation.” For Ms. Rubin, a black Proenza Schouler tote with space for legal briefs, a laptop and an accordion folder did the trick, thanks to the way its vertical shape distributed weight.
Politicians, with their notoriously grueling schedules, have intense relationships with often-gigantic bags that must carry ample hand sanitizer and other personal effects to take them through several events in a day. In 2017, New York magazine’s The Cut ran a slideshow titled, “The Only Thing Angela Merkel Loves More Than Governing Is Rummaging Through Her Enormous Handbag.” The German chancellor carries various tote bags, often by French brand Longchamp. On the HBO show “Veep,” a running gag involves the politician played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus being constantly orbited by a staffer whose entire job is to carry her mammoth bag: the “Leviathan.”
While you might not need 60 pockets, as the fictional Leviathan has, functionality tops most every woman’s list of criteria. As our lives have evolved, becoming more mobile and tech-centered, bags have new responsibilities. Case in point: When I spoke with Tina Craig, 46, the Dallas-based co-founder of the blog Bag Snob, she had her smartphone on speaker as she drove her son to a golf lesson before returning to the office. “Women work differently now and our bags need to work for us differently,” she said. “The internet has allowed us a lot of freedom to do everything. We can work and be at home for our family, we no longer have to choose. Just like you no longer have that same ugly work bag, briefcase or your typical black tote.” Ms. Craig, who has no shortage of options, carries a lightweight Valentino tote when she needs to bring her laptop to a meeting.
- The Slightly ’90s One The black fabric of Prada’s hand-held tote (with detachable shoulder strap) gives this classic a twist. Concept Bag, $ 2,070, prada.com
- The Tracy Flick-Approved One L.O.N.B. makes seriously organized bags for seriously organized overachievers. Private Eye Bag, $ 2,880, lonb.com
- The Trenchant One Evocative of the classic trench, this belted Céline carryall magically resists water and boringness. Big Bag, $ 2,550, Céline, 212-226-8001
Ms. Craig also mentioned L.O.N.B., a bag line launched in London last year by Melissa Morris and Reinhard Mieck, both veterans of the luxury-goods industry. As though cosmically responding to Ms. Santos’s Facebook plea for a better bag, L.O.N.B. makes practical pieces that don’t skimp on luxury details like lush suede interiors. “The modern woman is traveling from day to night,” said Ms. Morris, an idea that shapes their bags’ functionality-heavy design. The company has a global patent pending for its “Runaway” panel, a clip-in organizational dashboard that fits into its larger bags and includes features like a secret pocket for your most frequently-used card (such as a subway pass), a phone pocket and a zippered pocket that fits a mini iPad. I’m too impatient to supervise all those pockets, but more type-A organizational minds will love the attention to detail.
Though many women struggle to find the perfect bag, the options are multiplying. Along with luxury standbys that perch in corner offices (the Louis Vuitton Neverfull Tote, the Céline Big Bag), you can now find minimalist, sophisticated leather bags, like those from female-designed lines such as Mansur Gavriel and Trademark; accessible, easy totes like those from Cuyana, Leatherology and Everlane; and disruptive, pocket-happy bags from brands hoping to reinvent the form like Dagne Dover and Lo & Sons.
The Row, the American luxury house founded by Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen and known for outstanding quality, recently launched the light yet capacious (and, in my opinion, brain-meltingly chic) Margaux bag, specifically to address women’s work and travel needs. In an email, Mary-Kate Olsen wrote, “A woman’s handbag should be functional, without sacrificing aesthetics.”
Not every ideal bag I came across requires quite as steep of an investment as the Row’s Margaux (which starts at $ 3,950). L/Uniform, a French company with a robust e-commerce site, offers leather-trimmed canvas bags as durable and unassuming as my L.L. Bean tote, but distinctly more dressed-up. The brand’s Carry-All Tote Bag (pictured above) has a zippered top, and would easily fit my MacBook Air and the cornucopia of fruit I lug to work each morning. It’s customizable online, so you could choose, for example, cherry red canvas with a darker red leather trim and a golden Wes-Anderson-ish monogram. Basic black is always an option, too.
Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue, famously doesn’t carry a purse at all. She told this paper in 2003, “Handbags weigh you down.” I once envied the freedom (and implied car service) of her bag-free life. But now I’ve changed my mind: Preparedness is the ultimate power move.
SILLIEST SATCHELS // Three Women on the Flipside Allure of Pure Impracticality
Curator and cultural strategist
“I have a bright fuchsia Lanvin bag that I thought was so cool and would break me out of my all-black mode. I’ve probably only used it twice. It’s at the front of my closet on display to encourage me.”
“There was this time I was really into small purses because I felt like the cute equation was to put something really small next to something big. I bought this YSL bag at a vintage store in L.A. You can maybe fit your keys inside—it’s very pre-cellphone.”
Co-owner of Mr. Chow
“The Hermès 35mm Croco is my favorite. They’re the most beautifully well-made bags. I love them and will always have them but for everyday, they’re too heavy. It’s like looking at a beautiful object but not the most practical.”
—Interviews by Lauren Ingram