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Brief Encounters

Are you man enough to carry a tote bag? Of course you are! Lose that ratty messenger bag you've been carting since college and get carried away.

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A friend of mine carries a plaid Burberry tote. It's stylish, makes a good impression in a business meeting (doesn't a Burberry bag say you're doing well at whatever you do?), and it's a perfect fit for his notebook computer; he's quite happy with it. There's only one catch. Just about everyone knows that those Burberry totes are for women.

"One day I was on a street corner and my cell phone rang," he says. "As I fished it out, the bag's handles slipped down my arm." He strikes an Audrey Hepburn-ish pose (elbow planted in his side, forearm jutting and palm upturned, his imaginary bag dangling from the crook) to illustrate his less than manly posture at the crucial moment.

My friend is gay. So let's just say he's comfortable with the campiness; but a lot of men are nervous about bags. "The whole problem is one of nomenclature," says A. A. Gill, a famously straight British writer who is obsessed with clothes. "Men carry bags all the time; they just call them briefcases. I think the perfect carry-all, with a masculine shape and size, would be an Hermès Kelly bag."

The bag debate is no idle fashion question. Menswear designers have been pushing bags as part of the runway look; Prada, Armani, and the rest have bags for men who are ready and willing to dress fashionably. But the great unwashed mass of men won't go near them.

Nonetheless, if you probe and press, most men will admit that they do need a bag. With all the gadgets they've got to carry -- cell phones, pagers, Palm handhelds, BlackBerrys, computers, CD players and discs, even digital cameras, not to mention the standard freight of books, magazines, and gym clothes -- and no place to put stuff, a bag is the only answer.

The venerable briefcase performed this function admirably for a long time until it outlived its middle-management ecosystem and landed on the endangered-accessories list. In my own dress-down, flat-hierarchy office environment, entering a room with a briefcase is a surefire way to kill all conversation. It's as if you're a parent coming back from a week's vacation two days early.

Case Logic
But say you are the type to buck the trend. If you wanted to get a really good briefcase and let it get nicked and worn and develop a personality all it's own, then you'd surely get a Bill Amberg bag. Made from English bridle leather, his Medicine Bag (1-$715 at Bill Amberg, 230 Elizabeth Street; 212-625-9565) is a soon-to-be classic shape. The Venetian Briefcase (2-$780) is a go-anywhere bag souped up with a luminescent resin handle. One evening, Amberg saw, in a restaurant coat-check room, a bag he made ten years ago. He tucked his card into the bag with a note offering to refurbish it free of charge, but it was quite some time before he met the owner. Turns out the guy liked the sags and bulges of the softened leather and didn't want Bill to touch it. So Amberg borrowed the bag as an object lesson for his sales staff.

A much more modern -- but still classic -- case is the Zero Halliburton. Its distinctive brushed-aluminum body (3-$349.95 at Crouch & Fitzgerald, 400 Madison Avenue, at 48th Street; 212-755-5888) is timelessly cool and can be carried by everyone from overdressed lawyers (remember Arnie in L.A. Law?) to monochromatic music producers.

Jack Spade is updating the briefcase for the seven-day work-week set. His Computer Bag (4-$495 at Jack Spade, 56 Greene Street; 212-625-1820) in suitlike worsted wool goes both ways -- dressed up or down. Another Jack, Jack Georges, has come up with the sport-utility vehicle of attachés. This black ballistic briefcase (5-$225 at Crouch & Fitzgerald) has a rubber bottom that can withstand the wet train platform in Rye while you sip your coffee and do that commuter fold with your paper.

Finally, if you like the idea of a briefcase and are ready to fly close to the fashionable sun, Rafé New York, the women's bag designer, has reintroduced a line of men's bags that truly straddle the fence. It's not that his bags are effeminate (not that there's anything wrong with that), it's just that they appeal to both sexes. His long-handled leather briefcase (6-$400 at Rafé, 1 Bleecker Street; 212-979-1863) also comes in Teflon-coated canvas and black ballistic nylon ($295).

In the Bag
Though designers tried to create a new category of clothing a few years ago with the sculpted, ergonomically correct bag, replete with cell-phone pouches on the straps, the real breakthrough in bags as attire has come from the makers of messenger bags. In Case has updated the gas-mask bag, that surplus-store staple, with something big enough for a wallet and one, maybe two, electronic devices called a Moya Pak (7-$65 at Flight 001, 96 Greenwich Avenue; 212-691-1001). Ant makes a miniature pack called the vertical shoulder bag (8-$78 at Tribeca Luggage, 295 Greenwich Street; 212-732-6444), designed to be worn on your side for easier access. And a German company called Freitag makes bags in different sizes out of recycled tarps, truck kick pads, and seatbelts (9-$85 to $155 at Flight 001). Because the materials are recycled, no two bags are alike.

For the serious schlepper -- the kind of guy who carries two days' change of clothes just in case -- there's the medium Timbuk 2 bag (10-$72 at Tribeca Luggage) and Patagonia's Critical Mass Bag (11-$99 at Patagonia, 101 Wooster Street; 212-343-1776 or www.patagonia.com). These waterproof bags have unbelievable capacity and striking street cred.

Tote-All Recall
So much for the opposite poles of the male-personality spectrum. For the rest of us, who seek a compromise between corporate conformity and rugged individualism, there's the tote bag. Think about it: Papers and books go into it easily and come out with little hassle in tight spaces like rush-hour subways and economy-minded airplanes. If you can't make the Burberry version work for you, there are plenty of other totes available in masculine colors and materials. Jack Spade has created the most innovative version (12-$210-$320 at Jack Spade), a briefcase in a tote-bag shape with a handy zipper to close the top and keep out the curious. Coach's leather weekender (13-$498 at Coach Stores, 866-262-2440 or www.coach.com) serves the schlepping function for those of us who don't get off on Day-Glo and reflector tape. Or you could opt for Filson's canvas tote (14-$100 at Camouflage, 141 Eighth Avenue, at 17th Street, 212-741-5173; $90 at Upland Trading Company, 236 East 13th Street, 212-673-4994 or www.filson.com) with exterior pockets designed to carry fishing gear and shotgun shells. No one could mistake you for Audrey Hepburn carrying this bag. Camouflage sells it to the fashion-conscious Chelsea crowd, weekend-in-the-country squires get it at Upland Traders.

Rafé's ambidextrous Courier Bag (15-$250 to $315, at Rafé) is just between a messenger bag and a purse in size, so obviously both sexes go for it. But his meticulously thought-out tote (16-$275 to $375) is my personal favorite. Filled with pockets and lined in a brown-and-black houndstooth pattern with a leather-strap-to-shirt-stud closure, this bag is the most versatile and elegant one I could find (especially in fine-wale corduroy; available this fall). It's no Hermès Kelly bag -- but then, I'm no trendsetter, either.


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