A tote, as we all know, is no longer just a tote. They are signifiers — of the fact that you’re a frequent visitor of, say, Marfa’s Get Go market, or that you’re a fan of both contemporary artist Lawrence Weiner and the nonprofit bookstore-slash-art-space Printed Matter. Sometimes, though, you just want a reliable, well-made bag that doesn’t communicate to passerby’s your niche shop preferences or donation habits. In order to find some such functional, relatively simple totes, we reached out to eleven people with good taste and busy lifestyles (people, in other words, who require both function and form when it comes to their day-to-day bag). They recommended ten well-made versions for all occasions — from one with a waterproof lining ideal for schlepping groceries, to a machine-washable zip-top tote that can handle even the sweatiest of gym clothes.
Best open-top nylon tote
When we talked to Coming Soon co-founder Fabiana Faria about her favorite tote bags a couple years ago, she was in the process of designing a tote bag for her store (and has since released this charming iridescent yellow and pink one). Faria told us the design process involved “a lot of investigation” into other brand’s bags to find out what worked and what didn’t, and, for her, Baggu’s standard tote was one that did the job the best. “I use the Baggu Tote for the beach because sand just falls out of it. Plus, you can fit a lot in it, and it folds into that little pouch so it’s great for traveling,” says Faria. She’s not the only fan of the classic Baggu: Lisa Bühler, founder of Lisa Says Gah! love the bags, too. “You can’t go wrong with a Baggu,” she says. “I usually carry one in my bag for groceries.” As does Kristen Pumphrey, founder of P.F Candle Co. “My favorite tote is a tried-and-true Baggu,” she says. “A lot of folks are into the fanny pack now, but I’m partial to this bag — it’s big enough to carry a blanket or plants.” The totes come in patterns and colors for all tastes — we’re particularly fond of this New York design.
Best monogrammable tote
It’s no secret that we’re devotees of the Boat and Tote here at the Strategist — it was one of our writer’s best purchases of the decade, and the bag that Chris Black calls “the answer” to the question of whether or not an adult should carry a backpack (the answer is no: They should carry the Boat and Tote). The Boat and Tote is also a favorite of designer (and founder of luggage company Raden) Josh Udaskin, who says that he likes the bag with navy straps and with his initials monogrammed on it. The size is a draw, too: “It’s modular — I have them in tons of sizes but always with a navy trim,” says Udashkin. “It’s easy to clean and well-priced.”
Best patterned tote
If you’re looking for a tote that’s functional and surprisingly elegant, take note from designer Nikki Chasin, who says her favorite is this extra-large one from downtown New York brand Coming of Age. “I love its quirky shape and functionality,” says Chasin. “The gussets allow me to fit a ton of stuff, but still look chic.” The bags are designed by Amanda Luhrie, who, before launching her brand, worked as a designer for Coach and downtown brand Sandy Liang. The Coming of Age bag is made of silk, has a zippered top, and comes in a pattern that’s basically impossible to get sick of.
Best tote for the gym
If you want a checked tote for a bit less, you might consider Baggu’s Ripstop Tote in yellow tartan, which Lisa Says Gah! assistant buyer Gabriela Pelletier calls a “wonderfully chic yet practical way to pay homage to the always classic Clueless” Cher Horowitz aside, the bag also comes in handy for commuting — “You can absolutely fit a 13” laptop in there,” says Pelletier — and for the gym. “The tote is machine washable, which is nice if you’ve thrown your sweaty hot yoga clothes in there,” Pelletier told us.
Best work-bag tote
Lisa Bubbers, co-founder of ear-piercing start-up Studs, says that her “functional recommendation” is this sturdy-looking number from Makr. “Everything they make is handcrafted, incredibly well designed and constructed; my carryall tote from them has lasted for years,” says Bubbers. The bag has two external pockets, and a double-rolled shoulder strap and handles, meaning that they’ll be a little softer on your shoulder and hands.
Best tote with pockets
While several of the totes on this list have at a pocket or two, this tote, which lingerie designer Araks Yeramyan recommends, has six (!). “It’s made of thick canvas and comes in a beautiful blue color, with both interior and exterior pockets,” she says. “You can use it every day.”
Best short-handled tote bag
This cheery tote comes recommended by Alexa Buckley, founder of Margaux. “This is my favorite summer tote,” she told us. “It’s durable and lightweight and comes in pretty sunny-weather colors.” We’re a fan of the stripes, and the leather-adorned short handle makes it a good option if you want something to carry by hand.
Best sturdy tote bag
All of the totes on this list qualify as sturdy, but Freitag’s totes, which come to us recommended by designer Tyler McGillivary, take sturdiness to the next level. The Swiss brand’s products are made from recycled truck tarps — and if the tarps can withstand freeway speeds, logic follows that they can withstand a big schlep. McGillivary confirms: “It’s sturdy enough to accommodate the insane mass amount of things I always seem to lug around,” she says. The bright color of this one especially appealed to the designer (whose similarly bright patchwork shirts were included in our 2019 holiday gift guide). “This Freitag tote is the perfect shade of yellow, in my opinion, and paired with a washed out orange it reminds me of fruit and fresh paint,” she says.
Best tote for shorter frames
When editor and writer Molly Elizalde went freelance, she realized that she didn’t have a tote that was both capable of carrying all of her stuff for an entire day — “my laptop, leggings for a yoga or Pilates class, a book for the subway, wallet, phone,” Elizalde says — and that wouldn’t be too long for her petite frame. “As a short person, I didn’t want something with very long straps that would cause the bag to hang down to my thigh, or was something I couldn’t hold at my side without it dragging on the floor,” she says. L.F. Markey’s Super Shopper more than qualified: “The straps are the perfect length to carry over your shoulder or at your side,” she says. Other draws: pockets for storing keys and a phone, and more pockets inside for her wallet and hand cream.
Best mini tote
If you’re looking for a tote that could easily double as a handbag, designer Mary Young recommends this one from Hoi Bo, which she loves for “its architectural shape and just-big-enough size.” Young says that this one “allows me to fill it with only necessities, and the waxed fabric adds durability for carrying heavier things like my full water bottle.” She also notes that the bag is 100% cotton (with leather straps) and made in the USA.
Best oversize totes
“I used this Everybody tote bag for the first time during a recent trip to Cuba and the vibrant yellow brought me so much joy,” says photographer Danielle Levitt. Plus, she says, for an oversized bag, it is extremely easy to carry — no matter how much you’re schlepping, it doesn’t slip off the shoulder: “It lies well on the shoulder, and its strong handles and stitching on the bottom provide reinforcement, which means I can carry all of my essentials without things getting unwieldy.”
Buckley is also a fan of Kule’s bodega bag–inspired “Thank You” tote, which at 25 inches wide by 17 inches tall is roomy enough to carry everything from a large grocery haul to beach towels and ample snacks. “Kule makes my favorite city totes,” says Buckley. “They’re the perfect size and tremendously durable.”
Best waxed tote
“Though it’s designed to carry firewood, I find it to be useful for many other things,” says Nikko Lencek-Inagaki, head designer of Freemans Sporting Club of this waxed-canvas L.L. Bean bag. Lencek-Inagaki told us he’ll use it to schlep everything from groceries to camping or photoshoot tools and “even small mammals, perhaps.” The material makes the bag particularly versatile: “The wax in the cotton duck makes it strong enough to stand on its own; bags that just collapse when you put them down are a deal-breaker for me,” he says.
Best tall tote
Sometimes you just need a tote with a little extra height, whether you’re lugging around a yoga mat or umbrella. Look no further than this two-feet-tall tote from Steele, which also comes recommended by Lencek-Inagaki. “These are super-affordable and durable bags, and minimal branding is a huge plus,” he says.
Best travel tote
If you’re looking for a timeless zip-top tote that will accommodate a few days’ worth of stuff, Rifle Paper Co. co-founder Anna Bond’s pick, the Le Sportsac Classic Travel Tote came highly recommended. The zipper closure at the top of the bag, says Bond, is “a huge plus when I’m going to the office or traveling.” The interior pockets are helpful for organization, and especially useful for days when the agenda is particularly varied. “Every day is a little different, but as a working mom, I sometimes need room for my laptop as well as items for my son,” Bond says — the Le Sportsac tote fits it all.
Best market-style tote
Those trying to cut back on using plastic grocery bags might consider Apolis’ Market Bag, which comes recommended by sustainable design company Othr founder Dean Di Simone. “We love the Apolis Market Bag for its simplicity, timelessness, and durability,” he says. In addition to its classic design, the bag is made from sturdy jute fibers and has a water-resistant lining, making it ideal for carrying food and groceries. And if you’re looking for a tote for a good cause, the Apolis fits the bill. “It’s handcrafted through their Bangladesh Projects, which supports developing economies by connecting them to the global marketplace,” says Di Simone.
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