Luciana Baigún, a 32-year-old tech executive, spends her days jetting between her company’s offices in San Francisco and New York, with interludes working remotely from coffee shops in Buenos Aires, India, and London. On any given day, she’s rushing from her casual office to a formal client meeting to yoga class and to cocktails with friends—always with her laptop in tow. For years now, she’s been on a quest to find a handbag that allows her to go seamlessly from one event to another, but so far, the perfect bag has eluded her. “I usually have a nice work bag on one arm and an overstuffed canvas bag in the other,” she says. “It’s a bit of a hassle, to be honest.”
Baigún, like many professional women in the U.S., is disappointed by the handbag market. Many brands that were once trendy among working women—Michael Kors, Kate Spade, Coach, among others—have seen plummeting sales over the last few years. They are now most popular with aspirational teens who pick them up at outlet malls. According to Barclays, the premium handbag category was down 3% in 2015, on top of an 11% dip in 2013, and a 16% drop in 2012.
Industry analysts have speculated that designer brands have lost their cachet since they are now so ubiquitous. But perhaps there’s an alternative explanation for their decline: These bags are no longer serving women well.
In reporting this article, I spoke to three dozen women about the bags they were using for work. The majority, like Baigún, carry multiple bags to the office, creating a hodgepodge system to carry their workout gear, tech devices, a packed lunch, and makeup. Many have abandoned any effort to look elegant on their commute. They often turn to men’s bag brands for utility, carrying sturdy backpacks or laptop messenger bags, and have a separate, prettier bag for smaller items.
The good news is that several startups have noticed this gap and are reimagining the women’s work bag. Many of these bags are under $400.
Brands like Knomo, for instance, think carefully about the technology that women are carrying to work, creating special padded compartments for devices and pockets for cords. Caraa designs bags with special breathable sections for sportswear and shoes, but that don’t look like gym bags, so they look good with a professional outfit. Lo & Sons has built a whole suite of thoughtfully designed lightweight bags that are perfect for travel, but that you wouldn’t be embarrassed about bringing to the office upon your arrival. Mezzi leather bags are both beautiful and full of useful tools, like built-in chargers and little lights to inform you that your phone is ringing. But these technologies are subtle and fade into the background, so what stands out is the bag’s clean lines and luxurious materials.
These little touches may seem small at first, but they often have a big impact, allowing the bag to do more and to be used in more contexts.
In popular bag design today, there is a rigid dichotomy between fashion and function. “When we were doing research, we found that a lot of fashion designers focus on aesthetics, but are not really thinking about a modern woman’s lifestyle,” says Jan Lo, who cofounded luxury-bag startup Lo & Sons in 2011. “Fashion designers tended to treat women as objects on which to drape their creations, but these women are on the go. They want to look good, but they are also professionals with jobs to do.”
For women who travel a lot for work, finding a practical but attractive bag is a big challenge. Lo was inspired by his mother who had been on the hunt for lightweight, elegant travel bags that allowed her to carry her things around without hurting her back. She was frustrated by what was out there: luggage companies, like Samsonite or American Tourister, were great at distributing weight ergonomically and providing padding for tech devices, but their designs weren’t particularly feminine, says Lo. “We saw this as the biggest gap in the market.”
Lo set out to create a suite of travel-friendly bags for professional women. The Seville is perhaps the most elegant and versatile of the lot. It’s a tote bag for laptops that comes in either the 13-inch ($398) or 15-inch size ($428). It consists of a leather shell—you can pick from saffiano or vachetta leather—and a nylon interior with plenty of pockets for a tablet, pens, and other items. The key innovation of the bag is that you can easily swap the leather shell for a nylon one, transforming the bag into a lightweight travel bag that can be attached to your suitcase for easy wheeling. The swapping process takes under a minute and it was well worth it, I found, because it made traveling so much more convenient. And when I arrived at my destination, I could swap back the leather so that I had an elegant bag to bring to the office.
They also sell separate leather shells, so that women can change colors each season without having to buy a whole new bag.
Lo & Sons has other similarly well-designed bags for travel. The leather Claremont ($300) must be one of the most feminine and elegant DSLR camera bags on the market, while the Pearl ($248) is a leather cross-body bag that has enough space for an iPad. Their lightweight overnight bags, such as the nylon O.G. ($295) are a more stylish alternative to those sold by traditional luggage companies and have smart touches, such as special shoe compartments, a panel that goes over suitcase handles, and padded laptop sleeves.
Before launching Caraa last year, Council of Fashion Designers of America award-winning designer Carmen Chen Wu and finance veteran Aaron Luo commissioned research about women’s lifestyles. After studying 500 women across the country, they discovered that most go through six activities every day, from work to kids’ playdates to meals, and perhaps most importantly, a sports activity. When asked about their daily priorities, a proportion said that exercise is a daily necessity, something that they absolutely would not forgo.
Dozens of athleisure brands have popped up in the last five years, creating yoga pants and tank tops that can seamlessly go from professional settings to sports, but Wu and Luo discovered that the bag category was an afterthought. In their market analysis, they found that only 5.2% of fashion and activewear brands had bag offerings. This was consistent with my conversations with women, who said they often brought sneakers to work with them, using either a traditional gym duffle bag or a canvas tote. A couple would awkwardly stuff their shoes into an oversize work tote.
Enter Caraa sport. Its Studio bag ($395), which I tested, is a trendy nylon bag with leather trim and gold or silver accents that has special breathable compartments for sports shoes and clothes. It also has another roomy section designed for work items, including a small laptop or tablet, while another small section can fit valuables. One of the most interesting aspects of the bag is that it can easily be configured in three ways, as a satchel, a messenger bag, or a backpack. I found that I switched styles during the day, using the backpack mode when biking or wearing gym clothes, then switching to the regular handbag mode at the office.
With its motto, “Fewer, Better Things,” Cuyana creates bags are that are so durable and versatile that you only need one in your closet. “The philosophy we have is that our customer is a busy woman,” says Cuyana cofounder Karla Gallardo. “They don’t have time to go home to change for their next event. We want to design products that make a woman feel sophisticated, elegant, and put together, but that she can wear over the years.”
I tested their bucket bag ($375), which is made in Italy out of saffiano leather that is durable and scratch-resistant, with subtle gold details. It comes with many useful pockets on the inside and a pocket with a magnetic closure on the exterior, which allows you to easily access your phone or keys. It is large and structured, making it perfect for work or travel. It can easily hold everything you would need for the workday, including a 13-inch laptop. (Cuyana sells matching leather protective sleeves for this purpose.) But its clean, minimalistic design means that it can be used in more casual contexts, like going out for dinner or hanging out over the weekend. I found myself using it all the time, from going to meetings to playing with my daughter in the park on Saturday.
For travel, I tested the Le Sud Overnight bag ($215), which is made in Turkey from canvas and vachetta leather, and comes with pretty touches like a leather tassel, giving it a feminine flair you don’t often see in luggage. Again, this bag aims to be the only one you will need on the road. The canvas is soft but can hold a heavy load, including a computer, tablet, and charger. But it is designed so that you can use it on vacation or as a beach bag, allowing you to consolidate your bags. None of this flexibility was an accident. “For a woman to love a product, it needs to be versatile: She needs to use it,” cofounder Shilpa Shah explains.
In San Francisco’s Dogpatch neighborhood, there is a little bag factory that has been making high-quality computer bags for 18 years. While not exactly a startup anymore, we felt that Waterfield Designs stood out for its thoughtful approach to creating tech bags. Each bag is made to order in small batches using top-grade materials including full-grain leather and waxed canvas. Ameyl Oliveros, the brand’s creative director and chief designer, says that manufacturing onsite means that he can go through an iterative design process. “I often create a prototype of a bag, then ask several people to use it, then continually make tweaks,” he says. “I can easily go to the factory floor and ask someone to add a pocket here or make it smaller or bigger.”
All of these bags are gender neutral and deliberately classic. I tested the Cozmo 2, which has a simple, structured shape made of distressed brown leather that I found looked good in both formal and casual office environments. It comes in two sizes for either a 13-inch ($369) or a 15-inch ($389) laptop and has a padded strap so it can be worn like a messenger bag, but it also looks nice carried with its top handles like a satchel. It is full of useful little details, like a special slot for carrying it over luggage, a key tether, and a yellow interior so it’s easy to find items inside. For women who want American-made craftsmanship, this is a beautiful work bag that will last forever. “We have people who come to our factory to have a zipper replaced after 18 years,” says Oliveros. “I think the leather looks even more beautiful as it ages.”
Women who are looking for bags that protect their devices do not have many options. As Eva Rawson, the women’s products design director at British brand Knomo points out, many brands producing laptop bags still base their designs on the original cases that computer companies sold together with laptops. They tended to be rectangular, made of inexpensive nylon, and constructed in masculine silhouettes, like briefcases or messenger bags. It has taken a long time for designers to go back to the drawing board when creating tech bags for women.
Knomo, which was founded in 2004, creates bags that adapt to modern technology and aesthetics. Each of their bags comes with a padded compartment that is tailored to a specific device, from an iPad to a 13-inch laptop to an iPhone. But beyond thinking about technology, the brand is obsessive about helping people get organized, with plenty of thoughtfully placed pockets and compartments for cables and chargers. Most of their bags come in both a nylon version and a leather version, to accommodate many budgets. “This is a really interesting company, since we are constantly thinking about how we can innovate about how people carry technology,” designer Eva Rawson tells me. “They don’t even have to look like a traditional work bag anymore. We can get very creative with structure.”
When it comes to women’s bags in particular, Knomo has thought way outside the box. They do have traditional briefcase bags, like the Audley ($350), which are popular among women with stricter dress codes, like those in law or consulting. But many women work in casual offices; they want bags that are both useful, ergonomic, and trendy. One of their most popular bags is the Beaux ($350), a slim leather backpack that includes a padded laptop compartment, with space for many other items. The bag is perfect for biking to work and running around town, but unlike many other backpacks on the market, it manages to look elegant and grown up.
One of the best bags that I tested is called the Elektronista ($295). It’s a leather clutch bag with a detachable cross-body strap that comes with a special compartment for your iPad and iPhone, an in-built charger, a detachable coin pouch, and slots for credit cards. “A lot of women don’t carry a laptop if they don’t have to,” says Rawson. “A tablet serves very well for meetings. We’ve found that our smaller-sized bags are quite popular.” The clutch manages to pack in all the essentials without being too heavy. I found myself using the bag in a wide range of scenarios. I would wear it with the strap as a handbag as I traveled to work, then used it as an elegant clutch for cocktails, and the slim charger was invaluable during a long conference. While the bag was packed with cords and tech devices, it just looked like I was carrying a small, fun, trendy clutch.
The Canadian brand Mezzi launched last year with the goal of creating the most fashion-forward and technologically advanced bags on the market. They debuted with a suite of trendy handbags made of high-quality leather that include many nifty tech tools, like subtle buttons that light up when your phone is ringing, built-in chargers, in-bag lights, a GPS locator to help find your bag if you lose it, and even bluetooth-connected speakers, which women seem to particularly enjoy when they want to listen to their own music at a hotel.
What sets these bags apart from others on this list is that they appeal to women who care just as much about style as they do about technology. This summer, for instance, the brand released a capsule collection of clutch bags and mini-satchels in pastel shades. Mezzi also designs several bags specifically for work. I tested the Nerina ($595), which is a luxurious tote bag that comes in nappa and adria leather with a suede interior, with side zippers that allow you to expand the bag for even more space. It’s large enough for a 15-inch laptop, with a phone pocket and plenty of room for shoes, a sweater, and folders. While it is very roomy, its structured shape and luxurious materials means that it looks good with workwear.
I also tried the Vedova ($525) which comes in this season’s trendy bucket silhouette and is also made from top grain leathers. (It is currently sold out, but will come back in stock shortly.) It is slightly smaller than the Nerina, but was still able to hold everything I needed for a marathon workday, including a tablet. Both bags are sturdy and bear a lot of weight, but somehow still manage to look feminine and delicate. They each have a smartphone sleeve thoughtfully placed close to the bag’s opening for easy access, and importantly, they have built-in chargers that allowed me to recharge my phone three times, which I found particularly useful after a long day at work, when my phone tends to die on my commute or at dinner. “We try to make the technology seamless and invisible, so it doesn’t look like you’re wearing a tech bag,” Keir Reynolds, Mezzi’s CEO, explains.
Is there a bag you love that I left off the list? Message me on Twitter @LizSegran and tell me all about it.