Exactly six years ago, the leather tote bag became an essential in working women’s closets, along with a pair of blue jeans, black heels, and a simple button-down shirt. Shilpa Shah would know. As the cofounder of Cuyana, a women’s fashion startup based in San Francisco, she made it her job to stay on top of what women wanted, particularly educated millennial women.
Back in 2013, as Shah and co-founder Karla Gallardo were gearing up to launch their new label, it was clear to her that the leather tote bag, an elevated version of the humble rectangular shoulder bag, was going to be the next big thing. “I could see it in the zeitgeist,” Shah tells me. “Women were living these busy, multifaceted lives, and needed a bag that they could fill up and take everywhere, from the office to the weekend to their travels. We really believed that the leather tote would be the ‘it’ bag that women would keep coming back to.”
She was right. Leather totes have become ubiquitous, and now carry professional women throughout their days and even careers. Take Minali Chatani, who graduated in 2013 from the Rhode Island School of Design and received Cuyana’s very first tote bag as a graduation present. She carried it through her first job as a designer for Bloomingdales, and then as she became the head of brand creative at Sweetgreen. These days, she’s just cofounded a design-oriented pet products company called Wild One, and she’s carrying the same black leather tote. “It’s literally taken me through my entire career,” she says.
When I speak with women who own a leather tote, they consistently point to its functionality and versatility as selling points. Unlike a structured work satchel, or a hand bag, a tote can fit a lot of items without losing its shape. And if it’s made from leather, it can fit in with both a casual outfit as well as a more formal look. Women stuff their totes with everything, from their laptops to their gym clothes to their lunches, as they go about their days. New moms use their totes for work during the week, then throw in a couple of diapers and a changing pad when they’re out with their babies on the weekend.
Cuyana became synonymous with its totes as soon as the brand launched. But it’s far from the only tote maker on the market: Many other brands began flooding the market with their own versions around the same time. Among the best known are Madewell’s $168 Transport Tote and Everlane’s $175 Day Market Tote, but everyone from Fossil to Gap to Cole Haan has their own version.
But even though leather totes abound, very few brands have invested as heavily in the intricacies of leather tote design as Cuyana, which now has a family of five tote bags, most of which are priced between $175 and $215. Cuyana was named the “best leather tote for women” by the Wirecutter, the New York Times’s independent review site, beating out its competitors. Shah says that even as Cuyana has expanded its product range, its leather totes are still a significant revenue driver, so it made sense for the brand to continue investing in its tote collection.
“After years of speaking to our customers, we discovered that women had very strong and distinct preferences about what they are looking for,” Shah says. “Early on, we committed to trying to become the go-to brand for totes, so we wanted to make totes with what seem on the surface like very minor differences.”
To an untrained eye, all of Cuyana’s totes look rather similar: They’re all made of high-quality leather, have a rectangular shape, and come in neutral colors like black, navy, brown, and blush. But Cuyana’s design team has obsessed over every tiny differentiating detail.
After the brand launched its first tote (the one that received top marks from the Wirecutter), which cost $175, it received feedback from women who said they felt more secure with a zipper that could shut the bag, while others had a very strong preference for a bag with an open top, so they could easily see all their stuff: This led to the creation of the $195 classic zipper tote. Then, some women said they preferred to have a bag made of more structured leather because it felt slightly more formal than a slouchy bag: This led to the $195 classic structured tote. Some women also requested a tote that was tall rather than wide, which led Cuyana to create the $215 tall structured tote. Finally, some women requested a more professional tote bag for the office, which led Cuyana to design the $395 Trapeze Satchel, a variation of the tote, that looks more formal and comes with a built-in laptop sleeve and an exterior pocket for your phone.
Cuyana’s designers also spend a lot of time thinking about the bag’s interiors. Rather than incorporating a lot of pockets inside the totes, like some other brands have done, Cuyana gives customers the option to purchase a $95 insert, which contains a laptop sleeve, a phone pocket, a water bottle holder, and clip for keys. Some women own multiple totes, and just move their insert to the bag they are carrying for the day. Others buy the insert for their workday, then take it out so they can stuff the bag with gear for the weekend. “We found that some customers didn’t want us to tell them how to organize their bag,” says Shah. “So rather than incorporating these pockets directly into the bag, which would increase the cost, we decided to keep the cost lower and let women decide if they want the organizer.”
These days, Cuyana now sells a range of other products, including clothes and home goods. But the brand’s designers are still hard at work gathering customer feedback on its totes and continuing to improve the line. For instance, many of Cuyana’s earliest customers are now starting families, and looking for a chic diaper bag. So Cuyana is working to design the perfect diaper insert that will fit its existing bags, to keep milk bottles cool and teething toys tucked away. “We’re all-in on the tote bag,” Shah says with a laugh. “Our designers are never going to stop working on them.”