I recently had lunch with a friend of mine: She’s a professor, the mother of a toddler, and a frequent traveler. She’s spent months looking for a good laptop bag, which needed to meet a couple of seemingly simple requirements: It has to look sleek when she’s on campus, but she wants the option to carry it as a backpack, particularly when she’s traveling or picking up her daughter. But she hasn’t found anything that fits the bill, so she resorts to throwing her laptop into different bags on different days, which means she often forgets important items. The day we met, she was digging through her backpack for her migraine medication, which she had accidentally left in her work bag.
I hear variations of this story all the time. As consumers, our needs are fairly similar when it comes to bags: Everyone is looking for something versatile, functional, and beautiful. Yet it’s nearly impossible to find a bag that accomplishes all of these things. That’s why, every year, I scour the market to find thoughtful brands designing bags for how people actually live their lives. Most of these bags come from startups founded by women who were themselves frustrated with the options on the market.
There are some interesting trends at work this year. Rather than creating large bags with pockets for everything you could possibly need for the day, many brands are focused on creating sleek, compact silhouettes for particular scenarios, like going from the gym to the office. Many are deceptively small, allowing you to carry around the items you need without the bulk. I tested each of these items and give them all my stamp of approval.
An Ingenious Travel Companion: Hook & Albert
I often find packing for short work trips stressful because I have to carefully select my outfits based on how wrinkled they will be by the time I arrive at my destination. As a result, I feel like I’m limited to wearing items made from wrinkle-free material or I’m stuck ironing out the creases on my clothes before the event. Neither situation is ideal.
Hook & Albert has come up with a brilliant solution in the form of its $640 Garment Weekender bag. On the surface, it looks like a regular duffel bag, but when you unzip the ends, it turns into a garment bag, allowing you to lay items flat. The garment section is large enough to fit a knee-length dress, and easily accommodates silk blouses. When I tested the bag, I found that my clothes were totally crease-free by the time I got to my hotel.
Besides the functionality of laying out garments, the bag is also beautiful and well-made. It is constructed out of pebbled leather, but still manages to be lightweight at about 3.75 lb. It has two exterior pockets, which come in handy at the airport, plus a special compartment for shoes. The inside of the duffel is roomy, with plenty of space for your toiletries and other clothes. You can carry it with handles, or with the shoulder strap. All in all, an excellent bag that allows you to avoid carrying a separate garment bag.
For The Studio: MZ Wallace
If you’re the kind of woman who is rushing to the gym or fitness studio when you’re traveling or at work, MZ Wallace made a bag for you. The brand was founded by two New York designers who wanted to create bags that met the needs of busy women like themselves. Their bags stand out because they are made of extremely lightweight, but very durable nylon.
Their $275 gym bag, called the Travel Jimmy, made of this quilted nylon, with a trim that is made from Italian leather, and it weighs only 1 lb. It is carefully sized to fit in two places: a traditional gym locker and underneath the seat of a plane. It also has a travel sleeve on it, so it can slide easily onto your roller luggage. The bag comes with pockets galore: There are two exterior ones that are perfect for your phone and wallet, six interior pockets, plus a special key strap so you never need to dig around for your keys.
I found this to be an incredibly versatile bag. Even though it is lightweight, it looks very smart, so it seemed to fit in anywhere I went. It became a go-to bag for travel as my “personal item” on the plane, then instantly morphed into my work bag or gym bag as soon as I landed.
Most Luxe: Senreve
For women who enjoy carrying luxury bags, functionality is often an issue. Chanel and Balenciaga make beautiful bags, but these luxury houses rarely think about how their products fit into the customer’s lives or where they might be able to stash their phones and other gadgets for easy access.
Enter Senreve, a luxury bag startup that creates highly functional bags made with Italian leather in the same Italian factories as many other high-end European brands. The brand’s best-known silhouette is the Maestra, a structured satchel, with a strap that allows you to convert it into a backpack, crossbody, or shoulder bag. It now comes in three sizes, a large one that fits a laptop ($895), a medium one that fits a tablet ($795), and a mini version that fits an iPad ($695).
This year, Senreve is moving even further in the direction of luxury: While you can get the Mini Maestra for $695 in a range of colors, the brand now makes limited-edition versions of the bag, including upcoming designs made from snakeskin and other exotic leathers. This year, it made fewer than 15 pieces of a special calf-hair version, which costs $1,850. So if you’re looking to trade in your designer handbag for a version that actually works with your lifestyle, this is a brand to watch.
For The Laptop: Cuyana
Five-year-old women’s fashion label Cuyana is known for its high-quality materials as well as its iterative design process. Before making any product, the brand does extensive focus groups, then creates prototypes that are tweaked repeatedly until the design team believes it is ready for prime time.
This year, the company released a brand-new laptop bag that comes in two sizes, 13-inch ($425) and 15-inch ($445). The bag is extremely flat and slim, with a special compartment for your laptop, and a few pockets for your other essentials, like your wallet, your keys, and your phone. The designers have cleverly made it in such a way that it can be carried in three ways–as a backpack, a satchel, or a shoulder bag–depending on how you configure the straps. Importantly the bag looks sleek and appropriate no matter how you carry it. It is made from Italian full-grade leather, and weighs only 2 lb.
When I needed to go to a work meeting or event, the bag looked formal and appropriate as a regular satchel. I found the backpack function very useful when I was traveling or walking with my daughter, since I like having my hands free. It also distributed the weight more evenly across my back. I like having access to my laptop all the time, so I can squeeze in a bit of writing as I’m going about my day, and this bag made it much easier to have it by my side.
Packs A Punch: Marcher
Newly launched New York-based startup Marcher is the brainchild of Patti Harrison, a former activewear designer for Nike and Adidas. Harrison spent more than a decade searching for a single bag that would allow her to get through her entire workday, with space for everything from a second pair of shoes to a Metrocard to a laptop. When she couldn’t find what she was looking for, she designed one herself.
She’s just launched the $495 Juliette bag, a satchel that is made in the United States using pebbled leather from European tanneries. The bag allows you to hold a wide range of items, all in their own spot, while keeping its structured shape. When you unzip the bag, it looks like a box, allowing you to have a clear view of everything inside. There are nine interior pockets, including one for a card (useful for your subway card or credit card), plus spots for your phone. You can carry the bag as a satchel, or as a crossbody, using a strap.
Given the structured shape of this bag, it’s an ideal work bag for women who need to be formal and polished at the office. It keeps all your items organized and visible, cutting down the time it takes to find items. But it is also large enough so that you can tote around items for your post-work life, like sneakers for the gym or snacks for your kid to eat at the playground.
Forget the Clutch: Latitu
Two years ago, Tanya Pham launched a travel accessories brand called Latitu, creating leather products that would make flying feel more luxurious. This year, she launched a $325 handbag and makeup bag combo called the Formosa designed to be an upgrade on the traditional clutch.
The bag’s patent-pending design, made from Italian calf leather that comes from a family-owned factory, is divided into two compartments. The idea is to store your makeup for a trip on one side, with the other side available for you to stash items you might need for a night out, such as local currency and your key card. The inside of the bag is light blue, allowing you to see its contents easily, and is made from a microsuede that is resistant to staining. Since many people like having their makeup with them when they go out to dinner, when you land, you can just grab your makeup-evening combo bag, and go. Sure, you could convert an existing handbag into a makeup holder to accomplish this same functionality, but I found it very helpful that this bag was designed with two compartments to be used in this way.
I don’t generally carry an evening bag with me when I travel, but when I carried this with me as a makeup bag replacement, I found that I used it all the time. It meant I didn’t have to tote my massive travel bag with me whenever I went out to dinner or a party.