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The best work–life bags of 2021

Bag designers want to accommodate your new, post-pandemic lifestyle. Here are my six favorites.

The best work–life bags of 2021
[Photo: courtesy Senreve]
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Bag designers are, in some ways, anthropologists. They need to pay close attention to our lifestyles in order to create products that adapt to our needs. And the new wave of bags on the market today reflects how the pandemic has transformed our lives.

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Five years ago, when I first launched this list, I observed how a new generation of designers at handbag startups were focused on creating large, multi-functional bags that would adapt to customers’ busy lives. Back then, we spent our days outside the home, hitting the gym first thing in the morning, lingering at coffee shops and lunch dates, commuting to the office, and jetting off on work trips. Then, COVID-19 hit, forcing us to remain homebound for a year and a half. As the pandemic recedes, there’s reason to believe we’ll continue to spend more time at home, since remote work has become the norm. And designers have taken this into account.

This year, innovative handbag startups have released small, versatile bags that are perfect for short excursions like afternoon walks or coffee dates. They’ve also focused on creating pieces that work for both formal and informal occasions, so you can carry the same bag to a fancy celebratory dinner and a hike. And as we eagerly return to traveling again, designers have focused on creating pieces that are easy to bring on trips, thanks to cross-body straps that keep your hands free, and luggage sleeves.

I tested many bags to bring you this year’s best work–life bags. These are the six that made the cut. They’re perfect for this current moment, but are so functional and beautiful that you’ll keep coming back to them for decades to come.

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[Photo: courtesy Senreve]
Senreve Alunna

The gold standard for versatility

The Alunna, which comes in two sizes and a myriad of colors, has a small profile, but is big enough to hold everything you need for the day, including a bottle of hand sanitizer, sunglasses, makeup, and even a small water bottle. I found it to be an extremely versatile bag, thanks to its innovative straps, which can be configured into a cross-body, a satchel, and even a backpack. Senreve creates its bags using Saffiano leather, which is both supple and resistant to scratching or staining. So even though it is luxurious, you don’t have to worry about it getting dirty on a hike, and it looks just as good with a dressy outfit at a restaurant.

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[Photo: courtesy Cuyana]
Cuyana Convertible Belt Bag

Most innovative design

This is Cuyana’s stylish, clever take on the fanny pack, a popular choice during the pandemic because it allows you to keep your hands free. Cuyana’s designers have created a slim leather belt that functions on its own and looks gorgeous cinching the waist of a dress. But thanks to little pouches you can add on, you can use it to carry your cell phone, credit cards, headphones, and other essentials. It comes in four colors, which you can mix and match. It’s the perfect blend of form and function.

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[Photo: courtesy Mansur Gavriel]
Mansur Gavriel Mini Cloud Clutch

A whimsical investment piece 

If you’re fashion forward, you’ve probably been looking forward to being able to dress up again and go out with a statement purse. Mansur Gavriel has created the perfect bag for you. It’s a small bag made of buttery lambskin leather whose silhouette evokes a cloud. It’s a slim bag, designed to carry your essentials, like your phone, credit cards, and keys. It looks beautiful as a clutch, so it’s the perfect companion for all the weddings, dinner parties, and dates you’ve been missing. But it can also be carried as a cross-body or shoulder bag thanks to a thin strap. It’s an investment piece that is perfect for this moment, but will come in handy for years to come.

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[Photo: courtesy MZ Wallace]
MZ Wallace Medium Metro Tote Deluxe

Ready for your next flight

MZ Wallace’s designers knew that the pandemic was coming to an end because customers were searching for travel bags, anticipating a time when they would be able to hop on a plane again. The company decided to create a bag that would be perfect for this in-between moment, when we’re just venturing out of our homes but plan to go further afield soon. They took one of the brand’s most popular bags—the Medium Metro Tote, with its iconic quilted exterior—and equipped it with a travel sleeve, so you can put it on top of your rolling luggage. The bag can be compressed into a tiny pouch, making it the perfect bag to bring on a trip. But it’s also an incredibly lightweight and spacious bag for everyday use, from carrying towels and sunscreen to the beach to toting groceries home.

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[Photo: courtesy Bee & Kin]
Bee & Kin Nomad Backpack

For the new way we work

As we enter a world where remote work is the norm, the tech-forward bag startup Bee & Kin has created the ideal bag for this moment. It’s a sleek, Italian leather backpack that has a spandex sleeve to fit a 16-inch laptop, so you can bring your computer with you wherever you choose to work—whether that’s back in the office, a beach in Bali, or a camper van road-tripping across the country. The bag has a pocket that houses a built-in charger, so you can slide your phone into it whenever you need power, along with many other pockets for keys, water bottles, and more. You can think of this bag as a kind of office-to-go.

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[Photo: courtesy Von Holzhausen]
Von Holzhausen Circle Crossbody

For the eco-warriors

Vicki von Holzhausen, a former luxury car designer, is on a mission to make the fashion industry more sustainable. Since the leather supply chain is highly carbon intensive and creates a lot of pollution, she’s developing alternatives that are just as supple and beautiful as leather, but with a much lower environmental footprint. Enter her newest handbag, a circle cross-body made from a new material she’s calling Banbū. As its name implies, it’s made from the bamboo plant, which is renewable, fast-growing, and requires relatively little water. And unlike many other synthetic leathers on the market, which are effectively made of plastic, this material is designed to biodegrade. The classic circle silhouette is inspired by the circular form of the bamboo plant. It’s designed to be carrying over the shoulder or as a cross-body, and fits everything you need for a day out, including a small water bottle.

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Fast Company’Recommender section is dedicated to surfacing innovative products, services, and brands that are changing how we live and work. Every item that we write about is independently selected by our editors and, wherever possible, tested and reviewed. Fast Company may receive revenue from some links in our stories; however, all selections are based on our editorial judgment.

About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a senior staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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