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.
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 ($795), 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.