“Man bag” is a term that continues to send shivers up the spine of many a well-dressed man. But put aside any thoughts of cheap pleather and drawstring designs, as well as the awful (frankly lazy and outdated) tabloid terminology – a quality bag is a modern-day essential that all gentlemen should carry with pride.
Below you will find everything you need to know about this most practical of accessories, from size and style to material and colour. Buy right and you’ll secure a genuine bag for life.
Forget what you’ve heard, size does matter – especially when it comes to your choice of bag. After all, is there anything more sad than a limp, quarter-full holdall? Conversely, how many times have you been knocked into by an over-enthusiastic commuter who looks as though he’s stuffed his backpack full with enough supplies to scale Everest?
The key to picking the right size bag comes down to knowing exactly what its primary use will be. Is it purely for keeping important business documents and your tablet safe? A simple folio or small briefcase will do the trick. Want something to lug your gym kit to and from the office, but also works as a carry-on for overnight trips? A weekender is your best bet. Keen cyclist? You’ll need something hands-free, like a messenger bag.
Yes, instead of simply picking the design you like the look of best, let functionality and practicality be your guide. Aesthetics come later.
Unless you’ve got more money than sense, a bag should be considered a timeless purchase. Therefore, it’s advisable to steer clear of outlandish and/or trending colourways. For your first bag at least, you want something that works for both business and pleasure, and coordinates with everything you already have in your wardrobe. This traditionally means picking between darker shades of brown or black.
If that feels a little too safe for your taste, or you’re looking to extend your collection, try contemporary neutrals like tan, grey, navy, khaki green or burgundy – all of which are incredibly versatile and won’t fall out of favour as quick as shades like “Millennial pink” or “Gen-Z yellow”.
Choosing the right material for your bag is crucial if you want to ensure practicality. After all, there’s no point picking a cotton canvas style if you know it’s going to get soaked through each day. Likewise, you should steer clear of delicate fabrics like suede if it’s going to be regularly subjected to a bit of rough and tumble.
Here are the three most common types of fabrics used to construct bags, and what they are best suited to.
Sophisticated, hardwearing and classic, leather is an excellent option when it comes to almost any style of bag. Yes, it can be tempting to opt for the imitation stuff, but we urge you to reconsider. If your budget will stretch to genuine hide, not only will you see a handsome return on your investment over the years thanks to increased durability, but real leather develops its own unique patina through regular use, which means your bag will be completely personal to you, too.
As leather is considered a luxury fabric, it brings a more refined feel to any bag, whether that’s a sleek briefcase or utilitarian tote. Therefore, those who dress casually on a daily basis may wish to consider something made of canvas or nylon instead. It’s also worth bearing in mind that leather isn’t the most breathable of materials, so carting around used gym kit, sweaty trainers and the like can cause it to trap smells in the inside lining, which is just as bad as it sounds.
Durable, practical and affordable, canvas is a widely used material for bags – particularly casual-leaning styles such as backpacks, totes, holdalls and cross bodies.
There are two types of canvas you should be aware of when shopping: fabric canvas, which is made from a high quality, thick woven cotton; and coated canvas, which traditionally sees cotton coated with PVC, making it extremely hardwearing, scratch-resistant and often waterproof. The former is low cost and widely used by high street and mid-priced brands, while the latter is utilised by luxury brands from Gucci to Louis Vuitton.
Overall, if you’re looking for something that can take a battering and you’re on a budget, go for a classic cotton canvas style.
Offering a nice mid-point between leather and canvas, nylon has quickly become a go-to material for contemporary menswear designers. It’s easy to see why: a smooth finish and slight sheen gives it a premium feel; it’s extremely durable, so it stands up well to daily wear and tear; it’s lightweight, making it comfortable to carry round for extended periods; and it’s versatile enough to work with both tailoring and casualwear.
Everything from ballistic to ripstop to waterproof nylon is available on the current market, and thanks to advancements in technical fabrics you can be sure that bags made from this modern material are built to last.
Detailing and Hardware
An often overlooked aspect when shopping for a bag, detailing and hardware is a tell-tale sign of quality. A few things you should keep an eye out for include: sturdy metal buckles and fastenings; reinforced stitching at stress points, such as where the handle joins the body of the bag; quality zip closures (those branded with “YKK” are widely considered the best on the market); protective leather piping and corners; and a reinforced bottom for increased durability.
More practical considerations include a proliferation of internal compartments and pockets to help organise your day-to-day essentials; padded compartments to protect your laptop or tablet; adjustable, padded shoulder straps to ensure comfort over long periods; breathable back panels to stop your back becoming sweaty; waterproof or easy-wipe linings to help deal with spillages; and detachable straps that allow you to carry your bag in a multitude of ways.
6 Key Bag Styles For The Modern Gentleman
Now you know everything you need to consider before parting with your hard-earned cash, these are the only types of bag you should be considering.
A holdall sits perfectly in between a suitcase and backpack for a short trip away, hence its alternative name: a weekender. Be it a staycation or a short-haul flight to a European city for the night, the holdall is the answer to all your packing needs. Roomier than you might think, and collapsible where required – the holdall is truly universal.
Look for a design which boasts a double zip for ease of access, two hand straps and a detachable shoulder strap for when you’re on the go. Some will feature buttons on either side, to release when you require more space or fasten down to keep your holdall sleek when it isn’t packed to capacity.
Key Brands: Mulberry, Brunello Cucinelli, Louis Vuitton, Troubadour
The tote bag is a popular choice for both men and women due to its highly functional, multipurpose attributes. Sleek and sophisticated, particularly in leather or nylon, a tote is a versatile option that makes a suitable alternative to a formal briefcase, yet is casual enough to work for the gym. It’s arguably the perfect smart casual style.
The beauty of a tote is ease of access, with a single large compartment accessible from the top. For those who of you concerned with security, there are zippered options. Look out for designs with separate internal compartments and pockets, otherwise things can get a little messy – you don’t want to be rummaging around for your wallet or keys when you’re in a rush.
Key Brands: Want Les Essentiels, Mismo, Gucci, Porter-Yoshida & Co.
The backpack has seen a resurgence of late, driven by its hands-free, practical appeal and a raft of high-fashion designers giving this schoolboy staple a grown-up and luxurious makeover. Ideal for the commuter and gentlemen on the go, the dual straps make charging around the city a breeze, with an evenly distributed weight balance across your back.
A good backpack will feature comfortably padded straps and a breathable channel against your back to facilitate airflow, avoiding unnecessary sweating. If a city commute is your purpose for choosing a backpack, then look for one with protective compartments for your precious tech, along with a plethora of internal and external pockets to really benefit from this most utilitarian of designs.
Key Brands: Master-Piece, Eastpak, Herschel Supply Co., Sandqvist
The traditional briefcase is slowly shedding its archaic banker connotations, thanks to a number of high-end brands producing streamlined versions in softer silhouettes. Gone are those boxy rectangles of old and in are curved, contemporary versions of this timeless men’s bag.
Look for a briefcase with solid yet comfortable handles, along with a detachable shoulder strap for those days where you just can’t bear to lug your bag around any longer. A zip (preferably with a lock) is essential for keeping your laptop and important documents within, and unwelcome hands out.
The epitome of formal luggage, a briefcase will always look its best in high-quality leather.
Key Brands: Dunhill, Aspinal of London, Smythson, Bottega Veneta
A messenger is similar in form to a tote but on smaller scale. It’s designed to be carried across the body, so you’ll find they traditionally come with quite a long shoulder strap, as well as a flap over front (zipped options provide a more contemporary take) for ease of access while on the move.
Historically the choice of couriers, the messenger bag is ideal for cyclists and active commuters. They perform best in hardwearing materials that can withstand a battering, so think waxed/coated cottons, canvas and nylon. When it comes to practical features, ensure the shoulder strap is both adjustable and well padded, and there are a number of pockets to store all your everyday essentials securely.
Key Brands: Filson, Carl Friedrik, Barbour, Montblanc
If stealth is your aim then a portfolio is your best bet. Also know as a document holder or pouch, a well-sized version will fit a tablet or small laptop alongside critical documents for your next meeting.
Your choice of portfolio should feature a zip for security, offer padding for protection of your tech and ideally include an internal divider to keep your electronic device of choice separate from your paper documents.
Being a direct alternative to a traditional briefcase, leather is our preference here. Slip it under your arm and you’re away.
Key Brands: Berluti, Tom Ford, Common Projects, Comme des Garçons