The Desk Set: Searching for the Perfect Tote

I don’t know if I’m the only pen person who is also a bagaholic or not but I am always on the hunt for “the perfect bag?” The perfect bag, like the perfect notebook or the perfect ink or pen seems ever-elusive and different for every person and every occasion.

When not not behind The Desk, I have an office job and I need to carry work-related items like papers, occasionally my laptop, notebooks, pens, maybe lunch, etc. back and forth. We have a casual office and I have a creative job so my requirements aren’t super stringent and I would like something well-made and durable. I’ve been schlepping things in a reusable grocery bag is not the most aesthetically appealing option, nor is it particularly durable.

Many folks wax poetic about the best bag for their purposes and land on a backpack, often large volume. Being a girl of petite frame, a large backpack often too large and, how do I put this without sounding shallow, not stylish enough for my overall goals. Is the “stylish” part specific to me or do other people struggle with finding bags that do “all the things” and don’t look heinous?

Previously, I’ve went through the requisite messenger bag phase but I think a tote is probably the best option for me now. I don’t commute by train or bus so I don’t need to secure valuables beyond the walk between the parking area and the office and any places I might stop along the way. However, I do want to be able to zip or close it to avoid potential inclement weather.

So, I’ve been on the hunt for a tote or tote-of-sorts to carry stuff back and forth to work. Did  I mention the part about aesthetically appealing? So, I thought I’d share some of me research here. Maybe someone else has been looking for a hold-all too.

Luxury Bags:

First, the posh bag options. These are the higher priced bags that are classic looking but good quality.

Longchamp Le Pliage Nylon

Longchamp Le Pliage Travel Bag L ($135)

The Longchamp Le Pliage is available in eight different colors and can be folded up and tucked into another bag as a back-up in other situations. The large size is probably best for major hauls but the medium ($115) would hold a small laptop and miscellaneous work detritus. The small size ($95) would look more like a day handbag. I worry the nylon might not be durable long-term and that it will be a bit floppy. However, if it’s good enough for Kate Middleton, it’s probably good enough from me.

Coach Charlie Carryall 40

Coach Charlie Carryall 40 ($225-$425)

I have been a fan of Coach for a long time. I have carried a large handbag for over eight years and love it with an unhealthy affection. While they are not considered a “luxury brand” like Chanel, Hérmes or Louis Vuitton, I have found that many of their flagship products have been durable and well-constructed. I stay away from the outlet store products knowing they are often produced specifically for the outlets and therefore use lower quality materials and techniques. If I do purchase outlet merchandise, I do it warily. That said, the Charlie Carryall looks solid and durable. There is a zip center pocket but doesn’t zip closed completely.

Kate Spade On Purpose North South Tote

Kate Spade On Purpose North South Leather Tote ($298)

This Kate Spade tote has all the details I like in a bag: clean lines, classic styling, and a little bling. Thankfully, the lining is a light blush pink or this bag would be a black hole. Delightfully, if I make a decision soon, the Kate Spade bag is on sale right now.

Minimalist Options:

These bags have a more deconstructed, modern sensibility.

PEg & Awl Waxed Canvas Tote

Peg & Awl Waxed Canvas Tote ($250)

There is a lot to love about the Peg & Awl Waxed Canvas Tote. It’s got a classic-yet-modern look. It’s made out of durable materials and it is HUGE. These are also some of the downsides for me. The bag is a bit too big for day-to-day use and while I love the aesthetic of the leather closure strap, I tend to have trouble actually latching it so it ends up flapping around most of the time. (If you can’t tell, I already own this one, in black.) I have ended up using it more often for travel as a carry-on bag or a weekender tote. It will last forever but it’s not my office bag.

Fjallraven Totepack No. 1

Fjällraven Totepack No. 1 ($110)

I have an earlier iteration of the Totepack No. 1 by Fjallraven and its a great tote that also doubles as a backpack in a pinch. It even has grab handles which helps shorter folks like myself be able to hand carry the bag rather than throw it over the shoulder on every occasion. It is particularly slim line and deep. Because of the depth, I have a tendency to lose things in the bottom. So while I love the bag overall and I love its convertible-ness, it’s slimness can work against it in becoming the black hole of totes. It’s canvas so to make it truly water resistant, it would need to be waxed but otherwise its fairly secure for everyday travel and commuting. This bag is 90% what I want. The blackhole issue and dialing up weather resistance and looks would make it THE BAG. Maybe switching to the Totepack No. 4 Wide would solve my problems?

Madewell Abroad Tote

Madewell Abroad Tote ($198)

Many people lust after the Madewell Transport Tote but the new Abroad Tote with it’s zip top holds more appeal to me. The finished edges, interior pocket and wider design seem more suited to a work tote.

Budget Options:

Since not everyone wants to spend hundreds on a bag, I also researched options that are easier on the budget.

Sole/Society Tote

SOLE/SOCIETY Lilyn Tote ($52.99)

The Sole/Society Lilyn Tote definitely takes its cues from the simple looks of Madewell but in a budget-friendly polyurethane material. (Once on Amazon, there are literally hundreds of other simple, budget-friendly totes. It’s a rabbit hole. You’ve been warned.)

Kipling Skyler

Kipling Skyler Tote ($49.99)

I always like Kipling bags. They are durable, fairly weather resistant and a great vegan option for those who request that.. If they are shiny metallic, so much the better. I found this particular tote on the TJMaxx site but there are often great options available directly at Kipling. The Art line of bags has some poissbilities… with its zippable corners so it could double as a day bag or tote?

Nine West Caden Tote

Nine West Caden Tote ($79.99)

The Caden Tote from Nine West features a zip top closure and the classic looks of the Coach bag mentioned earlier. The little charm adds just enough bling. The bag is made of polyurethane which keeps the price down. While it won’t be as long-lasting as leather, no animal was harmed to make it which is a plus. The color is bright and fresh which is fun. Unfortunately, if you prefer a more subtle color, this design isn’t offered in any other palette. Nine West does have other tote options.

Many of the higher end brands listed earlier have sold totes for years. As a result, there is a thriving resale market online and in local consignment shops. Ebay, Poshmark and other secondhand marketplaces are a great option for getting some of these bags secondhand. This is actually why some of the pricier bags are a better investment. They wear better and last longer. But be warned, many of these popular brands are often counterfeited so careful. If prices on new goods seem too good to be true, they probably are.

Given all these options, which bag would you choose?

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27 comments / Add your comment below

  1. Check out the Soho Tote that Rickshaw Bags makes. Multiple sizes, lots of pockets, customizable, and affordable.

    1. Oh, Deborah! Thanks for reminding me about Rickshaw. I have the small Soho which was not voluminous enough for my day-to-day carry. But maybe the larger one would be. And that also reminds me to look into Tom Bihn too.

  2. Out of the ones you’ve listed here, I’d go with the Madewell Abroad in Desert ,Camel because I think that color would transition well through the seasons. The handles are nice and deep for hoisting onto a shoulder. I would still want to “try it on,” though. The Longchamps would have to be held like a handbag, looks like it would collapse when set down unless crammed, and doesn’t appear to want you to see the interior. (sorry, Kate!)

    If you don’t mind a fabric tote, have you checked out Baggallini? The Avenue Tote can look quite work-worthy depending on color, and it holds a lot. It does fall prey to the sag/collapse when set down issue, though.

    1. Thanks for the suggestions. And with the Longchamp, I know there are lots of bag organizers that fit it for stability so the appeal would be that it would fold up as a travel bag when not used as a work tote. But I’ll definitely look into the Baggalini.

  3. I’m not normally into this brand, but Dooney & Burke has a really nice nylon tote: red interior, long straps, more durable than the Longchamps. It doesn’t have a zipper, though.

  4. I’m a huge fan of Tom Bihn. My Swift and my large Cafe bag are my go-to bags. The latter is discontinued, unfortunately, but you can find them used on eBay. I have have a Synapse 25 backpack which has made several international trips. It’s really large but works for me since I carry a lot of stuff and walk a lot in the city. They do have several smaller backpacks and carryall bags.

  5. When considering a capacious tote for a petite person, think horizontal orientation, rather than vertical. After all, there’s only so much vertical space on a person of smaller stature. Besides, it’s easier to find things in a horizontally oriented bag than to go on an archeological dig into the depths of a deep bag.

    I’m a plus one for Baggallini, specifically the medium or large Avenue with a stiff wool-felt organizer insert to add internal pockets and structure. I currently carry a separate lunch bag that holds my water bottle, lunch, and snacks, but when I truly did the all-in-one, I used a leather tote from Levenger, and carried my lunch in a stacking bento box or in one of those slim, compartmented, latchable and leakproof containers meant to slip vertically into a briefcase. Because I don’t trust anything to never leak, my lunch went inside a very pretty dry bag (meant for diapers, but never ever used for that!), before going into the tote.

    Anyway, that’s my system, always getting tweaked. Levenger is having a sale on tote bags, btw.

  6. These are all way too stylish and classy for me 😉 , but the Nine West sure is cute. Will look forward to seeing which one you decide on … being height challenged myself, I have the same issue (totes look like they are carrying me instead of vice versa).

  7. I needed to downsize so I’m not currently carrying my Avenue, but I am very curious about the insert you mentioned. Can you provide a link or brand name?

    1. Mine is a bag-in-bag organizer by Tophome, easily found on Amazon, and there are plenty of similar inserts available from other venders.

  8. My two regular bags are messengers. One is a black denim swag bag from the Supercomputing conference. Not really replaceable but it’s 100% cotton denim and has worn like it so after about 11 years it’s starting to look amazing. The other is a Rickshaw in the same size, but like all Rickshaw messengers cut to fit on the body.

    Totes tend to be more attractive on a rack but they don’t stay on my shoulders and are not well suited to groceries. If I could get one that really stayed in place and that didn’t beat me up when walking I might like it?

  9. Because you and I share a love of knitting AND hunting for just the right bag for various occasions, have you found bags that work well with your knitting, both at home and away?

      1. Loving bags (ALL kinds of bags) as I do, I would never expect one bag to fulfill 2 needs … what would be the fun in that?!? I was thinking of knitting bags only … that in and of itself is HUGE!

      1. I have the Swift. It’s sitting by my couch as “time out” for projects. I am not a fan of the clear plastic pockets inside. They squeak. I am SO picky.

        1. To date, my favorite knitting bag is the Vera Bradley Little Travel Case. The design is retired, but I found mine on eBay. It measures about 10 x 14, and can be 3+ inches deep, depending on contents; there is a small handle; the lid zips open for full access; the underside of the lid is a full-sized zip mesh pocket that can hold a paper pattern or electronic device with your KnitCompanion pattern, extra skeins of yarn, tools, etc.; and there are 3 small open mesh slots to hold skein wrappers, a small tin of stitch markers, and more. It waxes and wanes in size depending on what is inside and where you pack it. Then, when your project is done and the bag is emptied, it flattens to nothing (thereby not taking up valuable space, you know, that space where you can store MORE YARN), just waiting for your next project — my kind of knitting/project bag!

  10. Also a knitter (& spinner), which is why I’m so enjoying this topic. I’m honestly not trying to shill for Levenger or anything, but has anyone checked out their convertible tote-to-bin? Holy cow! That looks like it would be a hit for knit night, but what about every day use?

  11. Oh my! Some of these bags are gorgeous! I’ve been on the search for the perfect bag for a long time. For me, I need to be able to fit my camera in it, which I generally like to take with me everywhere. So far I’m having a hard time finding a bag that’s the right size. I’m in love with Peak Design, having bought both the Everyday Messenger & the Tote. Unfortunately both a too big for me. Which is a shame because I love the aesthetics, the quality of design etc. I’ve found the tote style is the best for me, but I can’t seem to find the right one. At the moment I’m using a Spencer & Rutherford handbag. Its working so far, so I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

  12. I once followed a woman off the subway so I could ask her where she got her bag. It was the Qwstion Tote. Unfortunately the features didn’t quite work for me (e.g., the quick access zip is on the wrong side b/c I carry a tote on my left shoulder), but I still think it’s a gorgeous bag.

  13. The Superior Labor Engineer XS or Mini (depending on your laptop size) is what you are looking for, I believe.

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