Men's Fashion

Keep cool and carry on

A rugged holdall speaks of capable masculinity, of a man who’s got a grip on life. And as a carry-on, it has infinitely more presence than a wheelie, says Tom Stubbs.

February 20 2010
Tom Stubbs

As John Steinbeck wrote, “A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you can control it.” But the one thing we can control on our travels is our luggage – and a good-looking carry-on is key. For many powerbrokers a smart wheelie is the obvious choice.

But while we all know that a wheeled bag is convenient, the popularity of the US and British versions of the TV show The Apprentice has garnered it an unfortunate association – that of the would-be business hot shots fired by Donald Trump or Alan Sugar dejectedly trundling their wheelies as they leave the programme.

Trevor Pickett has clear views on the subject: “[Pickett] sells a lot of holdalls. Holding things is nicer than pulling things. Not only is there the trip hazard, but pulling a wheelie makes you look like someone who thinks they’re important because they take ‘executive’ lunches.” He cites less formal attire as one reason why holdalls are so on trend – it is less essential to pack tailored clothes these days. Consequently, Pickett’s shoe carrier (from £1,098) is light and zips right open down both sides, making a neat and versatile weekend bag.

A holdall speaks of capable masculinity, of a man who’s got a grip on life. The latest luxe versions are ruggedly chic and work for a weekend away, a day trip or even the office (the best look sharp with a business suit). Stacey Smith, menswear buyer for Matches, says: “Men’s holdalls have been more detailed and adventurous lately. Hardware as a feature and treated fabrication add stylish points of difference. LA designer Marc Marmel’s mini-suitcase [£1,321] is a perfect example; it’s what I’d describe as an ‘oyster’ with unique printed-silk lining and heavy cracked-leather finishing.”

There are plenty of handsome alternatives. Sturdy leather examples, of course, look even better after a beating. Mulberry’s classic Clipper (from £350) in its signature “Scotch grain” leather has just had an overhaul. With updated trim, locks and luggage tags, it’s as good as any no-nonsense solution. Dunhill’s Explorer (£920), meanwhile, has a vintage feel, based as it is on archive examples used by British service­men. In soft, reddish calf leather, it’s a smashing piece made in Dunhill’s Walthamstow factory, with something of the Swaine Adeney Gladstone bag about it.

The latter, named after the globetrotting Prime Minister William Gladstone, was perhaps the first proper holdall. Still made by Swaine Adeney, it was a notable style accessory of its time – and remains so today (£2,150). Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray declares his admiration of Basil Hallward’s light luggage selection, saying, “What a way for a fashionable painter to travel, a Gladstone bag and an Ulster!” (The Ulster, another stylish bag of the period, is sadly no longer available). Made from English bridle leather with brass buckles and locks, the Gladstone could go a few rounds with the roughest of baggage handlers and still look noble. It’s a little on the stiff side for shoulder deployment, but at 22in x 12.5in x 11in, could just squeeze into the BAA size restriction for carry-on luggage. It is quite heavy, though.

Lighter and smaller is the Thomas Lyte Kenley (£595) in grained leather. It’s low key and pleasing, with a rounded accent to its lines that is apparently inspired by the curve of a Spitfire’s wing. But for an entry-point, rough-and-ready leather example consider Barbour’s medium Travel Explorer, which has the house check lining and a shoulder strap option (£200). A model in signature waxed cotton (£120) is brand-new this year and is far lighter than its leather brethren.

When weight is a real concern, a lighter canvas or nylon bag is useful. Hermès has a truly covetable range. Its new Arion Voyage holdall in Toile H navy cotton canvas (£2,310) is not only good looking but cunning too. Steel “E” rings allow the straps to be fixed at two different settings, yielding three possible handle lengths.

Also very light is Paul Smith’s cheerfully checked Gentry (£435), which has a lining printed with ancient maps, a bevy of pockets and a dedicated laptop compartment. Far roomier is Tod’s squashy Pashmy Stripe bag in coated cotton with the feel and sheen of high-tech nylon (from £380). Made to order, choices include midnight blue and black graphite, trimmed with a broad leather stripe detail in a variety of colour combinations selected by the client, whose initials are displayed in metal letters on the handle’s base. Resplendent with dark steel hardware, it’s the height of modern luggage chic.

Liberty has had good sales of holdalls, says men’s buying manager Stephen Ayres: “We’ve been selling a really good ‘old school’ Italian brand, Calabrese [from £199], which is aesthetically pleasing in all-leather, and still so masculine.”

If you like to board a plane with some unequivocal luxury about your person, try the “Serie A” Italian houses. Sergio Rossi’s calfskin piece, in a delightful dark taupe, has a sumptuous handle (£905), yet remains understated. NDC has experimented with organic vegetable tanned leathers, scrubbed and soaped to produce striking mottled effects and tones (from £350). Powerhouse Prada has released a new Saffiano leather option (from £775) available in 13 colours including vibrant bottle green, leaf green and, my favourite, navy. It’s modernity in luggage form, but a tad small for many clothes, and might be better as a generous workbag.

Ultra-sophisticated Valextra makes luggage especially for Learjets, sports cars and private commissions, as well as ready-to-carry ranges. Its German Frers soft trunk (£3,110) was a collaboration with the yacht designer of the same name, and resembles opulent luggage from the future. Internal compartments zip together, are ultra-light and waterproof. The outer leather is in off-white or blue, and has a conspicuous “those that know don’t show” absence of logos.

This high echelon of attractive hand luggage leaves wheelbound alternatives floundering in its wake. While total control of your journey might evade you, with a great holdall on your shoulder at least your carry-on kudos remains first class.

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