Swellboy on... the perfect man bag

Nick Foulkes delivers droll deliberations on the perfect solution to bulging pockets. Illustration by Russ Tudor

Image: Russ Tudor

I have tried to see it less as a nuisance and more as an opportunity to accessorise. Most situations, however disagreeable, will, if examined closely, yield an opportunity to broaden the wardrobe. Accordingly, the corneal transplants, cataract removal and new lenses that I am having installed have meant that I now need to carry a minimum of two pairs of spectacles with me (more if sunny), which means that I am paying closer attention than ever to what is in stock at Meyrowitz. 

The obvious downside is that I need to carry more stuff in addition to my usual paraphernalia: cigars, cigar cutter, Dupont lighter, credit cards, name cards, telephone (with ocular impairment, I will need a bigger one), pen, notepad, cash, etc. Until recently I could stuff the phone into the top of my sock and distribute the other items around various purpose-built pockets, thus preserving the line of the suit. But now that there are days when I resemble a walking optician’s shop, I have finally exhausted the ingenuity of Terry Haste and Mariano Rubinacci in making clothes to accommodate my encumbrances.

During business hours (not that I am a man of business) I can, of course, put it all in one of my briefcases, but I cannot always pretend to be on my way to a board meeting – briefcases are somewhat infra dig on the beach. Hence my sudden interest in the pochette/clutch/travel wallet/folio/man bag – call it what you will. I know the word pouch should also be in there, but that is just too marsupial for me.

I went to Berluti to see what they could do. The conversation went something like this:

“May I see the pochettes?”

I was presented with a prismatic array of zip-topped… well, pouches. “Do you have anything with a wrist strap?”

“Ah, you mean the travel wallet?”

Something the size of a Tolstoy novel appeared, with two zip pockets, a strap to one side and the all-important looped wrist strap at an end (Petit Jour bag, £1,220). You can either wear this on your wrist or tuck your hand behind the fixed strap and grab the bag’s base so that when you unzip it, it opens like a book held by its spine.

I think straps of some sort are vital and my surgically enhanced eye wandered to something that resembled the love child of an accordion and a wallet – which ran to three zipped compartments stitched together and joined with a cunning retractable strap.

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This, I was told authoritatively, was a currency wallet (Tiriwa all-in-one bag, £970), “very popular in China and India where cash is still used” and handy, by the looks of it, for multi-jurisdictional travel with, to judge from the interior space, room for enough cash to fill up the Gulfstream in at least three different denominations.

“Do you have a clutch?”

“You must mean the larger pochette, but which is closer to a portfolio.” Out came a slightly bigger, butter-soft envelope of calfskin (Nino PM bag, £420).

By now, wandering lost in a selva oscura of palm-friendly bag options, I reeled to the exit. On the way out, I noticed what I could have sworn was a small woman’s handbag, but I was assured that men were using them as clutches (E’mio Gulliver bag, £1,380) – here my vendeur placed the handles in a downward position and slipped his hand through one of them to cup the base in an accomplished manner and modelled it for me. I fled, bewildered, into Conduit Street.

I have always quite liked the idea of a wrist-strap bag – there is something of the unisex 1970s about it that reminds me of my childhood. I am comfortable with one tucked purposefully under my arm, or describing a graceful arc through the air as I raise my arm to make a gesture, rendered all the more expressive for having a leather object the size of War and Peace flying around.

But it is not that straightforward – to master the man bag one needs to learn a new language. What I had referred to as a travel wallet at Berluti is described as a pochette (Boston bag, £635) at Dunhill and clutch (Nightflight bag, £215) by Montblanc. While at Zegna, the term clutch describes the relatively flat envelope (Pelle Tessuta portfolio, £895) that at Berluti I was accustomed to call a pochette, albeit with the distinguishing addition of a strap.

But even the impressively broad selection of nomenclature available is inadequate when it comes to capturing the breadth of styles available. Take the Dunhill Albany clutch (£675) – yes, they have clutches as well as pochettes: it has an impressive palladium-plated brass metal lock, which gives the object a sense of almost 19th-century solidity, imparting the air of the sort of diplomatic pouch that might have shuttled between the imperial courts of Europe in the days of Palmerston – not that I imagine a man bag hung from Palmerston’s wrist, of course.  

And since seeing the Louis Vuitton crocodile skin variation (Thames bag, £14,300), exotic-skinned man bags have populated the nocturnal landscape of my dreams. The trouble with a piece like this is that it is the tiniest piece of a jigsaw puzzle that includes several wardrobes of Loro Piana cashmere, homes on at least four continents, a minimum of one yacht and an entire Pantone chart of colour-coordinated seasonally and regionally appropriate pochette/clutches. Alas, it is a life that is not mine.

However, Ramesh Nair, the talented creative panjandrum of Moynat, has shown me a vision of the future of the man bag (Holdall folio, £2,090): it combines the zip-up convenience of the pochette with the charm of a buckle and flap. It is as if he has taken the exterior pocket of Moynat’s weekend bag and stitched it onto a folio, leaving a sliver of a gap in the middle open to slip documents in and out. Colour-coordination opportunities are doubled, as he has made the folio part grey and the pocket turquoise; moreover, if you turn it over in the crook of your arm, you can use it as a writing surface (think of a taurillon leather clipboard without the clip). It is a marvel of multifunctionality.

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Of course, I have a few suggestions: a strap of some sort would be nice and surely there is a way of incorporating an easy-access spectacle case… subjects that I will have time to ponder as I convalesce after my next eye surgery.

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