Just as jeans were invented for hard toil, and the modern brogue’s ancestors stomped the peat bogs of 16th-century Ireland, the designer tote bag has modest utilitarian origins. While the word “tote”, meaning “carry”, was first used in the 17th century, the accessory we recognise today wasn’t invented until 1944, by an American company called LL Bean, which designed its first cotton-canvas tote to transport ice “from car to ice chest”, according to ads at the time, and still mass-produces them out of its factory in Maine to this day.
As every woman knows, the tote – at its most simple, a large, strong, square or rectangular bag with handles and sometimes a fastener – has gone seriously upmarket since then, with waiting times for some of the most desirable models as long as six years.
It’s taken men a little longer to wake up to the smart but eminently practical charms of the tote, but that is beginning to change, with upmarket pieces emerging for men who like a spot of weapons-grade metrosexuality. “They’re becoming more popular with men, because they’re stylish and practical alternatives to the briefcase,” says Victor Sanz, creative director of New Jersey-based Tumi. Troubadour’s leather tote (£795) is the perfect example of a bag that would not look out of place in the corporate world. Handcrafted in Italy from natural, vegetable-tanned leather, it has handpainted raw edges, an unlined interior to ensure maximum capacity with minimum weight, and zipped pockets. Dunhill’s Duke tote (£4,100) – a calfskin tan leather option with a fold-down top and secure brass-stud-and-buckle closing mechanism – also cuts a smart figure, as does Dolce & Gabbana’s Maxi bag (£1,142) in black leather, whose shell-print inside indulges the current trend for stealth peacocking (other examples being elaborate suit linings and ornate collar stiffeners in precious metals).
Montreal-founded brand Want Les Essentiels has come up with the O’Hare II (£825), a tote that would complement the most understatedly elegant workwear, and whose accessible on-the-move slip pockets do as much for its functionality as its textured leather trim, gold-tone hardware and contrast-colour stitching do for its looks. Meanwhile, Trunk Clothiers – a Marylebone boutique that curates haute menswear from around the world – has noted that Asian men are ahead of the game when it comes to totes. “Men in Japan started carrying them much earlier than in most other places, so the country is well ahead of the curve and has some of the best makers,” says store founder Mats Klingberg. “One great tote maker we’re very proud to work with is Ichizawa Shinzaburo Hanpu in Kyoto. It’s a family-run business that’s been around since 1905 with just one shop with a factory behind it. The designs are very simple, but very sturdy – I’ve been using the same one for over 10 years now.” The Trunk/Ichizawa Shinzaburo Hanpu tote (£125, exclusive to Trunk Labs), which looks rakishly unstructured, came out this month, while another Japanese collaboration – with Tokyo-based Yoshida & Co – can be thanked for the highly popular Trunk By Porter zip tote (£205), made from waxed cotton canvas with a vegetable-tanned leather trim.
One might expect Berluti’s output in this realm best suited to formal occasions, but its new tote (£1,380) is one of the more elegant casual contributions to the canon. The handles are in calfskin, the top and zipper area in leather and the rest in canvas. Another tote that gives off an air of relaxed nonchalance is one of the latest releases (£295), in waterproof cotton canvas, from Bennett Winch, which, according to co-founder Robin Winch, “is a contemporary interpretation of a classic” with “minimalist, laidback styling reminiscent of the 1940s Beat Generation”. Tumi’s Ashton Cypress Brief tote (£899), which comes in coated canvas with leather handles, packs a slightly more sober punch, while a casual beige Nunback tote (£1,400) with measured bravado can be found at Connolly.
Ermenegildo Zegna Couture’s output also veers towards stylistic derring-do, notably its bag (£2,815) in black Pelle Tessuta (a fabric exclusive to Zegna, created by weaving leather on a loom) with contrast-colour handles, and its white grained-leather tote (£1,905) with contrast-edge finish. Burberry’s latest (£850) is a sturdy offering that comes in the brand’s pleasingly subtle signature London check and features a detachable shoulder strap, while Moynat’s Quattro (price on request), in green crocodile skin, adds a bit of swagger to proceedings.
The tote’s raison d’être goes beyond being a briefcase alternative. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that some manufacturers have enhanced that versatility with innovative technical tweaks. Italian brand Bric’s, via a collaboration with Moleskine, has created a tote (£265) with a trolley-style pull-along handle and magnetic closing mechanism, making it ideal for overnight travellers (any tote that fastens shut is, of course, well-suited to overhead storage in planes). Meanwhile, Côte & Ciel’s Saar tote (€715) in cowhide leather doubles as a rucksack thanks to its adjustable strap. A multifunctional hybrid, it should be considered a long-term purchase – it’s made from soft agate black leather that improves with age.
Given its versatility, the growing range of products on offer and what might be called its generous Tardis factor, it’s no surprise that the tote has earned a following among men. And the fact that the correct choice will give you an injection of sartorial élan surely means this is an item now worthy of the phrase “wardrobe staple”.