It wasn’t the navy trouser suit that caught my attention, despite its immaculate but effortless masculine jacket and trousers perfectly cropped to show off the ankles; nor was it the pitch-perfect kitten heels. When my stylish friend turned up in her new-season work attire, I just couldn’t take my eyes off The Bag. A woman usually found carrying a tiny, tweed, chain-handled shoulder bag and complaining about the need to lug around a canvas tote for all the accoutrements of modern life, had traded them both in for a single, more traditionally work-friendly bag with a frame, two top handles and acres of space.
It might have looked frumpy were it not for its combination of three, softly feminine colours; and she had also nailed the styling, adding an embroidered carrying strap which not only gave her the option of going hands-free, but also made the ensemble indubitably individual. My friend is definitely onto something: it looks like many of us are going to be welcoming back the proper top-handled bags with open arms – and its return reflects just how much things have shifted since women felt they had to announce their professional intent with a serious but uninspiring laptop bag. Now designers are making working bags just as desirable as their little sisters – those small, ornate, Instagram-friendly handbags that (along with the ever-present canvas tote) have dominated the scene for so long.
The impetus comes partly from the current nostalgia for 1980s power dressing – with its authoritative Margaret Thatcher-style handbags – that is fascinating another generation of designers, such as Francesco Risso at Marni. His large midnight-blue rectangular bag (£1,430) is garnished with geometric buckles and straps reminiscent of a 1980s trench coat, but with handles and gussets in a striking turquoise that brings it right up to date. Phoebe Philo’s new Big Bag (£3,150 for the smaller version, still big enough for most work purposes; £3,850, large) for Céline has a buckle-and-strap trim, and although its plainness recalls those serious 1980s bags, its suppleness – it is crafted fromsoft calfskin that develops a patina with age – and exaggerated size makes it feel very new.
But today’s work bag succeeds by being attuned not only to modern women’s practical needs but also their attitude. Bags designed for business used to ape men’s briefcases, but no longer; dark and dull passed muster when women expected one bag to go with a whole working wardrobe – but today’s mindset is different. Women are now looking for as much variation in what they carry as what they wear on their feet. Instead of projecting the assertive earnestness of 1980s designs, which had to cover all bases, today’s work bags can also afford to be amusing. In using vibrant colours and exaggerated shapes, the new designs poke gentle fun at the decade, but they also acknowledge the other big driver of the work bag revival: today’s craving for individuality.
While using a bag to add flair to a plain outfit is an easy, modern way to dress for work, if it can also be personalised it hits the sweet spot. Accessorising your arm-candy can bring an element of high craft, visual interest and personal expression to the plainest of bags, and it is becoming more attractive as workplace dress codes relax.
The decorative “extra strap” concept has really taken off, as the appeal of showing your personality with your work wardrobe grows. Fendi’s Strap You, an interchangeable carrying strap (from £435), first introduced two years ago, now appears in new – often-ornate – versions every season to add an edge to bags such as the brand’s bright and functional geometric Runaway design (£1,720). Some of the most elegant and intriguing new straps come from revered Belgian brand Delvaux – such as a garland of handmade leather flowers (£2,700) in tones that transform its serious, capacious bags for a night out: the tall, trapezoid, flap-fronted Brillant (MM Magic, £5,900, and MM, £4,250), its fashionable East-West variant (from £3,250), or the new sleek alligator interpretation of the classic, more angular Tempête MM (£20,200).
Hermès’ latest sleek and sporty Bolide bag (£5,040) has an extra strap (£690) made of finely woven, bright calfskin like a horse’s browband, while Prada is offering a range of beaded (from £765) or fur (mink, £730) straps to personalise a number of designs such as this season’s, clean-lined Monochrome bag (£1,520). Paula Cademartori, best known for her jewel-like bags with leather inlay patterns – including the new Maculato, an all-black mosaic of matte and polished leopard spots in handpainting and lizard print (£1,190) – has created the Sporty strap (seen on the Linda bag, £910), with a fringe of bright leather petals, to go with them all. Longchamp has designed a chevron-trimmed (£125) or star-embroidered (£115) extra strap for its star-printed and eyeleted bag (£405), and a shearling strap (£135) for its elegant, monochrome brogued model (£660); while Bally’s new strap, either triple-striped in red with white or chevroned in black with white, injects a caffeine-jolt of energy into its already-lively work bag styles, such as the colour-blocked ponyskin (£1,625) or python-trimmed (£1,895) B-Turn.
Monogramming, perhaps the working world’s high-end upgrade of the school uniform nametape, is now almost a given. Options vary from letters in a rainbow of attention-grabbing colours from Louis Vuitton’s Mon Monogram service, on its Keepall, Neverfull or Speedy bags (all from £1,160); to fine, discreet initials hot-stamped on request on any Hermès design; or on Tod’s new Sella (£1,530), with its quilting and piping details and detachable cross-body strap. Many such services are complimentary, and as new models emerge, brands are finding new places to put your mark: initials on the tag of Vuitton’s handsome New Handbag (£3,150) with its structured base, detachable shoulder strap and ultra-secure, chained lock; or even hand-embossed on Delvaux’s bags (€50).
For many, a work bag’s interior configuration is as important as its looks – and there are options for having it personally tailored with work in mind, without going entirely bespoke, such as matching, detachable pockets and pouches for organising your bag’s contents. At Mulberry, Johnny Coca’s training as an architect makes him approach bag design like buildings – every detail has a purpose – and create light, multifunctional, practical pieces. Take the new Amberley Hobo (£1,495): it can be worn across the body, on the shoulder or in the hand and the securely attached mini bag makes an attractive clutch for cosmetics, lunch meetings or after-work drinks. Valextra has a long tradition of designing work bags for both sexes, and its calfskin Passepartout (from £2,150) can be used in three ways – with an informal, soft flap on one side, with the flap zipped in and the sides pulled out for maximum capacity, or fully zipped into a compact, plain style; there’s also a matching detachable clutch on the other side of the bag, which can be interchanged for a variety of limited-edition designs, including one in handwoven wool (£850).
Aspinal, another pioneer in this area, added an inbuilt charger pack (£100) to its customisable Chameleon Marylebone tote (£895) two years ago, and now has new colour options each season for handles, straps, the trim and the bicolour body; meanwhile, the brand’s charger concept has been extended to the flatter Editor’s Tote (£850), a chic laptop and A4-file bag with internal pockets and cable paths for phone and tablet. Prada also offers a personalisation service on some designs, such as the Galleria (from £880) and the Double (from £1,840), with a choice of material, colour, lining and hardware (adding 20 per cent, on average, to the bag price). Anya Hindmarch, one of the first to offer detachable pockets for standard bags, now offers a complete Build a Bag service, starting with a plain, simple bucket bag in eight shades of light, soft, strong leather (£995); inside is a detachable pocket, which can be monogrammed – the personal seal on your design – and clients can add one or two handles (affecting the bag’s shape), then choose from a variety of decorative straps, key rings, fobs and stickers.
Hindmarch insists that even when it comes to classically made work bags, you can be irreverent and still mean business. “It’s fun to mess up beautiful simplicity,” she says. “It makes a seriously made piece feel lighthearted.” And when it comes to work, who doesn’t need a bit of that?