Gone are the days when men had but one proven option for what to carry to the office: a briefcase. “The choice used to be black, brown, chestnut, leather, and you’re done,” says Tom Kalenderian, the executive vice-president for menswear at Barneys New York. That isn’t the case in the Digital Age, when schlepping papers to and from work is no longer a workbag’s primary function. The need to have computers, eReaders, smartphones, and iPods on your person at all times has given rise to an endless variety of dude satchels. That, and people have gotten into the habit of stuffing their lives in their bags. “We’re cramming things in,” says Kalenderian. This means the workplace is seeing more totes, backpacks, and shoulder bags than ever before.
With such a wide variety of man-bag features—from synthetic or natural materials to structured or stuff-it-all-in shapes to hard or soft shells—men are starting to learn bag language, something that women have long understood. “Now there’s a level of choice above function and a bag’s appropriateness,” says Cuan Hanly, creative director and general manager at Jack Spade, the bag company that turned the messenger sack into a spiffy fashion item. “It’s also about how you want the bag to speak about your character and your appearance.” To that end, Bloomberg Businessweek tapped four experts—Kalenderian, Hanly, editorial stylist Michael Nash, and stylist and luxury brand consultant Kate Schelter—to translate what your man bag says about you.
The Rising Executive
A case with informal touches (luggage handles; zip top) is a ladder-climbing status symbol, says Nash: “It has a shoulder strap because he’s taking the subway, not a car service.” Schelter notes that he’s doing actual work: “He’s someone who clearly needs to carry documents around without them getting smooshed.”
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A fine leather drop-lid attaché case is the signature accessory of the guy who’s made it. “He’s been in the company for a while, on the upper level of the pecking order,” says Hanly. Adds Nash: “He doesn’t need to show off. He has years of confidence, and his bag doesn’t need to say anything.”
“He drives a BMW and likes this bag because it’s expensive,” says Schelter of the man who carries it. “He says, ‘This is so money—let’s go to Vegas!’ ” Nash says one reason a straight man would sport this man purse is because “the hardware matches the toggles on his loafers.”
Cross-body bags are an office-friendly take on the bulky version hauled by bike messengers. “He’s rugged, casual, and not afraid to get his hands dirty, even if he was just promoted to senior account manager,” says Nash. Hanley adds: “He’s not too defined by workweek vs. weekend.”
Practical but complicated, the expandable laptop brief is for the guy who favors function over fashion. “He’s a worker,” Schelter says. “He has lots of tools, and this bag is his toolbox.” Hanly notes, “He travels a lot for business, probably something financial, and he’s ready for anything.”
The young employee who opts for a sleek laptop sleeve with unconventional leather handles and an organic cotton shell is “paper-free, or at least less document-oriented,” Kalenderian says. Nash adds: “He works in design, maybe as a retoucher, and he has the perfect stencil pencil.”
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The Faux Preppy
The beat-up contrast-color boat bag is “a fashionable point of reference now,” says Kalenderian, which helps explains why this rucksack comes pre-coffee-stained. The guy who pays $250 for it is “creative, a little ADD,” Nash says—and the opposite of the thrifty L.L.Bean-carrying WASP.
An urban take on the canvas tote is “anal-retentive-relaxed,” says Schelter. “It’s a tidy, sleek, out-of-town bag for a guy who likes to look like he lives in the country but definitely lives in the city.” It probably belongs to someone who “works in media, fashion, or PR,” Hanly says.
The status backpack is not a schoolboy thing. “He’s young, modern, and stops into the gym during the workday,” Nash says. “He parties at night and gets up at 5 a.m. to run,” Schelter notes. “He needs to be hands-free because he’s making deals and BlackBerrying himself into oblivion.”
“He’s makes lots of presentations. He takes it to meetings because he’s smart and he wants to save time,” Schelter says of the guy with the upright roller. “His closet is color-organized, and he hates a wrinkle,” adds Nash. As for wheeling a suitcase to his office? Hanly says: “Maybe he has a bad back.”