Dec. 07, 2023
Rachael Griffiths is a writer at the Strategist based in the United Kingdom. She writes about fashion and accessories, beauty, and gifts.
Photo: Marcus McDonald
The best bag for work isn’t one-size-fits-all. Sometimes I need a work bag to do everything at once: look professional but not too stuffy, accommodate gym sneakers and a laptop, and organize all the miscellany you definitely don’t need (reading material, makeup bag, and even the odd wine bottle). Other times, I settle for a stylish bag that fits the essentials — a workhorse tote from Baggu, for example — or something that can go from in the office to after-work drinks — like a timeless leather shoulder bag.
To help you find the work bag that suits your lifestyle and budget, I surveyed a bunch of stylish, industrious women about the multitasking tote bags, backpacks, and over-the-shoulder options they rely on to get them through the workday — and beyond. I then tested their recommendations over several months, to find the best work bags for all kinds of people.
In general, you want a work bag that’s strong enough to hold heavy laptops and durable enough to survive being squished on the subway but still looks good to bring to the office. The material will be the main thing that determines that. Leather is a no-brainer in that department, but it can be expensive. Canvas, especially waxed or coated, is another common option; it’s still durable and usually less expensive than leather. I’ve also found some nice nylon options, which are generally easier to clean than either leather or canvas.
Prices for work bags are broad, ranging from $20 to a few hundred dollars, depending on their durability and materials they’re made of. Most of our picks are in the range of $100 to $250, and I’ve found that’s generally the sweet spot for durability and looks. But I included affordable options as well as worth-it, and every bag is denoted as either $ (under $100), $$ (under $250), or $$$ (over $250).
Madewell Transport Tote
Material: Leather | Price: $$
The Madewell Transport Tote has been a favorite of Strategist editors and readers alike, since it was first recommended to us by Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen in 2018: “I do not have very exciting or expensive tastes in handbags; I just need a bag with a handle-drop length, so I can shove it over my shoulder while wearing a puffy jacket that holds a laptop, water bottle, and all the toys my kids swear they want to play with that I get stuck carrying home.” This tote is just that. Graphic designer Meagan Sapashe says it’s “quite literally the perfect medium” because it’s big enough to fit all of her day-to-day necessities without being too bulky. And I recommend taking advantage of Madewell’s complimentary personalization service: It’ll give you up to ten characters to play with, so feel free to go for your initials or favorite (short) phrase.
From $168at Amazon
Madewell the Zip-Top Transport Tote
Material: Leather | Price: $$
My favorite work bag from Madewell is also available with a top zip, in case you’re worried about accidentally dropping something from a too-stuffed tote. It’s also got two different sets of straps: two short top handles, plus a detachable shoulder strap that allows you to wear it across your body.
Jocose Moose Shoulder Bag
now 8% off
Material: Artificial leather | Price: $
Cosmetic-surgery directory founder Annabelle Baugh commutes on the train with this inexpensive faux-leather tote. “I get asked where I got my bag all the time,” she says. “It’s replaced a more expensive Dune tote bag that I had for a few years, and I would say it’s one of the nicest bags for less than $50 I have ever had.” The bag has plenty of space for a tablet, her cell phone, a notebook, a one-liter flask, and the pair of ballet shoes she likes to slip into between meetings. She also appreciates the adjustable straps that she toggles up and down to perch the bag most comfortably on her shoulder.
Kokolu Daily Eight Tote Bag
Material: Nylon made of postconsumer plastic | Price: $
While other bags on this list are made partially out of sustainable materials, this Kokolu tote is made of 100 percent recycled post-consumer plastic bottles. Former Strategist senior editor Chelsea Peng, who has been carrying her work computer in the yellow Kokolu bag for three months now, says she “swears its springiness (probably thanks to the water bottles it’s made from) gives some sort of energy return that makes things feel lighter” than in other totes she’s owned. Peng also appreciates the bucket shape, because it can fit “a sweater, pouches, and other softer things around your laptop both to protect it and to obviously fit more inside.”
Acne Studios East-West Tote Bag
Material: Cotton fabric with shiny coating | Price: $$$
On days she’s not working from home, Strategist junior writer Brenley Goertzen schleps her essentials in this waxy, roomy tote from Acne Studios. “It’s huge and less structured than my old trusty Longchamp tote, but that’s what I wanted. Just a bag that could fit everything, my laptop, extra gym clothes, my Bluetooth keyboard, mouse, makeup bag, and water bottle,” she says. The bag — which Goertzen says is “best for maximalists” — is easy to wipe clean thanks to its glossy coating. And although it’s large, Goertzen says it can be squished beneath the seat in front of her on a flight — great for those who like to travel with just a personal item.
Freitag Backpackable Tote
Material: Recycled tarpaulin | Price: $$
Suitcase Magazine columnist Anna Hart and designer Tyler McGillivary told us they use the sturdy bags from Freitag as their workhorse. The Swiss brand recycles truck tarpaulins into sturdy bags. Hart says her tote is a “compact yet virtually indestructible carry-on that can be converted into a comfortable backpack with a simple clip-on strap.” McGillivary also loves the strength and look of her bag: “It’s the perfect shade of yellow, in my opinion, and paired with a washed-out orange, it reminds me of fruit and fresh paint.”
Cuyana Classic Easy Tote
Material: Leather | Price: $$$
Former Strategist senior writer Karen Iorio Adelson was a devoted Madewell Transport Tote user until one ill-fated trip to the airport, when the strap on her “(admittedly overstuffed) tote tore off” while she was waiting in the security line. She ordered an older version of the classic zipper Cuyana bag from her phone on the spot and called it a “big upgrade.” “The pebbled leather doesn’t show scratches or wear as easily, and it holds everything you’d need for a workday,” she says.
Both Strategist senior writer Liza Corsillo and writer Arielle Avila tested Cuyana’s pebbled-leather Easy Tote. It comes in two other versions — small and tall — and Avila chose the latter. “I appreciate its slim, streamlined silhouette and that it’s still able to fit my laptop, wallet, phone, keys, and even a couple journals,” says Avila. Corsillo’s bag is her go-to for her New York City subway commute. “My favorite thing about it is how light the actual bag is, so I’m not adding any weight to what I’m carrying,” she says. “It also has double handles, so I can carry it two ways really easily.” You can shop the tall tote in eight colors, including pine and cream.
Banana Republic Vida Bag
Material: Suede | Price: $$$
This handsome suede bucket bag is the go-to work bag for Strategist writer Dominique Pariso. If you’re wondering why it looks familiar, it’s because the bag went viral on TikTok last year — but Pariso says it’s no fad. “I really do love it and think it’s worth the hype,” she says. “It’s very sturdy: It holds all my daily essentials including my laptop. And I always get compliments.” The bag’s buckle strap means it can be adjusted to sit comfortably on any shoulder, and handy credit card pockets and a zip closure means all your valuables stay put. “I haven’t had any issues keeping it clean, but I’m very careful with it,” Pariso says. (Banana Republic also makes the bag in regular leather, which Pariso recommends if you’re after something that doesn’t need a lot of maintenance.)
$380at Banana Republic
Acne Studios Midi Shoulder Bag
Annelise Sealy, founder of the Fall Bride, says this Acne bag was on every single shopping wish list she wrote until she finally made the investment. “It fits everything I need in it for any type of day, whatever the season: whether I’m commuting to the shop in London or rushing between bridal presentations in New York and Barcelona,” she says. “It’s leather and that is important to me in a bag — to know that it has longevity.” Sealy says that the waterproof leather also suits the London weather well. The bag is available in four shades, but Sealy chose black — she wanted a work bag that would go with all outfits for maximum use, but one that still had an element of style. “Previously I’ve had more utilitarian (read: less chic) options that I felt needed to be swapped out for different times of day or events, but this bag comes with me to anything.”
$1,900at Acne Studios
Dagne Dover Signature Tote
Material: Canvas | Price: $$
For a versatile bag with some serious structure, try this tote from Dagne Dover that “meets all the needs” of high-school assistant principal Jade Stenger. She trusts it to hold her digital camera, work folders, school supplies, snacks for her little one, and her travel coffee tumbler. A favorite feature, according to Stenger, is that the bag has many interior compartments to keep all those items safe and organized.
From $255at Dagne Dover
Dagne Dover Dakota Backpack - Medium
Material: Neoprene and mesh | Price: $$
“I’ve never been a big backpack person, but that may be because I always had a plain, unfussy Jansport,” says Avila. “After testing out Dagne Dover’s Dakota backpack, I’m a backpack convert.” The backpack is made from a thick, durable neoprene material that, as well as being water resistant and easy to clean, looks far more luxurious to Avila than plain canvas. It also has plenty of slots for essentials. “My laptop, notebooks, pens, and other miscellaneous things stay organized with its laptop compartment, two exterior zipper pockets, interior zipper pockets, and more. And it’s incredibly comfortable to carry around with its padded straps.” When I spoke to cool women for another story, it was also brought up multiple times. One of its fans, personal stylist Cassandra Sethi, says that the neoprene and mesh material “molds to your body and breathes.” Sethi adds that while it can comfortably “hold everything you need” for the workday, it’s also great for travel. She says “it was the perfect backpack to bring along” on her four-country honeymoon trip.
$195at Dagne Dover
Rains Rolltop Rucksack
Material: PU Fabric | Price: $
I live in London, where the rain often drizzles for whole weeks at a time, so having a fully waterproof backpack to store my laptop in is essential. And after spotting it on the tube more times than I can count, I was keen to try this Rains bag for myself. So when Rains kindly sent me a sample, it quickly became my go-to work bag. Rains’ PU material has a nice waxy feel to it, which felt super-satisfying to run my hand over as I unpacked the bag. Inside the backpack, in addition to my laptop, I can fit a packed lunch, a change of clothes for the gym, and whatever notebooks and stationery I may need. Even when the bag is full, I don’t feel at all dorky, as thanks to the roll-top opening, I can squish it down to a size that doesn’t tower over my five-foot-five frame. There’s also a handy pocket on the front where I can place my ID or travel card.
Prada Fabric Backpack
Material: Re-nylon | Price: $$$
As a co-founder of her PR agency Merritt Tate, Laura Merritt often finds herself having to run across London to meet with clients, head to shoots, and host events, so “having a bag that can run around London with me and not just take me to and from an office is essential,” she says. “I decided to be sensible and get a backpack, but as a fashion girl I couldn’t bring myself to get anything ugly — which a lot of backpacks are.” To satisfy both form and function, she invested in the Prada Nylon backpack. Merritt compares it to a Mary Poppins bag, as she can fit “laptop, chargers, packed lunch, notebook, headphones, and sometimes even an outfit change.”
Calpak Kaya 15-Inch Laptop Backpack
now 20% off
Material: Faux-leather | Price: $$
For a “sleek, stylish, structured” backpack that’s just north of $100, style influencer Bethany Everett-Ratcliffe suggests this faux-leather option from Calpak. It has a separate, zippered back compartment to keep your laptop secure, a luggage sleeve, and several zippered pouches inside the main compartment that help keep the rest of your belongings organized. While the bag is available in classic colors like black and brown, it also comes in blush and mint if you prefer something a little less predictable.
Longchamp Large Le Pliage Tote
Material: Nylon | Price: $
Longchamp’s Le Pliage tote is a favorite among multiple Strategist staffers, including myself, for being so durable. New York Magazine deputy editor Alexis Swerdloff says hers has withstood nearly two decades of wear and tear, and Strategist editor Maxine Builder says her 15-year-old Le Pliage tote is a “classic in our household” that her husband has “permanently borrowed.” I personally bought mine secondhand about five years ago, and it’s held up through commutes and multiple vacations. It’s so durable because it’s made of a waterproof nylon material. Seattle-based knitwear designer and blogger Elisa Yip says that it “repels water to protect all my important stuff,” including her iPad, phone, wallet, makeup bag, and eyeglasses. Yip adds that it’s a great bag for traveling, since it can fold up and fit into a carry-on, making it a good choice if you’re someone who takes a lot of business trips (and the zip makes it one of my favorite personal items too).
Caraa Studio 2 Bag
Material: Nylon | Price: $$$
While this bag may cost the same as two months of membership dues at a luxury gym, Katheryn Thayer, Kickstarter’s brand content director, says it’s a must if you love to work out after (or before) work. “Caraa’s super-versatile ‘luxury sports bags’ are magical,” she promises, noting that the bag “has a million secret pockets, adjustable straps that convert to a backpack or over-the-shoulder weekender, and a big, cushiony pouch for my laptop. Plus, it zips fully closed.” Thayer adds that people stop her in the street to ask where she got it all the time. (If you’re just looking for a gym bag, I’ve got lots more options at various price points here.)
• Karen Iorio Adelson, former Strategist senior writer
• Arielle Avila, Strategist writer
• Dianna Baros, Budget Babe
• Annabelle Baugh, founder of Cosmetic Surgery Advancements
• Anna Bond, Rifle Paper Co. co-founder
• Maxine Builder, Strategist editor
• Liza Corsillo, Strategist senior writer
• Bethany Everett-Ratcliffe, content creator
• Anna Hart, slow travel columnist at Suitcase Magazine
• Brenley Goertzen, Strategist junior writer
• Tyler McGillivary, designer
• Laura Merritt, co-founder of PR agency Merritt Tate
• Dominiqe Pariso, Strategist writer
• Chelsea Peng, former Strategist senior editor
• Deb Perelman, author and Smitten Kitchen writer
• Lauren Ro, Strategist writer
• Meagan Sapashe, graphic designer
• Annelise Sealy, founder of the Fall Bride
• Jade Stenger, high-school assistant principal
• Cassandra Sethi, personal stylist
• Alexis Swerdloff, New York Magazine deputy editor
• Elizabeth Tamkin, stylist and content director at KULE
• Katheryn Thayer, brand content director at Kickstarter
• Elisa Yip, knitwear designer and blogger
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1. Black doesn’t have a season
Within the depths of winter or the heights of summer, a black handbag will always work. It is truly unattached to the seasons as it suits them all. Despite its dark shade, a black handbag during the summery months aids to keep ensembles smart – plus it looks exquisite with white.
2. Black complements every occasion
Whether you’re heading into the city for work or the flower market at the weekend, a black handbag’s timeless nature assures that you’ll never feel over or underdressed with such a classic accessory. Tonal black ensembles for business make the most incredible power looks whilst black leather also matches casual blue denim perfectly.
3. Black suits the entire colour spectrum
Choose any outfit from your wardrobe, pick up your classic black handbag, head out the door and your tote is bound to match your outfit’s hues. Black influences different colours in different ways. Teamed with summery pastels it can add a tougher element to an ensemble. A black handbag against bold primary shades creates a modern and strong aesthetic. Despite its classic character, its versatility is endless.
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