The Hunt: Professional Tote Bags

professional tote bags

2017 Update: We still like these professional tote bags below (and many are still available!), but you may want to check out our most recent update of the best tote bags for work!

Sure, we all know what basics professional women are supposed to have in their closets, but if you’re buying one for the first time or replacing one you’ve worn into the ground, it can be a pain to find exactly the right incarnation in stores. In “The Hunt,” we search the stores for a basic item that every woman should have.

We haven’t done a Hunt for professional tote bags in FOREVER, so I thought we’d do one now.  With OCI/EIW coming up we should discuss what makes a great interview tote, which I’ve always seen as a pretty major subset of professional tote bags. A great interview tote should:

  • be large enough to hold a folder that contains the absolute latest version of your resume
  • have structure to it — if you put it on the floor it will stand up or at least lean (so — while I love me my Planetes Longchamp bag, I wouldn’t interview with it — it’s also for this reason that most of these bags are east/west bags rather than north/south bags)
  • be mostly solid and lacking logos all over it (so in my book most Neverfulls, Goyard, and MCM bags are out — but a Neverfull in an Epi leather is a different issue)
  • have enough organization that you can ditch your purse and just carry the tote bag (or, put another way, it becomes your purse)
  • not be primarily as a laptop tote — unless you anticipate needing your laptop during the interview, you don’t need the weight and the added stress of keeping tabs on your bag (but see our laptop tote roundup if you’re looking for one)

I once joked that if you’re just looking for something to shuttle papers to and from the office, most of the rainmakers I knew carried boat bags, or at least the tote bags one gets for donating X dollars to charity or attending a conference, suggesting it was all part of “what your tote bag says about you.” Now I think it’s just because those suckers add up over the years and they’re perfect for sticking in your office closet! (Although I will note – an LL Bean rep recently told me that this bag can hold up to 500 pounds because it was designed for carrying ice blocks through the winter. Ice blocks, huge binders, whatever, right?)

So ladies, let’s discuss — do you carry a tote bag as your regular purse, or only if you’re interviewing or otherwise carrying a folder? What do you look for in a professional tote bag? Do you prefer hand-held briefcase/satchel styles, north/west styles, east/west styles? Leather, nylon, or coated canvas? Have you bought any great ones lately, or do you still carry any older ones?

First, a roundup of some general categories:

Best-Selling Work Totes

Some of the best selling work totes of all time are linked to in our Hall of Fame styles mentioned above — here are a few of those, pictured, ranging from $168-$298: 1 / 2 / 3 // 4 / 5 / 6

Featured Work Totes

Best-selling, classic styles are great, but sometimes you want to know what else is on the market today.  So: six bags we’re liking today:

professional tote bag under $50I’m kind of surprised there are so few choices under $100 — but I haven’t found many online I’d like to recommend except for the ones listed above. Still, for $49, this bag is hard to go wrong — it’s got a zippered top, lots of organization, and it even comes with a little wristlet.  It’s $49 at Target. Merona Solid Nylon Work Tote with Faux Leather Trim
nylon work toteThis nylon Baggallini bag has a TON of pockets and organization, and a zippered travel sleeve for rolling bags (love that feature!). Amazon and Zappos both have it, but Amazon has more color options, some as low as $93.  The pictured bag is $158. Baggallini Errand Travel Tote Bag
laptop tote for womenI usually think of Knomo as specializing in laptop bags, but they have a ton of nice options that could work with or without laptops inside. We’ve featured the Curzon before and it still looks good; pictured here is the slightly sharper Grosvener tote — I love the bright red lining, the top zip, and all the pockets.  It’s $199 at Zappos.  KNOMO London Grosvenor East/West Top Zip Laptop Tote
nordstrom anniversary sale work totesThe Nordstrom Anniversary Sale has a ton of great bags, including the Kate Spade Spencer Tote we featured a few days ago and (pictured) this lovely structured number from Louise et Cie. I love the suede contrast panels at the side, and the fact that it’s so structured it almost looks like you’re carrying a very large book. It’s available in black and “warm taupe” at Nordstrom for $229 during the sale; after the sale it’ll go back up to $348. Louise et Cie ‘Yvet’ Leather Tote (Nordstrom Exclusive)
structural professional tote bagOhhhh. I like this one. The simplicity of the bag and the interesting folded details are calling my name. I wish it had more interior organization (it’s just got two slip pockets), but so it goes.  It does have a zipper on top. It’s $395 at Bloomingdale’s, where it’s one of the best sellers. Vince City Tote
tumi sinclair vs voyageurTumi has always been a reader favorite, with both the Voyageur line and the Sinclair line getting lots of love.  This newer Viera tote in coated canvas (in the Sinclair line) looks great — lots of interior organization, a top zipper, and metal feet. Unfortunately it lacks the travel sleeve that lots of Tumi bags have — I like the more structured Tumi Athens bag best if you’re looking for that feature — it’s on sale at Amazon for $263-$328. (Note that there’s a green version of their basic Voyageur nylon tote in the Nordstrom Anniversary Sale also, marked from $292 down to $195.) The pictured bag comes with a laptop sleeve, and is $545 at Zappos. Tumi Sinclair Viera Business Tote

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(L-#)

Comments

  1. I have had such trouble trying to find a tote that fits all my needs: Big enough to carry my things, but not so clunky that it looks like luggage; strong and stylish but not prohitively expensive. I also would like a zipper rather than a fastener to protect against unwanted hands on the busses and trains. I prefer leather to faux leather, and would like to spend less than $350.

    Does anyone have a tote that fits my needs?

    • Knomo Maddox

      https://www.amazon.com/Knomo-Luggage-Mayfair-Maddox-15-Inch/dp/B00Q91HYCQ/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1469467063&sr=8-1&keywords=knomo+maddox

      • +1 knomo. Bought a Curzon on Amazon (https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B013W7QAHO/ref=oh_aui_detailpage_o09_s00?ie=UTF8&psc=1) and LOVE it. For reference, I’m a small 5’2 biglaw attorney. The size of the bag fits so much, does not look “clunky” on me, does not look like a laptop bag (despite the sleeve), and it is rich leather.

        Best bag ever purchased. And the espresso color is color to a deep plum. Gorg.

        • Anonymous :

          Take a look at the Kate Spade Surprise Sale – because of the serious markdowns, you may find something that meets your needs. I saw several nice totes with zip tops there.

    • ClydeRabbit :

      The Lauren Ralph Lauren Newbury Double Zip Satchel is my ideal bag. Retails for $298 at Macys but you can get great deals on this bag.

  2. Furla Interview bag :

    Warning: I bought this Furla bag in black a few months ago as an interview bag and it does not stand up when empty. And the straps just aren’t quite long enough to be comfortable.
    http://www.lastcall.com/Furla-Daisy-Medium-Leather-Tote-Bag-Lava-Gray-furla-tote/prod38900531___/p.prod?icid=&searchType=SEARCH&rte=%252Fsearch.jsp%253FN%253D0%2526Ntt%253Dfurla%252Btote%2526_requestid%253D90396&eItemId=prod38900531&cmCat=search

    • The past few Furla items I have had have all been disappointments. And I get a 40% family discount to boot.

  3. I actually find the bags with lots of organisation more difficult to use. As soon as I want to put a water bottle or lunch in they often go out of shape and it’s hard to make them look good.

    • Me too. Even if you choose a bag that is the perfect fit for your current devices, something always changes and I agree that trying to fit an unusually-shaped item such as snacks, lunch, umbrella, change of shoes… etc doesn’t do well in an overly-“organized” bag.

      I also prefer a bag with more flexibility — there’s no way a Tumi shoulder bag is doing double duty as a “I’m visiting a city and need an attractive tote that can hold snacks, water, layers, and camera.”

    • Baconpancakes :

      Same. I have this (an older version without the cringeworthy embroidery) and move it from purse to purse. This organizer + wallet + phone is everything I need, leaving the rest of the bag emptier and easy to find water bottles, lunch, etc.

      http://www.target.com/p/sonia-kashuk-limited-edition-knock-out-completely-organized-bag/-/A-50247345

      It holds: 6 Micron pens, highlighter, Tide pen, mini first aid kit, mini altoids tin, small hairbrush, slim phone battery brick, lipstick, balm, mini altoids tin with ibuprofin in it, small pack tissues, 2 hair elastics, roller perfume, 3 tea sachets, concealer, glasses cleaning cloth, anti-chafe ointment, random bobby pins, compact, mini leatherman, and phone charger cord.

      • Baconpancakes :

        Multiple colors on Amazon for a bit of a markup, if anyone’s interested, by searching Sonia Kashuk Completely Organized. I might actually buy one to keep in reserve, since this bag has become so vital to my organizational abilities.

    • anon-oh-no :

      totally agree. that’s why Im firmly on team LV “Neverfull.” Its the best bag I’ve ever owned.

  4. Sydney Bristow :

    I use the Coach Stanton Carryall (the larger one) as my daily bag. It fits a notepad, so I think it would work as an interview tote. The structure is great. Not too much organization, there are zippers for 2 pockets along the edges, and a strong magnetic flap that keeps it closed as well. It’s not totally zippered, but I haven’t had anything fall out, especially since it always stands up on its own.

  5. I am a LL Bean Field & Town tote devotee. When my purse was stolen, I was crushed, bc I couldn’t find anything that was as durable and hard-wearing.

    And when I discovered it was discontinued, I scoured eBay and ending up buying 2, so I’d have a backup when it wore out–I just don’t like the Exchange Street (their replacement) as much.

    • +1000 4 years and going strong. Beautiful leather that wears great (Just noticed they are not selling online at the moment…)

  6. I have the Lodis Audrey tote. http://shop.nordstrom.com/s/lodis-audrey-collection-jessica-leather-tote/4070740?origin=keywordsearch-personalizedsort&fashioncolor=BLACK
    It has red trim but I don’t think professional bags all have to be black.

  7. Anonymous :

    What is an east/west bag vs a north/south bag?

  8. Mrs. Jones :

    I carry my Lo & Sons OMG every day to work. I’ve had it for 2 1/2 years and it’s going strong.

  9. Meg Murry :

    For anyone reading this and saying “interview tote?!? no one ever told me I needed an interview tote!” – I’ve never had or needed one in my non-law, suburban-dwelling, car-culture area. Since I have always been able to drive to interviews and therefore leave all my extra non-essentials in the car, I’ve always done fine with a small, plain purse just big enough to hold my phone, wallet, keys, a couple of pens and maybe a spare lipstick or tissues and then a padfolio or other non-ratty looking folder or notebook. Basically just consider whatever a guy would carry into an interview and then add a small purse if your suit doesn’t have pockets that will fit your ID and keys.

    Question for those of you who are lawyers/law students – do guys carry a briefcase or similar to their interviews or to the office once they get a job? or what do they use?

    • Anonymous :

      I know a lot of male lawyers who carry a briefcase or leather bag to and from the office (for their laptop, since files are pretty much all electronic now). But I also know plenty who carry a backpack or leave the computer at the office and VPN from a personal computer at home. It’s a personal preference just like women’s bags.

  10. I realize this is going to sound crazy, but the Skip Hop ‘duet’ bag is awesome. I bought it to use as a diaper bag, and get compliments ALL the time.
    It is a free-standing open tote, with a removable cross-body insert (the diaper bag part). Keep the insert in for extra organization, or remove it for just a big tote.
    http://shop.nordstrom.com/s/skip-hop-duet-2-in-1-diaper-tote/4025409?origin=category-personalizedsort&fashioncolor=BLACK

    • Wanderlust :

      As someone who has never been pregnant and has no knowledge of diaper bags, I think this bag looks fantastic and fashionable for all!

  11. In related issues — After almost 20 years, I need to replace my much-loved Coach messenger bag, which is what I take to court when I have more than a small Redweld and not enough for a wheeled lit bag. The problem so far is that I absolutely cannot find a bag that is wide enough for legal files, i.e. at least 17.5 inches wide and that has a messenger style (i.e. long) strap.

    I am not fussy about brand and have flexibility on cost, especially because my current bag has lasted almost 15 years. I do prefer black (goes with my fave trench and my winter coat) without logos and ideally want something that can hold 2-3 redwelds, a couple legal pads, pens, business cards, and a charger. Bonus points for a bag that meets these criteria and does not weigh a ton.

    Any ideas?

    • Correction — I measured again – 16.5 inches. The Redwelds are 15 inches across empty, but expand another inch or so when full, plus I need to be able to get them out of the bag . . .

      • http://www.jototes.com/collections/all/products/missy-chocolate This bag is 16 inches long but I can fit 16.5 if its not totally packed.

    • Never too many shoes... :

      What about another Coach one? http://www.coach.com/coach-mens-leather-messenger-metropolitan-courier-in-pebble-leather/72060.html?dwvar_color=QB%2FBK

  12. I love my L&S, but the part that holds the D-ring to the bag (i.e. The thing you clip the strap to) broke off.

    Is that something the company will repair? Are there purse versions of cobblers who can make those repairs?

    • They will actually send you a brand-new bag for free. My 2.5-year-old OMG got a small rip on one of the zippers that made it hard to close. I sent them a picture, asking if they could repair it. Their customer service was amazing. Literally one week after sending them the picture, the new bag was in my house. I was totally blown away!

  13. lost academic :

    Question: senior partners at my firm tend to use backpacks. I’ve been shying away from backpacks for years. Has anyone else noticed this?

    • yes! but also, firm gave out backpacks as a holiday gift… no one uses them, except random senior partners – so weird!

  14. Has anyone ever considered using a camera bag as their primary work bag? I found this one that has little velcro panels that can be removed if its not actually being use for cameras. The strap is thick enough to support the weight of laptop and other items.

    http://www.jototes.com/collections/all/products/georgia-nautical

    • Yes, I use a camera bag. Mine has a padded 13″ laptop sleeve. It holds a lot more than you’d think from looking at it.

  15. I have the Fossil Sydney in two colors and am considering getting it in a third. It is perfection.

    • I have it in red and I like it a lot. Hauls everything I need to haul and looks good doing it.

      Plus a drunk guy asked me if it was Prada one time, so there’s that!

  16. I will start taking the train in to work soon which will require a 15 minute walk to the station. What would you guys recommend for a wheeled bag – need to lug a 17″ laptop, a wallet, some notebooks and a few files. I’m in Boston so should be able to stand up to uneven sidewalks, and later, wet/snowy weather.

  17. I have a Jack Georges Milano tote and love it for commuting and have brought it on interviews. http://www.jackgeorges.com/collections/milano.

  18. I use the unstructured tote from Annabell Ingall for daily commuting as it allows me to stuff everything in it. However, since it is unstructured, I do not use it for traveling or if I have an out of the office meeting and definitely not for an interview but it is a great lightweight bag for just normal days.

  19. Bicoastal :

    I’ve had my Lo & Sons OG bag for almost 5 years now, and it’s still going strong! Though I rarely use it as a standalone work bag (rather, work + gym or travel) because it’s on the larger side (before they released OMG). Their newer Seville line is great for work & interviewing, and has a bit more structure if that’s what you’re looking for.

    Would also like to throw in the Everlane Market tote – https://www.everlane.com/collections/petra/products/petra-market-black

    I’ve also had this bag for about 4 years (in a discontinued grey color), and it’s withstood a lot of abuse (banging into bus / subway doors, carrying heavy laptops, etc). Only downside is that it’s open-top – but I really never found this to be an issue, even on San Francisco Muni buses and NYC subways.

  20. Tawna Morris :

    I carry a Crypton bag. We use their fabric in my field ( I’m a former corporate paralegal turned Executive Admin/Office Manager ) Simple to spot-clean, machine-washable, disinfectable, and resistant to stains, moisture and odors . I like this pattern but it may not be suitable for all offices,

    http://crypton.com/shop/home-and-personal-accessories/in-and-out-tote-small-logo/

  21. I bought Knomo Grosvenor shoulderbag based on a suggestion from an earlier Corporette post/comments. And it is absolutely amazing! I can fit my laptop, paper work, water bottle in one compartment. I wear my makeup bag, keys, pens in a separate compartment. And my private and business cell phones, charger and sunglasses in the front pockets. The bag fits comfortably over a luggage if needed. It also looks incredibly elegant and I get compliments when wearing it. It is made of fabric [not leather], which I prefer for everyday use [easy to wipe & I do not have to worry about wrinkling or peeling leather]. It holds its shape & structure. I have already used it as a gym bag as well – and it was perfect ;) I would definitely recommend and thank to others who have suggested it before!

  22. Thanks for compiling a list.
    Well designed, fashionable, professional bags. I personally love tumi bag.We can carry wallet, mobile phone, keys, cosmetics and tissues by this bag.

    • You should try the Von Baer Business City Leather Laptop Bag https://vonbaerbags.com/shop/business-city-leather-laptop-bag/. Although it’s not really a tote bag, it is stylish and multifunctional, you won’t be disappointed.

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