The hot new trend in handbags is not that hot, and it is also not new. Seen sprawled across store floors everywhere in endless iterations and forms, the tote bag is making a comeback. The familiar rectangular form, with top handles, a generous main compartment and utilitarian look, is sometimes referred to as a “shopper,” “cabas” or “north south” bag, but “tote” is still the general, acceptable and original term. At its most basic level it is made of canvas, with no zipper or top closure, and has one or two inner compartments to keep small objects from falling into the cavernous abyss. At the other end of the spectrum, the high-end tote has all sorts of zippers and pockets, is constructed of exotic leather, made by a designer brand and carries a hefty four-digit sticker price.
How did we arrive at this seemingly anticlimactic and frankly unexciting destination? If we watch the waves of handbag trends over the last decade or so, hindsight hints that we have been heading toward a more and more utilitarian shape. In the early millennium the public had a huge appetite for very stylized, animated and brand-driven bags, like Prada’s bowler, Gucci’s Jackie O or Marc Jacob’s Murakami graffiti collection for Louis Vuitton. The turning tide could have been credited to the growing presence of contemporary designers who offered similar cues at lower prices. But the other option is to consider the beacon that led the shift from flashy and conspicuous to cool and utilitarian: the vision of a young designer named Nicolas Ghesquière.
New and making waves at French designer house, Balenciaga, Ghesquière designed a bag that felt lightweight and unencumbered, comfortable and lived in. Called the motorcycle bag, it featured thin distressed leather, flat brass hardware and rolled leather handles with a compact yet usable shape and long tassels that served as zipper pulls. Initially, Ghesquière could not convince shareholders to put the bag into mass production but did get 25 made, which he distributed to friends, editors and models, like Kate Moss.
When it gained traction among the media and eventually the public, the highly constructed, glamorous bags felt staid and cumbersome, and designers, notably Chloé, Fendi and Yves Saint Laurent, started to follow suit and dial down their own designs.
The immediate precursor of the tote trend is a little fuzzier. Whether it was the emergence of the Park Slope hipster or the stark, restrained and unexplainably expensive bags from Céline or even the normcore trend that wasn’t a trend, which brought the everyday bag back to the front of the fashion line, we have arrived at the tote.
It is simple, durable and multifunctional as well as classic, clean and preppy in appearance, so the return of an unpretentious, straightforward-feeling bag is not without merit — excitement even. And although the longevity of the tote as an accessory trend is unknown, it is buoyed by a few things. Namely, that Generation Xers are in the full bloom of parenthood, the fitness culture shows no signs of slowing, travel is at an all-time high and the unexpected variable, which is the recently surging appetite of men for small designer leather goods. While the last two years have showed a slight slump overall in sales of women’s handbags, bags geared toward men have jumped 11 percent.
We are busier, live faster and are more diversified than ever in our interests and hobbies. The tote may just be a harbinger of our multifunctional times.