Why Tote Bags Are Back in Fashion – and Likely to Stay That Way

After years of domination from the teeny-tiny purse — some so small they couldn’t even fit an iPhone — consumers are moving towards something a bit more practical: the tote.

Bags like the Louis Vuitton “Neverfull” or Goyard “Saint Louis” are longtime best sellers. But during the pandemic, the sturdy style hit a low point when work-from-home mandates and postponed vacations seemed to spell extinction for bags designed to lug stuff around. Google searches for totes dropped to a five-year low in April 2020.

Now, with airports and commuter trains bustling again, totes are experiencing a resurgence. Hybrid work schedules mean that people have to have a bag that they can cart everything they need for a day’s work from the office to the home and back again. Among wealthy women, 71 percent said they were likely to buy a tote, more than any other style, according to a recent BoF Insights report.

Today, consumers are gravitating towards more utilitarian, less luxe fabrics like canvas, woven rope or raffia, as well as light-hearted touches like bright colours and ironic sayings.

Brands across the pricing spectrum are attempting to cash in. L.L. Bean is seeing the strongest demand in a decade for its signature canvas “Boat and Tote,” which has gotten a fashion twist from customers who add cheeky embroidery. During New York Fashion Week, Bottega Veneta is collaborating with The Strand on three leather bags, “an homage” to the Manhattan bookstore’s carrier totes.

More than a post-pandemic trend, the revival of the tote is more of a return to the status quo: Carryalls have been a staple in any bag lineup for decades, with an option for every budget. Typically made from cheap, durable fabrics, the bags provide brands a relatively affordable blank canvas, so to speak, to express their style.

“Totes have always been a really great seller,” said Wendi Koletar, the owner of Austin, Tex.-based boutique Kick Pleat. “Now, it’s adding colour and novelty to something that you can easily buy and wear. And oftentimes, because it’s canvas, it can be the right price as well.”

Tote Mania

At a base level, totes are as much a marketing tool as a fashion statement – there’s a reason brands like Outdoor Voices and Reformation give them away. Large, impossible-to-ignore logos serve as mobile billboards. And while not every consumer may recognise a Dior saddle bag, everyone can read the words “Christian Dior” printed on the side of the brand’s popular book tote.

“A lot of people like to have something that is signifiable to others,” said Meaghan Mahoney Dusil, co-founder and CEO of Purse Blog. “That’s something that has worked very well with these bags. You see a Dior book tote, you know what it is the minute that you see it.”

At the high end of the market, the formula is fairly standard. Canvas body, leather trim and a large logo stamped on the front. Chloé sells multiple versions of its Woody tote, while brands like Saint Laurent, Balmain and Mansur Gavriel offer simple, unfussy versions. Dior’s book tote and Gucci’s Ophidia tote offer options covered in signature brand prints. Brands are also experimenting with a variety of fabrics: Loewe’s raffia totes and Prada’s multi-coloured woven shopper totes have both become summertime hits.

For most luxury brands, the totes are among their most affordable bag styles. Saint Laurent’s rive gauche tote runs between $1,390 and $1,950, while the sac de jour starts at $2,390 and can go up to $4,200. Gucci’s Ophidia is $1,600 for a medium-sized tote, $1,890 for a large, while the Jackie 1961 bag is $2,950 and the Horsebit 1955 shoulder bag is $3,250. Even the pricier options, like Dior’s book tote, which can cost as much as $3,900, pales in comparison to its other offerings, like the Dior lady bag, which starts at $5,300.

“At the luxury price point, they’re very expensive, but they’re a bit less expensive than their leather bags,” said Ana Correa, footwear and accessories strategist at WGSN. “They can be an aspirational entry point.”

More-affordable brands tout their totes as functional but stylish, positioning them as a reasonable splurge even as inflation and a potential recession cause some consumers to rein in unnecessary purchases. L.L. Bean’s Boat and Tote, a TikTok favourite, costs $29 to $55, while J.Crew’s most-expensive “Montauk” tote tops out at $148.

“People want a little bit more practicality,” said Rae Liu, co-founder of Leatherology, which introduced a canvas tote last year. “You want to be able to hold your stuff, so you want your canvas bag, but you also want it to look nice. It’s not just your free supermarket bag.”

Because customers plan to carry their tote with them everywhere, they tend to have strong opinions. When Leatherology opened a pop-up shop in Dallas, the brand received more feedback about the store’s tote selection than any other style.

L.L. Bean’s boat and tote has been core to the brand’s lineup since 1944, but took off with a new generation of consumers this year after the bags were featured on TikTok and Instagram. Users showed off how they’ve personalised the tote with unexpected emblems, from luxury brand names like Prada or Balenciaga as well as intentionally-humorous phrases like “unhinged,” or “girl boss.”

“It’s the perfect storm of a bag that is known for its incredible quality, but you can personalise it and show off your personality,” said Gracie Weiner, who runs the @ironicboatandtote Instagram account where she chronicles different takes on the bag.

And given their current moment in the spotlight, brands can position totes as both a practical staple for a customer on-the-go, as well as a must-have it bag. That makes them “feel both fresh and nostalgic,” said Koletar.

“It’s an update to this very staple bag that younger generations are embracing,” said Correa.

The New Era of Designer Handbags

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