The only handbag I'll ever need?
March 20, 2012 7:06 AM   Subscribe

I’m looking for the ideal grown-up handbag: classy and trend-proof, durable, and nice enough to wear with a suit. But I have very specific tastes, and I’d rather not spend an arm and a leg.

For the past several years, I’ve carried messenger bags as my everyday bag. I love my messenger and won’t be giving it up anytime soon, but when I have to dress up, it looks out of place. My current “nice” purse is a ten-year-old nylon Kate Spade bag that’s showing its age, and I’d like to replace it. However, I’m really really picky about handbags. I’ve been looking online and in stores, and very little has come close to meeting my standards. I’ve also searched previous AskMes and various style blogs for recommendations, but still haven’t found what I’m looking for.

My ideal bag would be classy enough to wear to a job interview or work event (since that’s what I mostly need it for), but also good with a cute weekend outfit (say, the casual end of the Academichic style). I’d like it to still look good at least five years from now – this goes for both style and durability. (I’m in my early thirties, if that’s relevant style-wise.)

Budget-wise, I’d prefer under $100 if possible; I could go up to $200 if the bag is great. (In truth, I want to keep it under $75, but judging by my recent searches that seems close to impossible.) In theory I’d rather spend more for quality than cheap out on a shoddy bag, but in practice a three-digit price tag freaks me out.

As I said, I’m picky. Here are things I’d prefer, but I’m flexible on most of them:

- Leather, or a good-quality vegan alternative, though I would consider fabric
- Black (I almost never wear browns or tans)
- Multiple interior compartments - not strictly necessary, but strongly preferred
- Large enough to accommodate a letter-sized notebook
- I tend to like rectangle-ish shaped bags that are wider than they are long
- Some sort of top closure, either zipper or magnetic

And here are things I definitely don’t want:

- Any sort of print, obvious logo, or other embellishment
- Big metal things, e.g. buckles, chains, or rings
- External pockets, unless tastefully done
- Slouchy/hobo styles or any sort of pleats/gathers/ruching
- Flaps
- Gold-tone metal
- Nylon with leather trim
- Patent leather
- Cross-body styles (fine for casual bags, but not what I’m looking for here)

Examples of some bags that are close to what I want, but not quite there:

-There are a couple of Coach bags that I like: the Chelsea Shopper is the closest to the sort of look I have in mind, but the Jayden has multiple interior compartments. Both are outside my preferred price range, though I know that Coach is generally good quality.
-The Namaste Monroe is almost perfect in every way – the price is right, the shape and size are good, and I love the compartments – but the distressed finish is a dealbreaker for me.
-I like this Cole Haan bag, but I don’t like it enough to spend $300 on it.

I’m open to specific product recommendations, but I’d also like to hear general brand or style recommendations – for all I know, I could have awful taste in handbags.
posted by Metroid Baby to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (30 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
How about a Cambridge Satchel?
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 7:07 AM on March 20, 2012 [5 favorites]

I needed a grown-up, leather purse recently and I found it at Macy's. Have you been to a big department store like that? It was originally a little over $100, but was on sale. And then the clerk said to me, "Do you have a coupon?" and when I didn't she produced a flyer and scanned a coupon that gave me another 20% off. (Turns out you can get the coupons by signing up for their email newsletter.)

Anyway, based on my experience you will find many, many bags that meet your criteria at Macy's.
posted by BlahLaLa at 7:13 AM on March 20, 2012

I'm not a handbag person, but in terms of narrowing your search, Zappos handbag section has a fairly good search function that will let you put in a bunch of your criteria (color, material, closures, price) so you can look at a set of bags that are close to what you want.

This one was close to what you seem to want except for the logo on the side. The brand Hobo seems to have fairly classic bags, but I'm not sure if there's one that hits all your sweet spots.

Good luck.
posted by sciencegeek at 7:23 AM on March 20, 2012

I love, love, LOVE my birken bag. Well, my birken bag knockoff. I could buy a car for what a real birken bag costs. That's just silly. But I've purchased 3 or 4 of them over the years on Ebay...for less than $100 each.

They have: multiple sections, zipper compartments, room for a tablet or notebook, generally fabric lined, leather exterior, and zero branding.
posted by dejah420 at 7:24 AM on March 20, 2012

I'm a huge fan of the B. Makowsky brand. They are a little less structured than what you seem to be looking at, and generally are classy and plain but with a little extra something. If you are really stuck on a plain plain leather bag with absolutely zero embellishment, I think that you need to up your budget, because quality makes a big difference, especially in that style. This is another reason why I like the B. Makowsky bags. They persistently look new and like a quality product.

Some B. Makowsky bags on endless. Check it out
posted by sarahnicolesays at 7:25 AM on March 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

How about this? I've never bought a handbag from J. Jill before, but the clothing I've bought from them has been quite durable. The website doesn't allow you to view the interior, but the size/shape/price/style certainly seem right. The first thumbnail shows it in a rich-looking red, but it seems that it might only be available in black, actually.
posted by little mouth at 7:26 AM on March 20, 2012

I was on a similar quest recently although in the end I wound up sticking with a messenger style that I tell myself looks grown-up because of the materials.

One I looked at was this Piel bag, and their style generally seems to be about what you're looking for, but I can't vouch for their quality and I agree that generally if you want a classic quality leather bag you'll probably have to be at the top of your price range or higher.
posted by yarrow at 7:29 AM on March 20, 2012

Don't judge, but I'm a tomboy who buys the occasional handbag at TJ Maxx. There are loads of styles on the racks, including the boxier look you're after. Worth a shot for the price. If you're hung up on brand names, it might not be the right choice for you, but I bought an awesome leather "grown-up" leather handbag there last month for about $80. It's slouchier than you would like (and white), but plain, leather, and with multiple interior pockets.

Also, Zappos is a good place to browse if you haven't already. The Hobo Angelica or Hobo Lola might be right.
posted by cocoagirl at 7:32 AM on March 20, 2012

I have been happy with the quality and longevity of all my Tignanello bags, which are generally logo-free. The brans is available at ebags, Zappos, Macy's and Nordstroms. I've found them to be appropriately priced for how they hold up to the use I put them through.

Depending on the style, they have a good array of interior and exterior pockets.
posted by crush-onastick at 7:37 AM on March 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

Given your list of requirements I think even $200 is pushing it on the low end, and you'll probably have to go higher. Instead of thinking in terms of "This is how high I will go," go to stores at different price points to get an idea of what $100, $200, and $300 gets you. Then see if you can find a deal or good sale for the bag you really liked.

Brands I would look at are Brooks Brothers, especially when they have handbags on sale. I also like Lodis for the clean, simple styles.

(Be careful about buying a designer knockoff - unless you get a really good one, or one that is "inspired" by the original and is not trying to pass itself off as the real thing, bad knockoffs will broadcast the wrong message about you.)
posted by needled at 7:40 AM on March 20, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks for the help so far, y'all! I know my price range is pretty low, especially given what I'm looking for, and I may have to manage my expectations.

I have looked at Macy's, but almost everything I saw there was either the wrong size/shape or covered in logos. Haven't found anything at Zappos, either - I did look at the Hobo styles cocoagirl linked, but they didn't seem quite right.

This one's my early favorite - it has buckles, which I know I said I didn't want, but these are pretty tasteful.
posted by Metroid Baby at 7:53 AM on March 20, 2012

Agree with needled, you're going to have to spend a little more than you planned for a good bag. However, it will last you longer than 5 years. I have this Lodis bag, (well, the 10 years ago version of it) and it has served me fantastically and is still in great shape after much use/abuse, as my needs are basically the same as yours. They have others too in less obviously "business" styles. All still more than you were looking at paying though, sorry.
posted by bluesky78987 at 7:58 AM on March 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think combing the aisles of TJ Maxx, Marshalls, and/or Nordstrom Rack will serve you best, if you don't want to spend more money. Or else look at resale shops for "gently used".
posted by Ideefixe at 8:17 AM on March 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

Agreeing with Ideefixe that the nexus between what you want and what you want to spend is at discount stores or high-end consignment shops.

Or eBay. I have gotten some great leather goods on eBay.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:22 AM on March 20, 2012

I've had good luck finding old handbags in the Vintage section of Etsy. Plus if you find one of the appropriate vintage, the brand names (like Dooney & Bourke, Coach) used to be made in the U.S. or Europe (they're made in China nowadays) and of higher quality materials than today.

Example: Dooney, made in USA. Slightly used but only $66.
posted by girlhacker at 8:30 AM on March 20, 2012

I got my bag at Target four years ago and even though I've beat the crud out of it the thing still looks great!

I think this one is mine, but it doesn't zip across the top. Mine has three interior pockets, one that zips and two that just have the magnetic closure. It has little organizer pockets too. Here is another style you might like.
posted by TooFewShoes at 8:53 AM on March 20, 2012

If price weren't an issue I'd recommend the black Foley + Corinna city tote. The second largest size holds a notebook, and it is a very plain bag that will last you for another decade. You could probably find one used for a great price. They retail for about 400$ but I bought mine for 70$ from a friend. Marc by Marc Jacobs might have some classic looks that you will love as well.

If you are willing to go for nylon again, you can get a grown up looking longchamp nylon tote that will be pretty plain.

If you are able to use the bag for another decade, would you spend more? I have several leather purses that have lasted FOREVER, like if I don't lose them I'm sure my children will steal them and wear them when they are my age. If you find something you love, maybe it will be worth it. Finding used purses is another great option. I LOVE purses but never pay full retail. If you know the brand and style, just stake out ebay for a while and someone will inevitably put up their purse collection to make rent, and BAM you'll have exactly what you want for a quarter of the price.
posted by cakebatter at 10:02 AM on March 20, 2012

I like David King Leather, for exactly all of the qualities you ask for in a bag. They don't sell directly from that site; so, I look for a bag I like, then search for the model number on ebags and the like.
posted by wg at 10:11 AM on March 20, 2012

Here is a tote from LL Bean that might hit all of your sweet spots except for price range (it is 159$). I bet you could find a sale or coupon though.
posted by cakebatter at 10:19 AM on March 20, 2012

different Cole Hahn bag
posted by mai at 10:31 AM on March 20, 2012

I have to disagree with TwoFewShoes - I've had two Target bags that I absolutely loved, but the cheap fake leather has started wearing off after a year or so. For $25 that's OK, I don't mind buying another at that price, but it's so sad to lose a purse that was *right*...
posted by maryr at 11:33 AM on March 20, 2012

I'm not a bagologist or anything, but I think you might have some success if you include "tote" or "work tote" in your
posted by teragram at 1:43 PM on March 20, 2012

There's got to be a better word for that. I spent a good five minutes trying to figure out what bagels had do to with anything.
posted by maryr at 2:04 PM on March 20, 2012

I recently bought this leather handbag from Opelle Creative on Etsy -- it is the nicest bag I've ever owned. Outstanding quality - the leather is heavy and with a beautiful texture, and the satin lining is also very durable and perfectly stitched.

I think the quality is very high for the price. I got mine in grey and it goes with everything - great for work. It comes with an extra cross body strap if you want to attach it but the regular strap is short. This might just be my favourite purchase ever!
posted by Pademelon at 2:07 PM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

I just saw that that's a bit out of your price range - but I think if you pay for the quality it will last you forever! Many of my cheaper bags of faux leather and synthetic materials barely lasted through a season.
posted by Pademelon at 2:24 PM on March 20, 2012

What about Ecco's Norden bag? Or Fossil's Emory satchel?
posted by scody at 2:29 PM on March 20, 2012

Try Wilson's Leathers.

I have more of a business tote from there that's perfect. Mind, I got it at a Salvation Army store on a Half-price Wednesday, so I don't know how much it cost retail, but it's my go-to bag for interviews. Plain, black leather, structured (it's almost like a briefcase, but not as hard or bulky), has a zippered pocket in front that's perfect for my keys and Metrocard, another snap pocket that fits my smartphone, and the interior of the bag is roomy with several different zippered pockets. It was practically new when I bought it and it's been well taken care of these last 6 years. One of the best purchases I've ever made. People always ask me where I got it.

I looked on the Wilsons site just now, and it might be just up your street. I saw plain black bags at $59.00.

I also have a bunch of vintage Coach bags, but unless you love thrifting like I do and live in a place where the rich are always giving away their unused stuff, Wilsons might be one of your better options.
posted by droplet at 5:40 PM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, I got this. Classic, quality leather bags for less than $200? Etsy is your pal.

I just got this bag on Etsy. I think it's hot - classic, work appropriate, large enough to hold papers or a laptop, and something I can use forever. And I love that it's orange. But he also has other bags in tan leather. Here's a great, classic black satchel. And here's another deep one. And here's another deep leather tote that's classic but has some style, and comes in different colors.
posted by pomegranate at 5:55 PM on March 20, 2012

I bought a bag a couple of years ago from the brand Derek Alexander - I had never heard of the brand, but I saw it in a department store and loved it. I have used the bag every day for 2+ years, and it looks just as good as when I bought it. There are a lot of bags from this brand on the ebags website, here is one that is on clearance that might work. You might like this one, or this one, although they are more expensive than the clearance one. And I also just noticed that the website states there is a lifetime warranty on these bags too.
posted by Chick Pea at 6:58 PM on March 20, 2012

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