x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

The age of the man bag

Overstuffed pockets are becoming a thing of the past as more and more men realise they need bags.

Bags for men are becoming essential items and fashion houses are now making stylish versions for the modern man.
Bags for men are becoming essential items and fashion houses are now making stylish versions for the modern man.

"We just need to carry so much stuff around with us these days, especially given that technology has become so essential and portable," says Kevin Baker. "What did we do before? We carried around jackets that we didn't wear, but which had stuffed pockets. Add in what you do when you live in a warm climate and wear light clothing, and it's become a conundrum."

Baker, the managing director of the British luxury silverware and leathergoods company Thomas Lyte, is pondering one of the great challenges of the male wardrobe: the so-called "man bag", increasingly an everyday essential, yet still a hang-up for many gents - those who consequently resort to using old sports holdalls, cumbersome briefcases or the free rucksack they were given when they joined the gym.

But, it seems, not for long. According to the fashion stylist Harris Elliott, not only are men in general becoming more attuned to the idea of accessories as a means of making both a statement and a drab outfit look special, but the market is at last responding to their particular needs.

"When I launched my line two years ago it was out of necessity - I couldn't find a decent bag. The more I looked, the more I was surprised by this - men have stuff to carry, too," says Elliott, who created his H By Harris bag line, distinguished by its use of quilted leather. "Many men spend a lot on their clothes now but hesitate to do so on something they'd use all the time - at last that is changing as more bags that work for men have come on to the market."

Certainly specialist brands, the likes of Ally Capellino, Billykirk, Porter and South2West8, are having to provide designs with male needs and tastes in particular in mind to get sales. Bain Ellison was the director of the established leathergoods company Osprey until four years ago when, seeing a growing demand for appropriate man bags, she turned founder of the aptly named Man Bag Company. The overriding concern for men? Functionality.

"A woman wants a bag for the style, trend, colour - and if it works as a bag that's a bonus. Not so men," she says. For them, a bag needs the right pockets in the right place, an adjustable strap, a pickup handle, hard-wearing and lightweight materials, simple closures, sober colours, to be not out of place in the modern office. Vital, too, are getting those harder-to-define proportions right.

The bag designer Anya Hindmarch, after more than a year of sketching and tinkering, has finally just launched her first product for men. She says men have exacting design standards when it comes to their bags.

"They want a strap they can wear across the body, but one that works from the shoulder too," she says. "It has to improve with age; it has to be able to double as a weekend bag but not look as though it could. Above all, it mustn't look girly." So true, agrees Ellison.

"Younger generations are much more comfortable with all sorts of designs - it's part of their readiness to engage in fashion and take an interest in the huge male grooming market - and that has encouraged the design of a greater diversity of bags. But some men still confuse the whole idea of a 'man bag' with a little pochette with a dainty wrist handle - a more feminine pouch you might mince around with on the French Riviera. Although 'man bag' has itself become a generic term, men still fight shy of anything feminine."

One trend, then, might prove especially problematic for them. In line with the miniaturisation of technology, not to mention the vagaries of fashion, bags for men are getting smaller, too. They are edging ever closer to the danger territory that might see them misidentified as - to quote Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Ernest - "a handbag!" Or, as they have been dubbed by some, the male clutch or, perhaps worse still, the "murse". Yes, that's the man's purse.

Perhaps the pochette will find acceptance, after all. Thomas Lyte has one in the pipeline for its autumn/winter 2012 collection, although the Man Bag Company's "compact messenger" style is, says Ellisdon, as small as they dare go just yet.

"High fashion and footballers might favour the very small bag, but that one is going to take a while to filter down to real men," she says.

Perhaps. The leather accessories designer Bill Amberg - who cites upmarket rucksacks as the big thing right now, with his own Hunter style already a best-seller - reckons there is a shift afoot.

"Though, almost inevitably, it's being led by the progressive Japanese, whose fashion-conscious men started carrying styles of bag that a man wouldn't normally carry and looking really good with it," he says. "The fact is that men's bags are a very important part of any bag business now, and sales have really ramped up over the past few years. If there is business there, the industry will drive the change."

Daniel Charnier, the managing director of Chapman Bags - the maker of traditional canvas country bags, and which has just launched a suitably macho Airborne line based on military bags - also reckons that the next phase in male bag appreciation is just around the corner.

"At the moment most man bag sales reflect a concern with functionality, but that's changing as men become more aware of bags as style items in their own right," he says.

"There are phases: one, do I carry a bag? Two, how does it work for me? Three, the next phase, do I appreciate its style? And then there is phase four: actually collecting bags as women do. Of course, there will always be men for whom it makes sense to spend Dh2,500 on their shoes and then use a plastic bag from the supermarket. But more and more men know that's not a good look."