The handbag horizon is a perpetually changing one, often symbolic of the changing times. Back in the ’50s, when people would travel by train, the hand-held travelling bag was considered a must-have. Also gaining popularity at the same time was the women’s vanity bag — a portable case with a hard, grainy exterior designed to hold make-up and accessories. In the swinging ’60s, beaded totes were the ‘it’ accessory to have. Designs developed over time, becoming ‘classics’: the embellished clutch, the bejewelled box bag, the cross-pleated hand bag and basic designs created from fine leather, textures or animal skin.

Perhaps, then, the evolution of the androgynous ‘man-bag’ is testament to today’s fast-paced world. Gender-bending, utilitarian bags have always been around but they are visible now more so than ever, becoming a popular choice for women on the go, albeit tweaked towards slightly effeminate design.

Murtaza Ali, the Managing Partner at M. Jafferjees, observes, “The conventional classic bags will always be purchased more frequently. Still, there is a small niche clientele that is now on the look-out for bags that are large enough to hold their laptops or paperwork and are resilient enough to be taken on long travelling trips. We usually create androgynous designs on order, according to clients’ particular requirements.”

The man-bag is not just an accessory; it’s a fashion statement

Interestingly, the man-bag comes in myriad designs and can be quite a fashion statement. The classic rectangular men’s briefcase may get rounded off to an oblong with the business-like exterior replaced by a quirky print or a cheeky colour. Local brand HOBO by Hub Leather has occasionally been observed delving into briefcase hybrids, smaller than their masculine counterparts and yet, big enough to hold important documents or a slim laptop.

The commute-friendly fold-over bag is a softer variation to the briefcase. It’s a frequently seen shape, available in genuine leather as well as synthetic material, usually in sleek austere hues: butterscotch brown, oxblood, olive, et al. Once again, its hold-all design allows it to be ideal for the working individual, man or woman.

Another bag design that has transcended gender restrictions is the cartridge bag with a robust, practical design that, as its name implies, allows it to hold hunting cartridges. With its equestrian design and subdued palette, the bag quickly moved beyond mere hunting trips to become a frequently spotted accessory for women at social gatherings as well as for the fashion-forward men.  

Also, the cross-body schoolboy satchel is perpetually seen slinking at the periphery. Designed with a thick strap, buckled flap and conveniently placed pockets, the bag is uber-convenient — it was, in fact, used just by schoolboys back in the 1950s. Over time, though, the satchel moved beyond scholastic boundaries into the realms of fashion.

In present-day, possibly every international brand worth its mettle stocks the satchel. At Paris Fashion Week last year, Chloe presented a timeless design in tanned brown; Burberry always has a ready collection, traversing its characteristic chequered patterns as well as alligator skins and pure leather; Fendi splatters its satchels with bohemian floral print and on the high-street end Accessorize tends to play about with polka dots, bright colour blocks and varying textures.

Locally, the satchels at Jafferjee’s have an old-world elegance to them; tailored from genuine leather with shiny buckles and usually in a stain-resistant tawny brown. Similarly, at HUB Leather, the satchels follow a masculine palette in leather whereas within its fast-fashion sister brand HOBO, the designs are funkier, with more colour and print, fashioned from synthetic materials. Similarly, designer Mahin Hussain has a long-standing penchant for satchels, from the classy ‘man satchel’ to leather in eye-popping colours and fun, printed options exclaiming ‘Listen Girl’ or titled ‘Bulleya In Love’.

The commute-friendly fold-over bag is a softer variation to the briefcase. It’s a frequently seen shape, available in genuine leather as well as synthetic material, usually in sleek austere hues: butterscotch brown, oxblood, olive, et al. Once again, its hold-all design allows it to be ideal for the working individual, man or woman.

The quintessential backpack follows more casual lines. Slung at the back, lightweight, supple and ostensibly unisex, this bag design is possibly the most sensible option for a day out in the streets or a long travelling trip. The backpack is generally large enough to hold a laptop, books and paperwork and comes in a varying palette from canvas browns and greys to distressed leather, printed fabric, suede and, for the avid sartorialist, even embellished with sequins and embroideries. Usually, the backpack comes equipped with shiny buckles but drawstring versions are also quite popular. In its many variations, the backpack epitomises the comfort and ease that makes androgynous bag designs so popular.

What propels sales for such bags? Primarily working women, according to Jafferjees’ Murtaza Ali and HUB Leather’s Managing Director Asfandyar Farrukh. But given the constant evolution of design, ‘man-bags’ are just as easily applicable as distinctive accessories for an evening soiree or the carry-all at a fashionable lunch. “We recently created a bespoke androgynous travelling bag of sorts that could also be used as a baby bag for one of our clients. In the inside, we made pockets for baby bottles and diapers while the exterior has the look of a regular leather bag,” describes Murtaza.

The options here are endless.

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 24th, 2017

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