The professional work bag is an essential for adult life. The usual script goes that a woman will carry a large leather tote bag on one shoulder, a man may have a briefcase or cross-body satchel. In both those cases, your stuck walking lopsided with all the weight of your day on one side of your body. But workplace dress codes are getting more casual so you don’t have to sacrifice comfort and muscular-skeletal health for the sake of professional respect.
Enter the reliable backpack. I could through a rock in the Union Square subway station in NYC and hit someone wearing a simple Herschel canvas backpack, with the faux leather straps dangling, and red pinstripe lining visible under the partially sealed flap. Maybe we can class it up a little more than that.
Leave the cheap canvas backpacks to grade school students. These are some of the best professional backpacks –big enough for a laptop at minimum– in more stylish and durable materials to keep you comfortable while commanding the respect you’ve worked for.
Too soft to be durable, right? Nah, wool is naturally dirt and water-resistant. Why do you think wool overcoats are the professional standard? I find this material to be a fascinating but overlooked take on the professional backpack.
Ted Baker “Cashed” wool backpack – $289
Perfect for someone who has a lot of stuff to fit in their daily commute, but doesn’t want to look like they’re about to go camping.
Pro: Expandable to fit a lot of stuff inside a large central, bucket-style bag. Top handle for carrying. Zipper-free roll-top style is much classier than than the typical backpack design. No outside pockets also means you won’t be tempted to keep your phone somewhere that’s easy pickings for a pickpocket.
Con: No external pockets and only one, tablet-sized internal pocket and divider means it can be difficult to keep everything organized. The tablet pocket is secured with velcro, which will snag any knit sweaters or scarves. The straps are stitched in an odd way at the sides, making them lay flat instead of rounding at the edges, which can rub against bare skin. When holding it by the handle, the extra strap length can drag on the ground.
Oliday Black Wool CityCarry – $108
Roll top with contrasting leather straps that close magnetically.
Pro: Exterior and interior pockets with lots of space inside make this a very versatile bag, but might be too much if you only take a few things with you each day.
Con: Straps look a little more rugged, making this appear slightly less professional from the front, when wearing. Thin strap on top for carrying isn’t padded enough to be comfortable when the bag is heavy.
Laine De Q “Islander” wool backpack – $126
Merino wool and genuine leather accents, this bag is just large enough for your 13.5 inch laptop and other relatively flat items.
Pro: Very stylish and professional, with high-quality materials. Slim look.
Con: Not enough space for many people and you may find yourself needing to swap it out for a larger bag, or carrying another along side it, if you need to bring gym clothes, lunch, or anything else bigger than notebooks and small accessories.
Leather / Vegan Leather
Classic leather will always look professional, but it really isn’t as rugged as it looks. If you get caught in the rain, that leather might look –and smell– like a wet dog. Faux (or vegan) leather made from Polyurethane may cost less than the real animal stuff, but it’s improved in quality enough that it should not longer looks or feels cheap. Some of the best can be hard to tell it’s not the real thing, until the rain comes down and you see the drops of water bead up and fall off your bag like dew, leaving your belongings safe and dry.
The Loomb “Romb” Smart charging backpack -$69
Unlike the other stylish backpacks here, this one comes with a 20,000 mAh power bank and 3way universal charging cable. Does it look familiar? It’s very similar to the Ted Baker roll top backpack featured in this article. The different style is a monotone lambskin-style leatherette (or vegan leather). This is very soft to the touch, and feels quite expensive, but it stands up regular wear and tear and is even waterproof enough to “wear in the shower” as the website shows in a video. Why is it so cheap compared to the similar Ted Baker version? Like Everlane, which banks on “radical transparency” and the notion that the old retail pricing models of selling an item at 300% of the cost to make, this brand doesn’t want to charge significantly more than the bag costs to make. As a small, newer, online retailer, it appears to keep operating costs low enough to support this reduced pricing model.
Pro: Soft and luxurious lambskin leatherette looks professional. Monotone is easy to match with variety of clothes (comes in Concrete Grey and Pigeon Blue as well). Straps are padded and rounded, and the extra length of the straps doesn’t drag on the ground when held by the handle, due to a clever loop at the end. Inside pockets include one large separator for a laptop (up to 15.6), and two small pockets for phone, keys, and the included charger. Oh wait, did I forget to mention it comes with a high-capacity charger and 3-pronged charging cord! How many backpacks have that, especially at this price? Expandable for when you need to fit a lot of stuff. etc… There’s a whole infographic on the website to highlight the pros; go see for yourself.
Con: No external pockets means you have to open the latch any time you want to check your phone. The latch does take some getting used to, though I found it as easy to use with one hand as a zipper, once I got the motion down. Looks perfectly structured in the photo, but can bulge and crumple depending on how much you fill it. That is true for a lot of bags, though.
RAINS Utility Tote backpack – $110
This material may be more similar to the soft rubber of a raincoat, but is the same PU material of a faux leather. The style of RAINS offerings is hard to beat at this price point and this one has definitely been making the rounds. This structured bag is waterproof and very sleek and holds a 13″ laptop. It describes the carabiner as a detail and the closure as magnetic, however, so unclear if the utilitarian closure is just for show.
Pro: Very sleek, professional style. Waterproof as a raincoat. Back access zipper pocket for a phone –perfect if you have it on vibrate as you can still feel when you get a call or text. Multiple color options. Hard to find bags this stylish for near $100 or less.
Con: Not quite as structured as it looks, depending on how you fill it. Straps aren’t padded and are less comfortable when the bag is heavy. No external pockets and few internal pockets.
Solo “Reade” leather backpack – $149
This is the only all leather backpack featured, so be wary in the rain. It is large enough for a 15.6 laptop, and has two slim front pockets for devices. Two larger main compartments with inner sleeves means all your flat items have a home. Be wary of anything wider than an inch or two, however, it may not fit.
Pro: Real leather and sleek gold studs make this bag look much more expensive than it is. Many pockets internal and external. Padded straps.
Con: Flat things only. This is just a series of tight sleeves and won’t fit anything bigger. External pockets are convenient and tempting to keep your phone and wallet at easy access, but be warned that pickpockets are great at sneaking these zippers open and looting while your back is turned.
This is the most unexpected fabric that is becoming more popular in clothing and bags. Usually thought of as just sportswear for underwater, this smooth and durable fabric translates well to the agile, modern professional.
Dagne Dover “Dakota” backpack – $195
This modern minimalist style neoprene backpack may have the same cuts as your grade school backpack, but the monotone coloring and futuristic look makes this adult enough for the professional.
Pro: They threw everything in to make sure this bag stays organized, with multiple pockets and sleeves everywhere you can think of, and an additional shoe pouch, because it’s so much nicer than carrying your gym sneakers in a plastic bag like garbage.
Con: Price is a little steep for what mostly looks like a gym bag. All the colors seem to be sold out except this moss green.
Most similar to canvas, this fabric just barely makes the cut to be considered professional. Usually made of polyester instead of cotton, like canvas, it runs the risk of looking even cheaper (think all those $30 backpacks from China that Amazon is flooded with; the photos look nice, but they definitely look and feel cheap when they arrive). Look to more established brands to find a version of this material that holds up better to scrutiny, even if it doesn’t always justify the stiff price tag.
Ted Baker “Tidee” nylon backpack – $239
This back has completely removable backpack straps, turning it into a tote as needed. Straps can also be adjusted and reclipped to turn it into a messenger-style crossbody tote.
Pro: Very professional details, if you’re looking for a more upscale look. External and internal zipper pockets. Versatile design for many ways to wear.
Con: Nylon looks a little bit like a slightly higher quality canvas, but not that much higher quality. Straps aren’t padded.
State “Filmore” rugged nylon backpack – $295
I almost didn’t want to include this one. State makes very handsome, minimalist backpacks, and even boasts a one-to-one donation plan. The bags are way more expensive then their materials seem to suggest, however. At this price, you might as well be buying two backpacks (and the one they donate isn’t the same one you bought).
Pro: Simple backpack with most of the useful updated features you’d expect for an adult backpack. Company spends some of profits to donate backpacks to students in need. Leather bottom.
Con: Lining pattern is a little whack. It’s a Brooklyn map according to the description, but looks a little too chaotic and perhaps overlayed to be useful or interesting. For this price it practically ranks as a luxury item, but doesn’t bring the unique style that designer bags have.