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Backpack vs. Briefcase

by , December 13, 2017

In October, the Wall Street Journal delivered an article that had the carry community talking: The Backpacks Are Coming: ‘Why Execs Are Ditching Their Briefcases’. 

In the article, Roopal Patel, the senior vice president at Saks lamented:“At Saks Fifth Avenue in New York, white-collar shoppers are scrutinizing backpacks in much the same way men must have studied briefcases in the 1950s and ’60s, and messenger bags in the 2000s. The backpack has exploded as the go-to accessory in the man’s wardrobe.”

Stuart and Lau Backpack and Briefcase Carrying

So it got us wondering here at Carryology: is there still room for the classic briefcase in a modern professional workplace? And generally speaking, what are the merits of a professional briefcase and a backpack?

To help answer these questions – and to pit the two against each other – our friends at Stuart & Lau provided us with their Cary Briefcase and Capstone Backpack. Both equal in style and build.

With these two gorgeous bags in hand and on back and a checklist of testing points, we set out to demystify modern, professional carry. And pinpoint a winner of the two (if we could…).

Stuart and Lau Briefcase Open

Space & Volume

“But whether you’re an executive or an intern, a backpack suits the densely stacked schedule many men now face […] Does it fit his laptop and workout gear—how about a water bottle? A briefcase can get you to the office and back, but what if you have tennis at 8 a.m., meetings all afternoon and ceramics class at 7 p.m.?” (WSJ).

While both the Cary Briefcase and Capstone Backpack are nearly identical in volume (around 710 in3), the Capstone Backpack feels much larger. This is thanks to a cavernous main body.

The Cary Briefcase on the other hand – although kitted with exterior pockets and leather straps to carry things like newspapers (or the Wall Street Journal) – is slender. And so the ‘usable space’ is spread thinner, canceling out things like lunchboxes and gym shoes.

Stuart and Lau Backpack Back

So with versatility in mind, it’s tough to beat the space and volume a backpack affords in and out of the office.

Backpack 1 – Briefcase 0


Traditional boardroom bags were beautiful leather creations but the leather straps made getting anything out of the bag awkward. While Stuart & Lau still uses full-grain leather on their handles and trim, getting into these two bags is a breeze. Elegant zippers adorn the pockets of the bags and discreet magnetic tabs snap open to access sleeves.

Stuart and Lau Briefcase Side

The Capstone Backpack is about as accessible as professional backpacks come thanks to access from two identical side zippers and a top pocket.

However, the Cary Briefcase is ultimately more accessible not because the entire contents of the pack are in the same compartment, but because everything remains in the same orientation and smooths access because of it.

Stuart and Lau Backpack Open

For quickly getting at your daily items and tools without having to repack your entire bag, a briefcase is your best bet.

Backpack 1 – Briefcase 1

Price & Value

Sales of adult men’s backpacks have grown steadily in the past two years […] increasing 5% to $864 million between August 2016 and this past August, representing 48% of the entire U.S. backpack market” (WSJ).

Stuart and Lau Briefcase Front

Professional carry doesn’t come cheap. With their Capstone Backpack and Cary Briefcase, Stuart & Lau have managed to keep the price point reasonable, if not a bit low, for this market at $335 and $295 respectively. Granted there is minimal leather on these bags but they still feel luxurious.

Although the backpack is more versatile, the briefcase feels more substantial and useful for its purpose. And at a $40 cheaper price point.

Backpack 1 – Briefcase 2

Laptop Transport

Laptops have replaced paper, so it’s no longer necessary to have a rigid briefcase. Meanwhile the weight of all of the accessories can add up and call for more than a shoulder strap” (WSJ).

Stuart and Lau Backpack Back

While this depends on what size laptop you’re using, the Capstone Backpack fits a 15″ laptop while the Cary Briefcase fits a 13″ laptop.

Additionally the Capstone – and any well-designed backpack – has a separate laptop compartment that is slightly suspended, meaning the laptop isn’t sitting flush against the bottom of the bag. This means you avoid that anxiety-inducing pang when you hear your laptop thunk against pavement (we’ve all been there).

So if you’ve got a laptop and like having it well protected, a backpack is superior.

Backpack 2 – Briefcase 2

Commute Comfort

This is a tough category – and a real tussle – because there are certain things about a briefcase and backpack we can appreciate.

For most people working in a professional setting, it’s unlikely they’re carrying tremendously heavy loads. Unless they’re gym-goers or tech lovers that is, in which case the backpack wins hands down – two straps across the shoulders bears weight better, it’s science.

But if you’re an exec and just carrying a laptop, docs and business cards, a briefcase is totally fine. Especially in cramped commutes, when you can avoid inadvertently whacking people with your backpack.

Moreover, backpacks can wrinkle suits and shirts around the shoulders, and on hot days sweat up your back. So in hot climates and more formal offices, the briefcase gets the win.

Stuart and Lau Briefcase Bottom

So let’s dig deeper: if you set the Capstone backpack down, you’ll still need a hand on it because it’s not freestanding. The Cary Briefcase however is decked out with hardware on the bottom to make it a freestanding bag, allowing you, for a time, to drop the weight completely (a nice plus).

Stuart and Lau Backpack Bottom

With all that said, we’re sitting on the fence for this one. It’s a tie!

Backpack 3 – Briefcase 3

Look & Feel

“Men’s backpacks have gotten more executive […] That means fewer sad-sack shapes in cheap polyester and more finely crafted designs in sumptuous leather.” (WSJ)

Stuart and Lau Backpack Strap

Both of these bags from Stuart & Lau look gorgeous. They’re both constructed from the same materials so really this one comes down to personal taste (in our case we like the Capstone Backpack for its sweeping lines and graceful profile, but we’re always a little partial to a backpack). And so if we zoom out and talk ‘professional carry’ universally, there are still very few backpacks that nail it. And in comparison there are hundreds of beautifully crafted briefcases on the market…so we’re giving this to the briefcase, ‘universally’ speaking, that is.  

Backpack 3 – Briefcase 4


“A briefcase, he mused, used to confer legitimacy on its owner, but that staid symbol of corporate success seems to have lost its mojo.” (WSJ).

Stuart and Lau Backpack Buckles

The Capstone Backpack tries really hard to make up ground on its more formal brother, the Cary Briefcase. It’s got a thick leather top handle so it can be easily carried at your side when you enter the office. It’s got a very slim and discreet profile so will never look out of place. And its hardware and leather accents give the bag a good touch of elegance. But that said, unless you’re working in a tech or startup culture, even a formal backpack still feels informal compared to a briefcase.

Stuart and Lau Backpack Back

The Cary Briefcase is built on a tried and true platform. Stuart & Lau have added some excellent modern touches and given the bag some minimalist styling cues to update its profile. But like a well-fitting suit, a handsome briefcase will always be more dapper, and more at home sliding across the boardroom table. 

Unless you work in a laidback office environment, a briefcase is your best bet.

Backpack 3 < Briefcase 5


Based on our scorecard, and despite the trend of professional backpacks taking the corporate world by storm, we still give the nod to the classic briefcase over a backpack as our professional bag of choice. Will it remain there for long? It just might…it’s always hard to beat a classic.

Stuart and Lau Briefcase Carry

This article is sponsored and presented by Stuart & Lau.



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