Top 5: Best Work Shoulder Bag 2020
Work carry trends seem to go full circle from briefcases, to backpacks and now something that is more casual yet still refined – the shoulder bag. Classic carry styles never go out of style but these five brands have brought their own touch to the work bag game. With features like luggage pass-throughs, magnetic closures, and materials ranging from high-tech sailcloth to Italian leather, there’s something for everyone in this year’s Top 5.
I first laid eyes on an Aer bag about 5 years ago and I can still remember my excitement, finally being able to examine a bag from a brand I had heard so much about. Since then, Aer has carved out a very specific niche for itself, designing bags that are extremely functional with a very strong common thread in their design. You can spot an Aer bag from across the train station.
Their Commuter Brief 2 comes in just one color: black. It’s a professional-looking shoulder bag that offers great organization and multiple carry options. It measures 16″ x 11.5″ with a depth of 5.5″ and has a capacity of 13L. This is not a large bag but it manages to fit a 16″ MacBook Pro in a padded and soft-lined compartment.
The front is 840D nylon face with a weather-resistant, polyurethane coating. This is the face that is outward facing and the one Aer expects most wear to come from so they went with an abrasion-resistant material here. The sides and back of the bag feature a beefy 1680D Cordura ballistic nylon. The bag is designed with some structural rigidity which allows the bag to stand on its own, even when empty.
The front compartment features an organizer panel that rivals any I’ve seen. There are a number of slip pockets that are lined with elastic, making them stretch to fit your accessories. A couple of pen slots, and a dedicated pocket for your keys, complete with leash. Behind the admin panel, there’s a large sleeve that is padded, perfect for a tablet or a large notebook. The front of the organizational panel has enough room for semi-bulky items like a jacket or headphones, with the front of the bag providing enough dimensioning to accommodate them.
There are two carry options for the Commuter Brief 2. First are the handles which are secured with a button snap. The removable padded shoulder strap allows for comfortable over the shoulder or behind the back carry as well.
The bag is part of Aer’s updated Work Line which is a fitting place to slot it, though it performs almost as well as a regular EDC bag. It offers plenty of storage and organization, is thoughtful in its consideration of the things a user may carry and the situations they might be carrying in and it does a good job of addressing those needs. At the price point and size, the Commuter Brief 2 represents excellent value and occupies a unique position in the shoulder bag category.
What do Kobe Bryant, Billie Eilish, and John Clark have in common? Despite being in three drastically disparate fields, they share the unusual distinction of having breakout freshman performances. An industrial designer by trade, John was encouraged to start his own bag company, by his mate Nick, producing a simple tote for starters.
Less than a year later, what John is crafting out of his workshop in Manchester, UK is anything but simple. The Tote Project is a truly custom, build-to-order bag and like any bespoke item, starts with a conversation with the maker. The options for the Tote Project are quite large and sometimes this can lead to anxiety and analysis paralysis. But over the course of half a dozen emails, my fears were assuaged. John is very natural to speak to and he was able to give thoughtful and practical advice, knowing just when to put his industrial designer hat on and when to leave it off.
The Tote comes in two sizes (standard 17L and large 21L). You have your choice of fabrics including X-Pac X10, X-Pac VX21 Black, and Cordura 500D in Black or Grey. You can choose among six colors for the front tote handle to add a bit of customization. The rear backpack straps can be connected via aluminum “crash lock” or Fidlock Magnetic “V” buckles. Lastly you can add an internal panel to create a laptop section in the back and/or an organizational panel for pens, notebooks, a passport, etc.
My build is fairly straightforward. After going back and forth with John a few times, I decided on a standard size bag in VX21, with blue handles, Fidlock buckles, the laptop section and organizer panel. Honestly, I could not be happier with how this turned out. The size, at 17 liters, is perfect. It’s plenty large to carry everything I need for work, a picnic, beach day, or grocery shopping. The blue handle adds such a nice pop against the black bag and makes it easy to locate in a boot (nod to our UK readers). The VX21 is such a lovely material. It has a very subtle sheen to it, but not too strong to be distracting or gaudy. I’ll admit the Fidlock buckles are totally unnecessary but add such a fun conversation piece and fidget factor, with a small weight penalty.
As mentioned, the Fidlock buckles allow for detaching the backpack straps. But backpack mode is just one of the carry options. The Tote can also be carried by the handles like a tote, over your shoulder, or with shoulder straps across the body. I found that my two preferred methods were over the shoulder and cross-body.
The build quality and attention to detail is amazing. My bag didn’t have a single stray thread or broken stitch. In using the Tote, I discovered some surprises that brought me joy. First, each bag comes standard with waterproof zippers to keep your contents dry. On the laptop pocket, there are two small accessory pockets but they are both closed by a single zipper with two tabs. They meet in the middle at an impromptu zipper hood made with just a small strip of nylon. Until recently, I had never seen this design element before. I love the two exterior pockets that are deep enough to almost reach my elbows. They are unlined so you get that smooth 50D backing. This instinctively tells me it’s a little bit more hard-wearing, so it’s where I’ll tuck a water bottle or tripod and not worry too much about spills or scratches. On the other hand, the interior is lined with polyester twill and it has this addictive smooth yet slightly rough texture; similar to flannel. This invokes a sense of comfort, and care, and protection, which is exactly what I want to be enveloping my laptop and other valuables.
Ancoats was at the epicenter of the Industrial Revolution and while it faced economic decline, a revitalization started to take place in the 1990’s. It’s only fitting that an industrial designer would choose the area as the namesake for his bag company. The Ancoats Bag Company Tote is a winning combination of customizability, great handcrafted construction and impeccable customer service.
Top-tier build and materials
For a long period, it felt like you had to go to one extreme or the other if you wanted a shoulder bag. Either a large bag, usually made out of a tarp material, and designed for cyclists to make deliveries. Or formal briefcases that were often made of stiff leather, with shiny gold hardware that you were afraid to use anywhere you didn’t have a suit on.
With their new System Work Bag, Bellroy has made a shoulder bag that works equally well for a young professional or executive. It starts off with just the right size at 340 x 460 x 130 mm with a 16L capacity. That might sound small at first when compared to a backpack but keep in mind that you typically pack less in a shoulder bag, usually just bringing a laptop and some essentials. Speaking of, there’s a padded compartment that holds up to a 15″ device. There’s a clever bit of patterning at the bottom of the bag that biases the laptop towards the right section, where there’s padding. This ensures the laptop doesn’t steal volume away from the main compartment. Readers will also be happy to hear that the compartment is suspended as well.
Continuing inside, you’ll find a document slot in front of the laptop section. As someone who still carries the occasional documents, it’s becoming increasingly rare to find bags that can support them. In this case, Bellroy chose the perfect location for flat storage – right against a stiff laptop computer. On either side of the bag are pop pockets which store water bottles or spare shoes and stow away when not in use. On the side opposite of the laptop compartment are two quick-access pockets with a burnt orange interior for easy locating of your AirPods, stylus, or business card case. Speaking of colors, the interior of my black bag is a nice light bronze that adds enough contrast to help with organization and access.
The main compartment is accessed via a large opening that runs the length of the System Work Bag. It is secured with sturdy, but not too-strong magnets. Ever since I experienced them in an Alchemy Equipment bag, I am a big proponent of using magnets as a quick closure system for bags. For extra security and to latch down the bag a bit more, you can close the fold-top with a G-hook.
A flap on the front, with a tasteful Bellroy logo (printed on sustainable leather), hides two zippered compartments, mirroring those on the inside. The difference here is these exterior pockets are backed with a thicker material so they feel more sturdy. The right pocket hides a key clip and a small pocket so they don’t dangle. There are also two pen slots here for times when you need to jot something down.
On the rear is a large zippered compartment, perfect for those airport security checks. For me, this is my go-to pocket for dumping my watch, smartphone, passport, and wallet. I’m also stashing my boarding pass here for quick retrieval. The bottom of this compartment can be opened via a zipper, revealing a luggage pass-through!
There are a couple of carry options here. First, the carry handles are among the most comfortable I’ve ever used. Surprisingly, Bellroy was able to pull this off with the right choice of material, size, thickness, and sewing. The width really spreads the load across your palm and the rounded edges make sure there are no hot spots. You can also attach the optional shoulder strap that keeps the bag to your back or side, and allows you to move quickly through the city.
The Bellroy System Work Bag manages to combine great design elements (water-resistant, recycled exterior, magnetic closure, plenty of storage options) while looking elegant enough for any situation – business or pleasure.
Excellent organization and access
Mismo, a Danish brand founded by Adam Bach and Rikke Overgaard, launched their first collection in 2006. Now, almost 15 years later, they have honed their design skills, manufacturing processes, and material selection, to produce some of the most elegant and well-performing bags in the carry world.
The M/S Endeavour is a briefcase that marries the performance advantages of a water-repellent cotton and durable nylon-blended canvas body with black, vegetable-tanned leather straps and accents, drawing you back into the world of luxury. It measures 40 cm x 30 cm x 10 cm and its rectangular prism shape along with a semi-rigid full-leather bottom means the Endeavour can stand on its own, even when empty. This is a welcome discovery and must-have feature for a professional shoulder bag.
The bag provides two double-zipped main compartments. The first features a foam laptop storage pocket (that holds a MacBook Pro 16″) with a panel split into two, on the opposite wall. These pockets are quite generous and could fit a pair of winter gloves or even a small thermos if desired. The second compartment features an interior zipped pocket alongside a small slide-down pocket, ideal for a boarding pass, notebook, or passport. Lastly, a hidden snap in the center exposes a single compartment in the center, where one could stow quick-grab items like sunglasses, keys, and other daily essentials.
The front of the bag features a large snap-buttoned extra compartment with a leather pocket for your phone and wallet. The rear has a design element with subtle Mismo branding, embossed across a leather strip that also doubles as a luggage pass-through.
If I had to describe the M/S Endeavour in one word, it’d be: delightful. I have not been as excited to open and explore a bag as I was with this one. From the unboxing experience in which you are first presented with an envelope with literature on the philosophy of the company and care and maintenance instructions, printed on finely textured cardstock, to pulling the brief out of the drawstring navy storage bag, you’re transported to a different world.
The bag itself is impeccably constructed and there are hidden moments of joy throughout. The hand polished YKK Excella zippers are thick and satisfying, made of solid brass with a shiny gold coating. The front button is engraved with the Mismo name and logo and has a slight patina, as a contrast. The shoulder straps are thick bridle leather that attaches to the bag with old-school spring-loaded hooks and you adjust the length by moving the buckle along, like a belt or watch. What a refreshing throwback. Even the center compartment is hidden at first, and when you open it, you are presented with a little book that opens up like an accordion, that gives additional information about the company and also some of their catalog.
The Mismo M/S Endeavour is a bag that makes you feel good while looking good using it. It is a marvel in design and execution and reminds you that quality materials and excellent craftsmanship is noticeable and it does make a difference.
Wins in X-factor
Top-tier materials and craftsmanship
Peak Design took an existing fan favorite and improved on it for Version 2. The Tote is 15L but because of the roll-top, it can actually expand to 20L (more on that sweet enclosure later). It comes in two colorways, Bone (with leather accents) and Black (with Hypalon accents), and weights 0.82kg without the included dividers or just over 1kg with them installed.
The exterior is a 100% recycled, 400D DWR nylon canvas shell for some uber weather resistance and they went with 900D on the bottom where it needs it most. The hardware is all anodized aluminum and glass-reinforced nylon and all the exterior zippers have been upgraded to Peak’s new UltraZips, which are claimed to have twenty times the tear strength compared to regular zippers.
The main compartment is accessed by opening the roll-top which is secured by two pairs of magnets. In a clever feat of design, Peak made the top stiff and one slightly taller than the other, for easy separation. There’s also a nice leather accent on the taller lip, which makes for a nice interaction touchpoint. Inside the roll-top is a zipper which protects the contents from any rain you might encounter. Inside, there’s room for a 13″ MBP in a sleeve that closes flat and secured with, you guessed it: magnets, when not in use. In front of that is a true admin panel with slots for pens and notebooks. The rest is a large cavity like most totes, but Peak has included two of their FlexFold dividers to help you carry your camera body and lenses. Peak is a photographer’s company, after all. There’s a final large vertical pocket in the center of the front wall, opposite the admin panel.
The front of the bag has a magnetic flap that holds a small media/admin panel, chock-full of organizational pockets and slots. It’s additionally secured with a water-resistant zipper. Inside you’ll find four smaller pockets for memory cards and extra batteries as well as three larger pockets on the opposite wall. There is also an included anchor key tether, which is the most luxe key clip I’ve seen in a bag.
I really appreciate the quick-stow pocket on the back of the Everyday Tote. It features a magnetic closure and while the channel is narrow, it runs the width of the bag so it can hold a lot. When the flap is open, it also exposes the luggage pass-through in an implementation that is the most clever I’ve seen yet. Lastly, on the exterior, you’ll find lash points to attach the two included stowable external carry cinch straps. This is perfect to carry items like a jacket or sweater, or even a tripod, when traveling or on a shoot.
There are three carry options for the Everyday Tote. First, Peak redesigned a padded removable shoulder strap, perfect for bike commutes or when the load is heavy. The built-in straps are extra long so they double as both hand straps for tote carry or can be carried over the shoulders. Once again, the classic super comfortable handle design we first saw with the EDC Backpack has made its way to another PD product.
Although any bag could arguably be adapted to carry camera gear, I really think that Peak Design has perfected their Everyday line to pull double duty. Their Tote is no different and the second generation boasts a smaller size for lower profile carry, 100% Bluesign certified outer fabric (Bone), a new strap design for optimized shoulder carry, as well as a redesigned padded shoulder strap. This all adds up to a very unique offering, making the Everyday Tote an ideal daily companion in and out of a shoot.
Wins in features