Jul 302013

Man with the golden murse: Daniel Craig, for one, understands the appeal of a male carryall.

Fans of The Hangover I and II know this scene by heart: four friends are in Las Vegas for the groom’s bachelor party and on their way to a boys’ night out Phil, played by Bradley Cooper, and Alan, played by comedian Zac Galifianakis, have the following conversation about the bag slung across Alan’s torso:

PHIL:  You’re not really wearing that are you?

ALAN: Wearing what?

PHIL: The man purse. You actually gonna wear that or are you just effin’ with me?

ALAN: It’s where I keep all my things. I get a lot of compliments on this. Plus it’s not a purse; it’s called a satchel. Indiana Jones wears one.

This sequence has been in my mind the past five weeks not only because I like Zac Galifianakis — he makes me laugh — but because I’ve been in and out of 11 airports. After surfing the net and reading books to pass all those pre- and post-flight waiting hours, I find that the next best entertainment is to people watch. 

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What catches my eye are the carry-on bags men take inside airplane cabins and I have noticed that often there is a specific type of man that carries a specific type of bag. Athletes who travel in jerseys or varsity shirts and serious sport sneakers carry huge athletic duffel bags (a no-brainer), often with their school or team name emblazoned on them. Teenagers carry backpacks that — depending on their stereotype — complete their “look.” Nerds have equally nerdy packs: ink-stained with scruffy suede bottom reinforcements; surfers carry Roxy packs; preppy teens have Jansport packs; sporty types tote North Face packs; little boys drag around packs with Disney or Pixar cartoon characters.

Adult American males use backpacks as well and not just the weekenders. Businessmen in business suits carry them too, along with their carry-on roller luggage: a backpack slung on one shoulder, the free arm dragging around the spinner carry-on. Hardly anyone totes a laptop case anymore — that single-purpose, slim, padded protective cover with handles. I theorize that they simply stuff their laptops in their packs or carry-ons.

But what fascinated me was the men who tote worn leather satchels. I’ve always been a fan of old leather holdalls — the more rough-hewn with age and frequent use, the better. I love the way they look. I love the way they smell. It’s that old-world charm they exude that gets me.

I had thought that they simply disappeared because of the proliferation of wheeled carry-ons and I can understand, because the convenience of rolling along your luggage compared to bearing its weight on your shoulder is a no-brainer. 

Still, it was a treat to spot men who have chosen not to cross over to those pesky spinners that often run over your feet in busy airports. I’ve seen men with satchels and holdalls all over Europe, but I don’t recall ever seeing them actually being used before in the United States or Canada (I’ve seen them in shops). 

I’ve been told by friends who live in Europe that leather satchels and hold-alls are very European things that men own for decades, perhaps even passed down to them by their fathers. Excellent leather lasts a lifetime and such pieces come in standard and very traditional designs. They are not “it” fashion items that last all of one season. They are durable and classic. If you need more convincing, James Bond himself, Daniel Craig, travels only with holdalls and satchels. If it’s good enough for Bond, it’s good enough for you.

I’m not talking about the atrociously priced, branded leather goods that have earned a cult following among Hollywood celebrities but the finely hand-crafted pieces from high-grade leather goods that 10th-generation leather artisans have painstakingly treated, cut and sewn on their work benches. Yes, these prized items of leather still do exist.

The best holdalls are 100-percent leather with solid-brass buckles attached to straps that wrap entirely around the bag, a double-gusseted structure to allow a full-leather interior zipper panel, a six-layer leather handle and a detachable shoulder strap that allows for on-shoulder, cross-body, or in-hand carry. They are thoughtfully constructed, simple in design, often having only a main holding compartment with a front flap and a long, belt-like sling with an adjustable buckle.

I find that the English-made satchels and holdalls are more structured and come with stiff accordion compartments that don’t have much “give”; the French and Italian ones seem less rigid and therefore allow more storage space. Prices for handmade satchels can range from US$200 to about $7,000 for a Burberry ostrich leather holdall.  

While standing in a long queue at a rental car counter in the San Francisco airport, I started chatting up a gentleman behind me because of his beautiful holdall.  He was British (big surprise), in town for some business with Google, and yes, he was in jeans and a navy blazer and deck shoes.

We talked about his holdall and he said his mother had given it to him when he left for boarding school — it’s that old. “It’s like Linus’ security blanket. Isn’t that how you say it in America? I would not know a moment’s peace without it.”

I then asked, “Doesn’t it get cumbersome to tote around, especially if you travel a lot for business?  Wouldn’t a hands-free, roll-along, lightweight titanium cabin luggage suit you better?” 

“Ah, yes, those. They must bring some measure of ease to the traveler but they are not for me. I may get there, but not yet. I find this does the work efficiently enough.” Then he mused: “They cover so many miles by airplane between America and Europe, they must need those wheels. I perhaps should try one of those.”

“Oh, no, don’t,” I said. “Your holdall is perfect; it’s gorgeous.” He looked bemused by my enthusiasm. Perhaps I sounded like a satchel groupie.

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Thank you for your letters.  You may reach me at cecilelilles@yahoo.com.

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