A long time ago, I found one of my favorite blogger friends – a gal named Grechen – when I was deep in the throws of an internet search on leather totes. I think I was looking up the Madewell Transport Tote, and I stumbled upon her review.
Fast-forward a few years, and I realized I’ve compiled my own little stash of leather totes. After using them regularly for the last one to two years, I think it’s time I share my insights. This is really the beauty of the internet these days. You can read feedback on almost anything before you buy it. I mean, how valuable is that? It’s like a bunch of women (because we are usually the buyers) in the aisle of the item you want to buy, and you can ask her, “How heavy is that?” “Did it break in okay?” “Is it comfortable?” It can be a rabbit hole if you’re not careful though. Below I’ve collected my thoughts, along with your questions, to share with you my straight-forward reviews on the Zip Transport Tote by Madewell, the Mamuye Leather Tote by Fashionable and the Tall Leather Tote by Cuyana.
Time Owned: One year, 11 months
What I Like the Most: The leather on this tote is probably my favorite of the three. It’s thick enough to have some structure, but the natural grain and creases have begun to show over time. The leather is finished and sealed in a way that I don’t have to worry about spills or stains, making it very easy and simple to use.
What I Like the Least: The handles are too short on this to use it as a true tote. I can drape my bag on my forearm, or wear it cross-body. Somedays I wish I could just throw the short handles over my shoulder, but the logistics don’t work.
Where it’s Made: China
Weight + Shape: This bag has a bit of weight to it because of the extra leather strap and the brass details but, overall, as far as bags go, it’s still pretty light. The Zip Transport Tote is lined and has an inside pocket. The leather is decently thick so the bag holds its shape nicely. When stuffed chock full, the bag still retains its original shape.
Overall: This bag has been a true staple for me over the last two years. It signified a big shift in my sartorial choices, from brown to black. I remember standing in front of the mirror at Madewell and just feeling at home in the dark shade more than I ever had. Up until this point I was a self-professed ‘brown girl.’ I also had a seven-month-old baby at the time and this tote doubled as his diaper bag for quite sometime. Big enough to hold all my stuff, and some of his stuff, without being too huge and overwhelming (like I found a lot of diaper bags to be). It’s serendipitous that I find myself feeling like I’ve outgrown the style and use of this bag lately. My son, coincidentally is at the tail end of his diaper career. It’s been a great bag, that has worn in beautifully. The corners have gotten slightly dried out, and I’ve applied leather conditioner to them overtime to give them a boost. These days I prefer a smaller bag for a cross-body style so we’ll see if this one makes the cut.
Company Ethics: At the time I got this, I hadn’t yet turned the corner on my ethical shopping practices. These days I no longer shop at Madewell. J.Crew is their parent company and they just don’t provide substantial information about their supply chain or the factories they work with to make me comfortable enough to want to purchase from them. It’s been well over a year since I bought anything from Madewell, and even though I miss it sometimes, honestly it hasn’t been as hard as I thought. Thankfully, there are a lot of great ethical options on the market place for leather totes. Fashionable offers one very similar to the Madewell Zip Transport Tote, called the Abera Crossbody Tote. It looks a bit larger than the Madwell version and it does not zip at the top. The drop on the short handles also appear to be long enough to drape over your shoulder.
Time Owned: 5 months, c/o Fashionable
What I Like the Most: The shape and drape of this tote. It hangs just right when I wear it, and it holds its shape nicely.
What I Like the Least: The unfinished/distressed leather and no inside pocket. (Note, the newer versions of the Mamuye Leather Tote do have a pocket on the inside.) As recommended by Fashionable I put leather conditioner on the bag (read more here) to help seal up the unfinished/distressed leather, but the bag is still susceptible to stains. I know I should get over it, but it’s hard when you go to a restaurant and you feel like you can’t put your bag on the ground. Or you get in the car in the winter and feel like you have to hold you bag on your lap to keep anything that might be lurking on your car mats off of it. Over time as the bag gets more distressed, I suspect I’ll be less bothered by this aspect.
Where it’s Made: Ethiopia
Weight + Shape: This bag is lighter than the Zip Transport Tote because there’s no metal, and no long strap. The leather is nice and thick, but the bag itself is not very heavy. As mentioned above, this bag has great shape. I think it’s not too big, and not too small. It maintains its angular shape no matter what I put in it. However, I do not travel with a laptop, so I have not tested that out. This bag is unlined.
Overall: Often, I am slow to warm up to new bags, I tend to like them more when I’ve had the chance to go around the block with them quite a few times. Such is the case with this bag. Only owning it for five months means it’s relatively ‘young’ compared to my other bags. The color makes it really great for the spring and summer, when black can be too stark to work with some of my color palettes. The bag is well made, and the distressed leather keeps it from having too stuffy of a vibe. I look forward to continuing to ‘get to know’ this tote.
Company Ethics: Fashionable is a Nashville-based company that is committed to job creation for women in Ethiopia. They work to create sustainable business that brings long term opportunities to women who have overcome adversity. They believe in the ‘teach a person to fish’ over the ‘give a person a fish’ mindset. Fashionable is a great opportunity for you to choose ethics with your money.
Time Owned: One year, two months
What I Like the Most: I love the slouchyness of the Cuyana Tall Tote, and the impervious pebbled leather.
What I Like the Least: It’s a tad long in the shape, and has extra seams on the sides. The Classic Tote is shorter and does not have side seams.
Where it’s Made: in the U.S. with Italian leather
Weight + Shape: This bag is close to the same weight at the Mamuye Tote, but, if I had to guess, it might be slightly lighter. The leather is a wee bit thinner, and definitely softer. It rarely feels heavy on unless, of course, it’s stuffed with heavy items. The bag’s shape conforms to whatever items you put into it. I tend to keep my usual suspects in there: wallet, pouch with lipstick/gum/chapstick, sunglass case, pen and mini notebook, a diaper or, more recently, a tiny pair of boxer-breifs and spare pants. My bag shapes nicely. It does pull on the straps as you can see in the picture, because this is a less-structured type of leather. There is a zipper pouch on the inside, along with a cell phone-sized pouch just below it. The pebbled leather is supple, and looks nice no matter what my hectic life throws at it. No fear of setting this one on the ground. This bag is unlined.
Overall: This is the surprising favorite out of the three totes. It took me quite a long time to warm up to it. At first I didn’t really like the structure-less feel of it. But after repeated use, I have come to find the slouchiness works really well for me because the bag is soft and has an unimposing presence. The relaxed shape makes for a less formal-looking bag, and I really like that. Also, this puppy can hold a ton of stuff. I’ve filled it with coats, notebooks, wine, large DSLRs, coffee beans, snack aresenals, you name it. It’s a true work horse for me. I did a lot of research before I bought it. I originally wanted the similar version from Madewell, but wanted to give my dollars to a more ethically-minded company. The final hurdle I had to cross before buying it was trying to decipher the true color. The Madewell Transport tote is a more cognac-toned bag, and this one is a true camel, without much red or deep brown in the shade.
Company Ethics: Cuyana is a big proponent of quality over quantity, and it shows in their offerings. They champion style over trends. They don’t have an endless stream of new items like Everlane, but what they do, they do well. No detail is overlooked. They source very high quality materials and I love that their bags are made in the U.S. or Italy.
If you’d like some more resources on ethically sourced leather bags, ProjectJUST recently shared their ‘Just Approved’ handbags and leather selection. Nisolo also has a great selection of leather totes, and Minnie+George is one my Portland favorites for top-quality leather goods.