Leather Tote Review: Madewell vs. Fashionable vs. Cuyana

November 17, 2016


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.


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  • Rebecca N November 17, 2016 at 8:22 am

    I bought the Tirhas Saddlebag in pewter from FashionABLE with my birthday money. I have to admit I am not in love with it, but hoping it will grow on me over time. It certainly smells wonderful though! I had wanted to buy the Mamuye tote, but a few weeks before found a leather tote at a used fashion instagram page. I picked it up for less than $40 and while it is a little more red than I would like, it serves the purpose and I’ve received many compliments on it. So I ended up going with the saddlebag for my birthday. It’s nice to have a smaller bag option for days I don’t want to cart around the tote.

    • Andrea November 23, 2016 at 9:36 pm

      What don’t you love about it? Do you think it will just take time? I think that is a great bag!! Score on your tote, that’s awesome!

      Happy Thanksgiving Rebecca!

  • Leah November 17, 2016 at 2:08 pm

    I have a FashionABLE bag and I actually don’t mind the marbling and aging it’s gotten with use. Unfortunately, I wore jeans I’d dyed with indigo with it one day and there’s a light blue stain on the back, but for the most part, I think it’s worth the price. I need to make sure to condition it with wear so it doesn’t dry out. I’m curious to know the difference in eco-friendliness between the three finishes.

    • Andrea November 23, 2016 at 9:24 pm

      Leah, you always ask the good questions! I don’t even know where to begin on that one, but great topic! Which color FashionABLE bag do you have?

      Happy Thanksgiving Leah!

  • Melissa Keyser November 17, 2016 at 6:35 pm

    I have a leather tote from Whipping Post and I LOVE IT. I was considering the FashionABLE bag, but I liked that the one I got had a solid bottom and a pocket. I checked with them before my purchase about their makers and sustainability, and they seemed to be big on education for their employees (made in Mexico). Should you ever need another bag, I recommend them!

    • Andrea November 23, 2016 at 9:23 pm

      Thanks for the tip Melissa, those Whipping Post totes are gorgeous! Wow!

  • MICHELLE November 17, 2016 at 10:38 pm

    My favorite of the 3 is the Cuyana one too. I have the transport tote back when I shopped at Madewell (ha, not too long ago), and find that it’s too big width wise, and surprisingly heavy for being so floppy. I like the slim profile of the Cuyana… maybe when I’m in need a tote, I’ll consider it. I’ll be selling my madewell tote at some point. Enjoyed this post as always thanks! =)

    • Andrea November 23, 2016 at 9:20 pm

      Hey Michelle! If you sell your Madewell Tote, definitely use Poshmark. I am always able to get top dollar for Madwell items on there, and they sell fast too!

      Yes, the slim profile of the Cuyana bag is awesome! The bag is definitely light weight, I love it.

  • natalie November 18, 2016 at 9:46 am

    The Madewell zip transport has been my sidekick for 3 years now. It’s worked well, but I am looking for something else on this next purchase. Most likely black. Definitely leather. Your feedback here is super helpful! Thanks friend.

    • Andrea November 23, 2016 at 9:18 pm

      You’re welcome! Love the quality of Madewell’s leather, just wish I knew more about where their goods are made!

  • Serena January 3, 2017 at 9:54 pm

    Thank you for this post! I just purchased the cuyana tote in black with the zipper and I have it stuffed now with air paper to have it relax a bit. I hope I love it as much as you do! Cheers!

  • Anthony February 11, 2017 at 2:04 am

    I’m purchasing the Cuyana Tote for my special lady friend (partner of 17 years) and I have two questions that I am hoping you can assist me with. This bag will be used to carry a laptop, IPad tablet, a couple of files and other office miscellany during the week, but I anticipate it being pressed into service as an overnight tote for the few days a week when she must stay at regional offices instead of commuting home to NYC. Do you feel that the Cuyana could serve both purposes or is this bag too unstructured to handle the work load out? Secondly, I believe the “deep clay” color is smashing, but worry that it’s too light for the office. Have you seen that color in person or do you have an opinion about that color independent of any described usage. Thank you for your blog and anticipated courtesy.

    • Andrea February 12, 2017 at 1:25 am

      Hi Anthony! Great questions I DO think the bag is too unstructured to handle that workload, particularly the laptop and tablet. It handles a lot of stuff well, I’ve filled mine with coats, snacks, misc items, and it packs well, so I think it would work for an occasional overnight, but I think you might want something sturdier to carry a laptop and a tablet. Unless maybe it’s a macbook air… I think the deep clay is a great color. One thing I like about the way Cuyana treats their leather, is that it seems to be very resistant to getting dirty or absorbing moisture. I think that color would retain its look easily. It’s a beautiful neutral. If you’re looking for something more structured, I recently came across Neva Opet, a small bag label out of Atlanta. Their totes are beautiful and made in the USA. ( Good luck!

  • Sally March 13, 2017 at 1:19 pm

    Thanks for this great info – been looking at totes for weeks and can’t decide! I have Madewell in brown and I like it but I want something more tall than wide for Mac book air and stuff for work – so you think the Cuyana is too floppy for laptop? Thats how I felt about Baggu – the floppiness doesn’t look good with a computer in it. Im obsessed with the Shinola one but its too expensive. If you have more opinions about a tote for everyday work with small laptop (15 inch mac air) and then small notebook, wallet, glasses, keys, etc. Id like it a bit more polished and in black since its for work. Thank you for your feedback!

    • Andrea March 13, 2017 at 9:19 pm

      Hi Sally! The Cuyana is kind of soft and fluffy like the Baggu one is. I don’t think it would be the best for a computer, though I know Mac book airs can be tiny. If you’re looking for something with more structure try Neva Opet.

    • Andrea March 13, 2017 at 9:20 pm

      Or you could also try Everlane’s Petra Magazine tote, it has more of that shape you’re looking for!

  • Colleen May 14, 2017 at 9:51 am

    I came here looking for info on the Cuyana tote – I have a weekender bag from them that I love and have been considering a tote as well. I didn’t know that Madewell was part of JCrew, thanks for that info. Cuyana, by contrast, is owned and operated by women of color, which is a big plus for me.

    Currently my go-to leather tote is a black Madewell Transport in the wide “East West” version they had out last year. My other stalwart is a brown leather tote made by Laurel Dasso which is comparable in size/shape to the regular Transport. Laurel handmakes every bag so they are pricier but I have carried mine all over the world for four years and it still looks like new! Her “Perfect Tote” is available on Etsy. (I know this sounds like a shill for her shop, it’s not. It’s just a great bag.)

    I had not heard of Fashionable but now I’m definitely going to look into them. Thanks!

    • Andrea May 14, 2017 at 8:47 pm

      Hi Colleen! I have had both the Cuyana Tall tote and the Classic tote. I prefer the classic tote to the tall tote, as it’s not so tall. The Cuyana totes are slouchy compared to the Madewell ones, and I really like that about them. They’re lightweight, and their slouchiness makes them more compact what a more structured leather, but they can still handle about the same volume load. Thanks for the tip on Laurel Dasso! Fashionable is a great option too!