Ben Werner’s latest dispatch from South Korea as he debates getting himself a man bag.
They’re everywhere, men nattily dressed in smart suits, high-shined shoes, carrying designer clutches or small bags I imagine hold mobile devices, credit cards, money clips, even check books—man purses.
What I’ve grown up thinking are anachronistic totes from a short-lived hippie fashion four decades ago are commonplace here in Busan, South Korea. Given the prevailing fashion, technology, and weather trends, I understand why.
Combine wearing impossibly tight-fitting trousers, ever-growing large-screened mobile devices, and weather resembling a constant steam room half the year and yeah I get it, the less stuff bulking up a sweaty man-region the better.
Yet, so far, I’ve shuddered at shouldering a small tote; not for lack of need, either. My pockets aren’t just filled with a wallet, mobile, sunglasses, passport, fountain pen, Moleskine notebook, and apartment fob. Nope, as the father of toddlers and an infant, my pants often bulk up with assorted items recognizable to any parent. Often finding purchase in my pants are tissues, toy cars and planes (always sticky), bouncy balls, and partially-eaten, somewhat-mushy cookies; they’ll always be requested later and the same gnawed cookie MUST be provided, new ones are unacceptable.
So yes, I’ll put a soggy cookie or toy with stickiness of unknown origins in my pants, but can’t carry a man purse? Why am I, and many men like me, squeamish about carrying any bag too small to reasonably fit a laptop?
“Guys need to get over the idea that carrying a bag is emasculating,” said my friend Libby Callaway, principal at The Callaway, a Nashville-based creative consultant, and former fashion journalist. I’d asked her opinion of the man purse and why guys balk at the mention.
“They’ve carried briefcases and backpacks and the world hasn’t shifted on its axis,” Libby continued. “A ‘man bag’ is just a briefcase that hangs from your shoulder instead of dropping from your hand.”
Libby has a point, and there’s some quantitative data suggesting men are starting to come around. In 2014, double-digit sales growth among bags worn by men, especially sport equipment and handbags, reportedly held the $11.5 billion U.S. accessory bag market steady, according to a February 2015 report by global information company NPD Group, the Port Washington, New York-based global information company. What’s more, this growth occurred even as the industry’s largest segment—women’s handbags—saw sales decline for the year.
So, maybe it’s not just Busan or Korea, but men in the U.S. are increasingly clutching totes.
Libby thinks men are just catching up to something women have long known. “Carrying all your shit around day to day is much easier when it’s encased in a bag, preferably one of fine tanned Italian leather.”
Interestingly, as NPD reported man bag growth, Kate Spade announced it was tightening the purse strings on its man bag brand Jack Spade. By mid 2015, Kate Spade shuttered its Jack Spade stores in a move that also closed the Kate Spade Saturday stores. For three years, the stores together reported annual losses of more than $20 million, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings. The company didn’t specify Jack Spade’s role in these losses.
Jack Spade is just one of many man bag makers and the brand is still sold online and in department stores; a move Kate Spade officials dubbed a “new business model for Jack Spade.” But I do fault the Spade family for causing my current bag problem.
See, when I first met my wife, she toted a large handbag. We’re talking bottomless pit, large kettlebell weighing type bag holding everything—wallet, mobile, snacks, makeup, other women’s aisle items, and, if needed, my sunglasses, snacks, the latest New Yorker. An infant would’ve comfortably fit inside. Then, two years ago, for our anniversary, I bought her a cute Kate Spade bag—hot pink leather, dainty, and just large enough for a mobile, wallet, lip gloss, emergency-size women’s aisle items.
She loved it. A win for the husband me, but a total loss for dad me. My stuff was cast out of her new handbag of choice and our kids’ growing assortment of gear was never admitted.
I started cheating, stuffing my personal items, diapers, burp rags, wife’s nursing cover, toys, and snacks in an old canvas rucksack. Bopping around Busan, I like thinking my diaper bag resembles something Jack Kerouac would’ve used. Only, I doubt Kerouac’s was scented by anti diaper rash butt paste. My sunglasses and Moleskine notebook neatly fit in a side pocket, even if, when with the kids, my only writing will be a grocery list.
But with potty training looming, I’m nearing the end of the road for needing a rucksack diaper bag. Then what? Perhaps the solution doesn’t rest on my shoulder, hanging daintily by my hip, but instead with my closet’s embarrassment, folded under ironic T-shirts … cargo shorts, the minivans of apparel.