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Blame the Messenger

An ageless classic for modern life

By PAMELA DITTMER MCKUEN
   From its modest beginnings as a rugged courier carryall, the messenger bag has been delivered to runway shows and all points between. Function is fashionable in this day and age, says Kristina Moreno, president of the online retailer Handbago: All Things Handbag. “People are on the go—they need to be practical,” she says. “Messenger bags appeal to both men and women because they are both utilitarian and a great classic style.”
   The messenger bag can be traced to the 1950s when it was first produced by Frank De Martini, a sail maker in New York City, for linemen who needed to keep their tools close at hand while they shimmied up and down utility poles. Bicycle messengers adopted them as their own in the ‘70s. De Martini has passed, but his work carries on at the De Martini Globe Canvas Co.
   The androgynous design of the messenger bag hasn’t changed much over the years. They are mostly rectangular and single-strapped, intended to be slung over the shoulder or diagonally across the torso, lie close and flat and keep hands free. Today’s models add features that reflect modern life: side gussets for water bottles and sunglasses, cell phone holsters, large and small document pockets, padded laptop compartments and sometimes sturdy rather than slouchy construction. Messenger bags have been translated into athletic, professional, couture and funky totes.
   “There are a lot of variations, but they haven’t gotten far from that original style from 60 years ago,” says Moreno.
   Perhaps the messenger bag’s greatest asset is its versatility. Depending on the materials and features, it can serve as a portable office, a small suitcase or a pet carrier.
     “We’re even seeing them carried to evening events,” says Moreno.
   Chicago handbag designer Joelle Minassian sports a messenger bag while shopping for exotic leathers at the Italian trade shows. It’s the most workable choice—a luggage cart slows her down and backpacks aren’t very easy to reach into, she says.
   “They key decision when buying a messenger bag is usually about material: fabric versus leather,” says Minassian of Joelle Nadine Designs and consultant to Laudi Vidni custom handbags. “The latter tends to be heavier, but offers a more polished, professional image. On the other hand, fabric is more durable through water and heat, and it suggests a more casual look.”
   Among the considerations are Pandora Billy by Givenchy, a multi-tasker with rolled ostrich leather handle and removal shoulder strap. The Nanny by Jamah is a unisex diaper bag that’s been photographed on the shoulders of Jessica Alba and Brad Pitt. Tory Burch studs her work, and Coach wraps it in a new op art signature pattern. And the usually staid Kenneth Cole takes a break with a canvas eco-tote that implores, “Don’t Shoot the Messenger.” We won’t.

Published: February 07, 2010
Issue: February 2010 Innovation Issue