Ask Belle: Handbags for Graduates

May 9, 2013

Dear Belle,

I have two questions that I need your help answering. 1) What handbags make the best graduation gifts (splurges) for a woman working in a professional office?  2) Where can I find purses that don’t cost an arm and a leg?  My Mom is giving a “nice” bag for graduation (under $300, please!), but I’d also like to know where I can find purses an entry-level salary can purchase.

Thank you for your help, Susie

Handbag Math. A stylish, good-quality handbag isn’t a splurge; it’s an investment. I’ve been carrying the same Rebecca Minkoff Mini MAB since 2008, and it still looks great inside and out. So when you’re calculating whether a more expensive bag is worth it, you need to break it down to cost-per-wear. I’ve carried my Mini MAB so much that I’m at 50-cents or less per wear.

Under-$300 Bags.  If you need an every day, carry it everywhere, multi-purpose bag that will work for the office, graduate school, long trips and the gym, you NEED the Lo & Sons OMG bag.  Politicians, staffers, lawyers, doctors, public relations gurus all carry this bag, and I have yet to meet a woman who didn’t love it.

Every time Miss M carries hers (which is nearly every day), people stop her on the street to ask who makes it and where she bought it.  It’s versatile, chic and made for the busy woman on the go.

If you’re looking for a more traditional leather handbag in the $300-range, I would start with the Coach Candace Carryall ($328), the Cole Haan Linley Satchel ($215) or the Dooney Dillen Satchel ($298).

“Splurge” Bags for Less.  If you’re looking to score a great deal on an investment handbag, the go-to place is Neiman Marcus Last Call.  The site often has deeply discounted designer bags, and if you catch it at the right time, they’ll have deals on top of that savings as well.

This sleek Foley and Corrina satchel is $224 instead of $425.  This stylish DvF satchel is also deeply discounted.  If you’re looking for something a bit different, I love the mix of colors and textures on this Pour la Victoire bag.  And this beige and ivory colorblock bag would be great for spring and summer.

The other option would be flash sale sites like Gilt Groupe.  If you’re patient, you can score a designer handbag for much less. I have purchased all of my Minkoff bags on Gilt and have paid at least 30-percent less.  Not a member of Gilt, yet?  Join here.

Buying Inexpensive Bags.   If you’re looking to add a few new bags to your closet, but you don’t have a lot of money to spend, my first stop would be Zara.  The Office City bag would be a great starting out work bag, and it costs just $89.

ASOS is another great choice for inexpensive, chic bags.  I love this verdant tassel tote for under-$50.  The metal accent bar on this top handle bag is great too.  And this colorblock River Island tote is functional, on trend and in an intern’s price range.  What’s not to love?

Lastly, if you’re looking for chic basics that are more in the Hill Staffer-price range, I would also try C. Wonder.  I love this two-tone satchel and this easy leather tote.

Finding a great handbag at a great price takes a little bit of work.  Invest in the basic bag you’ll carry for years, and save your pennies when you’re buying clutches, trendy pieces or when you find a good deal.  And remember to clean your bag at least once a year, have leather protectant applied to nicer purses and keep it in a dust bag when not in use.

If you have any other tips for where to find great inexpensive bags or where to find good deals on designer pieces, leave them in the comments.

Ask The Edit, Style

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  1. AJ says:

    Thanks Belle! Where do you take your bags to get serviced. I have rather expensive leather that has some loose stitching and could use some cleaning and conditioning.

  2. Rosalind says:

    Belle, when you say clean your handbags once a year, what do you mean? Do you mean having them cleaned by a professional? If so, how do you find someone you trust to do it, and who do you use? I have a black Kate Spade bag I love that I’ve used for a second fall and winter, so it’s probably due for a cleaning, but I’m nervous about what to do/who to trust with it.

  3. Joy says:

    A purse is not an “investment.” I realize this term is used all over the fashion “blogosphere” but it drives me crazy when it is used as a justification for a purchase. This doesn’t mean that it is not worthwhile to purchase a high-quality, sturdy bag…but it is not an “investment.”

    That being said, I LOVE your blog. Just a pet peeve of mine and wanted to point out the clarification.

    • Belle says:

      My response to this is pretty simple: If I can spend $298 on an on-sale Minkoff bag and carry it nearly every day for five+ years OR I can spend $80 on a new bag every year because it falls apart after heavy use, then it is more financially responsible to do a than b.

      Of course, if you’re going to use it justify buying more expensive things frequently, then it is not financially a good idea. But I tend to buy one thing and wear it or use it to death, so for me, it is the better financial decision.

      And while it’s not common, I’ve purchased vintage clothing or other pieces that are worth much more now than when I bought them. As your article mentions, that probably won’t apply to a current bag or a work clothing purchase, but if buying one pricey-right-now, wear-it-forever piece saves you significant money in the long term, that’s smart shopping.

      • GoGoGo says:

        Cost-per-wear is a totally interesting concept that I hadn’t thought about before it came up here on the blog.

        It definitely makes me pause in some cases, like shoes in particular for example. I used to buy way more cheap things from Payless, but they really do last only a seaons and don’t make sense.

        On the other hand, it definitely makes buying anything that requires dry cleaning seem like a bad idea.

        I thought I was the “homeowner” of this suit I’m wearing right now. But I’m actually effectively paying “rent.” Weird.

        • Belle says:

          Dry cleaning is a huge expense. I’ve tried Dryel and I don’t love it, I wonder if some readers have other suggestions on home cleaning dry clean only clothes?

    • GoGoGo says:

      I’m with Joy. I love the blog, but concept of “investment” items in fashion’s always been a little bit of a pet peeve.

      The blog “What Would Phoebe Do?” has a thoughtful rant on the same subject.

      I have a simple navy $39.99 H&M blazer that’s been going like gangbusters for seven years now and has long outlasted lots of fancier stuff. The strap on my awesome vintage Coach bag just bit the dust.

      I dunno…cheap things can be just as durable, style-wise and material-wise. Fancier things are sometimes just more fun.

      • Belle says:

        I def. have cheap things (hello, Zara) that are just as durable. I’m just esp. hard on shoes and bags and find that the nicer ones are better deal for me.

        Let me ask this is it the whole concept of the “investment piece” or just the name you object to? Because it seemed with Joy it was more about the name? Maybe I read that wrong though, wouldn’t be the first time.

  4. h says:

    Regarding the Lo & Sons OMG bag, I bought one in Sept, and HATE it. I was super excited about its special shoe pocket, but none of my shoes fit in it! I wear a 9.5 shoe, and the pocket is way too small to fit any of my shoes- bust. And because my shoes don’t fit in the shoe compartment, I have to use the main compartment, which takes up a ton of space, leaving me little room for clothes. I really don’t understand how this *HUGE* bag can have such little room inside for stuff. And FYI its too big to fit in the lockers at the 3 boutique gyms I frequent. I also really liked the laptop sleeve part, but its about .5 inches too short to fit my laptop! Another bust. And it has the worst plastic/nylon smell ever! I’ve been airing mine out in my closet since receiving it (aka used it once and haven’t bothered since) and it still has this rancid chemical smell 8 months later! I’m really kicking myself for spending so much money on this and not returning it when I first got it.

    • Belle says:

      None of your shoes fit? I wear a size nine and my workout shoes and my heels fit. With my higher heels (4+) it’s a bit snug, but they do fit.

    • A says:

      Hmm, I was just eyeing buying one. Any interest in selling yours?

    • M says:

      All of these things seem like they could have been figured out before purchase. Especially the laptop part, I mean they list the laptop dimensions on the website. I think this is more about you, then the bag here….

    • DCL says:

      I also ordered a Lo and Sons bag this fall (when Belle had the promo code!) that had to go back. My issue was different than the commenter above, though. The thing would not stay on my shoulder! It was also way too bulky too close to my underarm area – not a good “drop” length at all. I don’t know if the straps were too short or my shoulder to narrow (or something??) but it was one of the most uncomfortable bags I have ever purchased, so back it went!

      If you are looking for a cute bag with a MAB look at a lower pricepoint, check out her baby bag, Knocked Up. 100% serious – I am years away from children but this is a really cute, classic bag a bit cheaper than the MAB.

      • Belle says:

        Sorry that happened, but you’re right about the Knocked Up! Minkoff brought it back just because professional women begged for it. Who knew a diaper bag could be a chic work tote?

    • I wear size 43 (11-12 US) and can fit 4″ heels, or clunky gym sneakers, into the pouch of my OMG.

  5. AVV says:

    I’ve gotten great deals on Cole Haan purses on (sub $250, often under $200). Yes, it may be “last season” styles, but if you want a classic shape/color, you can find great deals. Like Belle said, you’re investing in quality: the olive green Cole Haan bag I purchased still looks great (and only improves with age) after several years ago of constant wear, while cheaper faux leather purses have long ago fallen apart. The only thing to note about 6pm is that you have to pay return shipping, so I recommend checking out a brand in person, getting a sense of what features you like, and then scouting the site.

  6. V says:

    The Rebecca Minkoff M.A.B. Tote is a very nice everyday bag, and is in the $300 range.

  7. Kate says:

    I’m going to put in a recommendation for Hobo bags. I had one of Belle’s hated seatbelt purses for the past five years and finally needed something a little bigger and nicer looking. One of my friends recommended them and I went out to Annapolis to shop at their store because I’m visual and tactile and if I’m dropping a chunk of change on a purse I’m going to use for the next five years, I want to see it in person. I ended up with a lovely caramel leather tote, on sale, and its fantastic. They have some trendy bags as well as nice, classic business pieces.

    • Belle says:

      Good tip. I like their wallets too, but you have to be careful putting Metro cards in the ones that use the magnet clasp.

  8. BN says:

    I am about to pull the trigger on the Lo & Sons Brookline. Anyone have thoughts on this bag?? I dont need to cart shoes or gym clothes around, but I do carry my laptop home EVERY night along with a few files. Also, any comment on how professional it looks given it’s not leather? THANK YOU!!!

    • Belle says:

      I don’t have the Brookline, I have the other laptop non-OMG, and I like it. I know in a previous post on Lo & Sons a commenter mentioned that she loved her Brookline.

  9. Catherine says:

    Belle, do you think an OMG (or OG) would work for a pedestrian law student (with a locker, thankfully)? Those books are BIG, but I refuse to wear a backpack or worse- the rolling backpack!

    • Elizabeth says:

      I carried my OMG during law school and it worked really well for me. I also had a locker so I didn’t need all the books in it at once, so that was helpful.

    • LG says:

      I am a law student who owns the Lo & Sons OG bag. Probably the best bag purchase I have ever made. I get compliments on it all the time, and strangers frequently stop me to ask who makes it. I love all of the pockets for organizing my life, and it is very durable (there is a bit of rubbing/wear on the bottom corners, but otherwise it looks like new after almost a year of daily use). I use it when I fly, and also as my every-day school bag,and you can definitely fit a Mac computer, a few notebooks and a law school textbook in it with room to spare.

      I also wanted to add that if you are unhappy with the bag or something goes wrong, Lo & Sons has amazing customer service. The zipper pull came off of my first bag, and when I inquired about sending it back for repairs, they sent me a completely new bag.

    • Belle says:

      I think so, but let me say that if it comes down to backpack or rolling backpack, unless you have a health issue that precludes it, go with the backpack.

  10. Giggling Gourmand says:

    I would be careful about using leather protectant on high-end bags. A number of designers suggest just a damp cloth. Products can change the color or texture of certain leathers (I learned this the hard way on a spy bag about 5 years ago).

  11. Derek Lo says:

    Hi everybody! This is Derek, one of the sons in “Lo & Sons”. As a small independent family business, we appreciate any feedback, both good and bad. While I don’t necessarily agree with some of the negative comments, each bag and each customer is different. I do want to remind everybody that we have free returns/exchanges if your bag doesn’t fit the contents that you need or doesn’t meet your quality standards. And our bags are definitely not one-size-fits-all, but of course we’re always working on improving quality and designs. Anyhow, if you’re looking for a discount, we’re offering 15% OFF until the end of Mother’s Day. Just use the code “MOMSRULE2013” at checkout!

    – Derek Lo

  12. K says:

    I’m so glad you mention the cost-per-wear concept. I was always criticized by my friends in college for spending too much on clothes at places like j.crew … instead of shopping at forever 21. However, my clothes have held up over the years and I haven’t needed to constantly spend more replacing staple items… I guarantee my friends have spent more at forever 21 (or similar stores) over the years and created a lot more waste than if they had just ‘invested’ from the beginning.

  13. CW says:

    So excited to see the Coach Candace Carryall on here. I just finished my first year of college and have been saving all semester to buy it (in Sand) as a reward to myself. It’s so classic and professional, so I don’t mind shelling out $328 for it…I know I’ll use it throughout college, grad school, and beyond.

  14. MX says:

    I keep an eye out on Bag, Borrow, or Steal’s Private Sale Page:

    I got one of my favorite bags ( on it for less than half the price. You can sort by color, style, price, designer, etc but one downside is their inventory changes frequently, so you have to constantly keep checking it.

  15. Jules says:

    I love Michael Kors, the leather and stitching is quality for the price. I am currently using a black Hamilton Tote and it is “well loved” yet looks brand new with leather conditioner However, with my law school graduation approaching, I think a bag I can fit my laptop in would be more practical and here’s the one I have my eye on should my Mother feel the same way.

  16. Julie says:

    appreciate the comments from everyone. Keep the tips coming. Does seem like Coach has been sending out 25% off coupons/offers every few weeks, so worth getting on the mailing list.

  17. MG says:

    Please stop referring to bags (or other items mentioned on this site) as “investments.” They are not investments. Investments go up in value and build wealth. Just about every consumer purchase is the opposite of an investment – it makes you poorer. Sure, it may be worth it to spend more to buy longer lasting goods. But, that does not make them investments. Throwing around this language fuels poor money skills and behaviors, which a lot of women suffer from.

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