Totemic Totes


The well-manicured, invariably white hands of the fashion professionals gathered in Bryant Park this week hold the straps of many handbags: Fendi baguettes, Prada packs, Gucci satchels, baby blue Louis Vuitton buckets. But on downtown streets, where editors flock after hours to see if they can detect any new trends, arms and shoulders tell another tale: every third person is carrying a nylon messenger bag that has a little square red patch embroidered with a skyline and the words Manhattan Portage.

“Basically, what I did was take outdoor equipment and turn it into urban equipment,” muses Manhattan Portage owner John Peters, sitting at a blond wood table in his midtown showroom surrounded by duffles, schoolbags, backpacks, pouches, briefcases, flight bags, fanny packs, and of course those messenger bags. He shrugs off the suggestion that his merchandise, which retails for $12 to $120 and is available everywhere from sporting goods stores to Henri Bendel to the company’s own new shop at 333 East 9th Street, is a hot but inevitably fleeting fad. “I don’t think of them as cute. I think of them as functional.”

Well sure, they’re functional, made as they are of hardy Cordura Plus nylon and festooned with zippered compartments and reflective binding, but they’re also available in shades like lavender and daffodil and robin’s egg blue, which may have something to do with why Peters sold a half million last year. “I don’t take credit for making the first messenger bag,” he says, remaining nonplussed at the insane popularity of his product. “I just made it better. I was the first to use Cordura. Nobody was using that kind of material, nobody was using that kind of construction. Black, navy, and gray were the only colors I used to make, and I did fine with them, but about three years ago I expanded. Now we even do white, as long you don’t mind getting dirty.”

Dirty? Aren’t Manhattan Portage bags completely indestructible and one thousand percent waterproof, ready to whisk a messenger’s precious booty to the ends of the earth? “You can scrub the outside. Do not put it in the washing machine with hot water. The hangtag says not to, but people still do it.”

Is Peters resting on his considerable laurels, or is he still working up new styles? “I made a new one today,” he confesses, pulling a gray zipper-laden number, which looks to the untrained eye suspiciously like one of the old numbers, from a peg on the showroom wall. Peters admits it’s of the same genre, but with “more bells and whistles,” or in this case more straps and flaps.

Manhattan Portage may be this season’s flavor of the month, but Peters has been around for the long haul. “I’ve been in the city since 1976. I formed the company in 1980 and named it Manhattan Portage in 1983. I came here in a Volkswagen Bug— I took a little workspace and I lived there too. I ate peanut butter, bread, and water, made my first Cordura bag and sold it to Paragon. By ’81 I was in Bloomingdale’s window with bags that had plastic buckles. From then on everyone else started using plastic buckles— they just took off. But I was first.

“The reason you see so many of my products is because they’re so well made. My products are so well made they last 16, 17 years.” Seventeen years? So if they never feel the need to bow to the winds of fashion, the kids hauling their algebra notebooks in Manhattan Portages today could be stuffing those same bags with law briefs and diapers in 2016?

You never know. In any case, Peters is on far more intimate terms with his creations than most desk-bound designers, who scramble to bowdlerize functional styles that originated in places like ballet studios, equestrian academies, parochial schools, and prisons. “I used to do a lot of outdoor stuff— mountaineering, climbing— and I used all this high-tech equipment and hardware and I began wondering: why can’t city dwellers have this kind of thing too? So I started manufacturing.”

Now, there are plenty of pretenders. Prada Sport has a whole store on Wooster Street devoted to Marie Antoinette­ish items for well-heeled nature lovers, and even Louis Vuitton, whose customer doesn’t look like he or she gets any closer to kayaking and white water rafting than a Venetian vaporetto, has a messenger bag for sale in its Damier pattern (little checks, some of which say Louis Vuitton) for $710.

Does Peters worry about the bubble bursting? “No. I’ll just keep making new bags. I could make a new bag every day.” His secret, so obvious it seems hardly worth repeating, is nevertheless overlooked by so many of the fashion houses showing their wares on the catwalks this week: “The most important thing for design— especially for a bag— is proportionality. If you’re not attracted to it, you’re not going to buy it— or even look at it.”