Review: Levenger Stanley Briefbag

Levenger Stanley BriefbagA not-so-secret confession: I like man-bags, though even that term seems to be a recent (but necessary) designation. For many years during the eighties and early nineties, a man's natural instinct to gather and collect has been severely hampered by the stylings imposed by society. Yes, women can carry purses small enough to hold a set of keys or large enough to hold several small dogs and a freaked-out kitty, but --especially in a traditional business setting-- many men have been forced to tote a dark-coloured sharp-cornered briefcase, or else an equally dark laptop bag. Thankfully the shackles are now off and a man can wield a messenger bag, a guide bag, a map bag, and any of a dozen other sizes and styles without being called out as a wild bohemian at the boardroom table. Still, it's not easy to find something suitable to one's personality.

I love my knapsack, but it's more suited to day-hikes than to business. My Eddie Bauer guide bag is too small to hold much besides a Moleskine, a camera and a Newton, and it too is a little woodsy. My laptop bags look like --well-- laptop bags, practical for one use only, and people give me odd looks when they discover no laptop inside. I tried a bunch of canvas bags, but they weren't suitable for the extreme climates in live in. Nylon bags seem cold, modern, and lacking any sort of personality. I had nothing that felt suitable for both office work and dashing outside for errands, meetings, and hanging out at the local café and, in fact, I've been looking for just the perfect bag for nigh on a decade.

Enter the Levenger Stanley Compact Traveler Briefbag, or --as I prefer to call it-- simply Stanley. Could a traditional leather bag be suitable for a modern lifestyle?

At first blush, it almost --but not quite-- feels a little too luxurious for my down-to-earth tastes. A product hailing from England, its full-grain pebbled leather is soft, rich, and almost sensuous while still feeling (ahem) somewhat manly, and the black and tan colour options are well offset by nickel and brass hardware respectively. The stitching is very tight, strong and well-aligned, and the adjustable shoulder strap balances the need to be both sturdy and comfortable. The top has a long internal strip of reinforcement (metal?) along with a wide, cushioned ergonomic handle firmly attached via buckles with just the right amount of give. I've noticed many other similar bags that hang in strange ways, either twisting forward in a V shape or curling awkwardly with any weight, but this bag seems perfectly balanced no matter which way I hold it, no matter what the contents.

I've grown wary of many leather products over the years, especially given the increasing flood of off-shore manufacturing, and find that my experience rarely live up to the promises. This is not the case here. For example, one of the primary ways to detect the quality of a leather product is to see how well it handles scuffing and aging, and I'm pleased to note that the hard wear of my daily usage has really enhanced the Stanley's patina over the past month. Plus, the stitching is so perfect and the stress points are so well reinforced that it easily carried nearly twenty pounds for me recently, and could have handled much more weight had I the room.

Which begs the natural question for a bag: How well does it hold things?

The Stanley itself is about 14" wide by 10" high by about 5" deep, which is about a third smaller than a typical briefcase or laptop bag. I love the size, as it's not too large to be clumsy or awkward, yet can hold those things I'm most likely to carry. (Note that Stanley's bigger brother is the Livingston, which has much more capacity if you need it.)

Its specifications read, "Fits laptops up to 12 1/2"W x 3"D x 8 1/2"H (most 15" screens)" and that's where my only major problem with the bag lies. I have a MacBook Pro with a 15" screen and, sure enough, it barely fits inside. But, I'd never want to carry it in the Stanley. Peer into the bag, and you'll see a handy long zippered pocket lining its back wall, directly over some small leather pockets for a cell phone, business cards, and pens and pencils. That zipper and its large pull are a warning flag for me. In the past, I've had PDAs and cameras suffer paint damage because of what I had thought to be a rather innocuous zipper in my Eddie Bauer bag, and this one is far larger and more intrusive. It wouldn't take before a larger laptop would find itself scratched and perhaps even gouged, especially on the corner where the pull ends up. Smaller laptops like a MacBook or a small Vaio should be fine in a sleeve within the bag, but I doubt if a MBP or other 15" laptop would still fit inside with such protection. My suggestion would be to simply put a wide flap of leather or other soft material along the line of the zipper, just long enough to provide protection but easily lifted by the edge of one's thumb while zippering. An extra thickness around the terminus might also help to buffer the bulk of the pull.

That being said, I want to carry my laptop in a better-protected (and many-pocketed) laptop bag anyway, so I don't count this minor failing as an issue for me.

The Stanley can actually take quite a lot of contents for its small size. As I write this, the main compartment alone holds an assortment of pens, a rather bulky classic-size paper planner, a few notebooks, a Newton in a leather portfolio case (itself just as bulky as the planner), a couple of magazines, two notebooks, some mail, and a few cables.

The outside of the bag has two fairly wide saddlebag pockets in the front that widen at the bottom and hold plenty of other loose things. (Right now I keep an iPod, two Moleskines, a Canon point-and-shoot, a CD/DVD case, index cards, and an assortment of other paraphernalia there.) There's also a long stash pocket on the outside suitable for magazines, newspapers, mail, and so forth.

Despite all these random objects I've stuffed inside, the Stanley hangs off my shoulder in a comfortable, balanced fashion, and the adjustable strap is long enough to be functional whether over the same-side shoulder or slung over my head and across the opposite shoulder. That balance is truly a rarity when you're 6'4". (Shorter folks need only adjust the strap.)

The bag is filled with subtle but thoughtful touches. I mentioned that the stitching around the stress points is exceptionally strong, and I have a feeling that it would likely hold up to my full strength were I to start pulling and tugging. The buckles and quick-release strap pegs combine multiple sizing options with accessibility, and --one of my key criteria-- the leather at the top of the sides folds inwards to provide protection against the elements when the bag is closed. (Bags designed in dryer climates often overlook this.) Today I walked for nearly fifteen minutes in a blizzard, and was pleased to note that the interior contents were still dry afterwards.

And now the ouch. The going rate for this bag on Levenger.com is $298. That's a lot of money, but there are two important considerations here. First, this is the sort of bag that I intend to use for fifty years and then pass on to my grandchildren (that is, if they deserve it). Second, the bag can sometimes be found on the Levenger eBay Outlet with minor scuffs (which, in my mind, is just the start of patina) for between $75 and $150, although at the moment they only ship to the States. (Time to ring up your estranged aunt in Connecticut.) In fact, that's where I got mine. (The Outlet, not Connecticut.) However, I'd still pay full price for it if my wife would let me. I figure it's a better investment than a night-table, although she's not fond of my idea to use milk carton cases as a substitute.

All in all, I'm very pleased with this bag. The styling is traditional and conservative enough for the business world, yet rugged enough to make an ideal companion outside of it. The sizing is perfect for my needs, capable of holding everything I generally need while being unobtrusive, and the craftsmanship is of the highest calibre. I'm keeping this one for a long, long time.

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love this review.

nice review.

we need to see more reviews of levenger and other products on this site!
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Levenger stole ALL of my money, but they left me all these nice, shiny organizational tools.

I too like [I] man-bags [/I]

I too like [I] man-bags [/I] and am still looking for one that fits what I want it to do. The Levenger you have here looks about right, but I use a IBM Thinkpad (for now anyway) and a separate bag for it and one for my moleskines, tools, planners, etc would just look silly.

The larger version you mentioned might do the trick, or I can wait until I switch to a smaller laptop.

Maybe something with a skull and crossbones on the front flap to accentuate the manly aspect. Or shoulder straps that look like woven leather cudgels at the edges.

thanks for the review!

I'm a man-bag enthusiast, and I think I understand you, Doug: It's like getting glasses - an artifact you live with daily, and which has to fit you just right. Adding the "should I include my laptop" variable makes it even harder! I've yet to find a good one, though, so I stick with a) a casual one (a tough nylon backpack which contains my small "purse" plus office-on-the-go), and b) a business travel one - like the one you review here which contains purse plus (barely) small laptop.

Stanley Bag Alternative?

I read this post at work yesterday, went home and saw this in a catalog that I get from a company called Duluth Trading...

Duluth Trading

Bashful Billionaire's Leather Briefcase
Item 42004
$199.50

I seems to be the same bag, but $100 cheaper.
I have bought clothes and jackets from this company and everything is good quality.
Might be worth a look...

[linkified by innowen 10/28/07]

hiya, My two cents on the

hiya,

My two cents on the Duluth bag. The leather will be smooth and it is has the Duluth Trading logo which is heavily stitched on. I have the cheaper plumber's bag which has withstood my daily commute on the CTA trains (Chicago). One thing that I like about the Levenger bag is that the strap has that pull release. Otherwise you have to use two hands to open and close the flap closures, which is kind of a big deal on a moving train.

Yeah, I want a leather bag that will last me the rest of my life. Any other suggestions would be most appreciated, otherwise the Levenger Stanleys certainly look nice.

Quick-release straps

The straps and buckles on the Stanley are great, and overcome one of the difficulties I have with many other leather bags: I don't want to have to unthread and unbuckle two straps to open it up. The Stanley's straps use the buckles for adjustments, so you can increase or decrease the load capacity, but it also uses brass (or nickel) pegs to allow one to quickly pull off the straps. (See the picture used above.) The make of the bag and the careful distribution of weight means that there is very little strain on the pegs, so they hold quite well.

Yes, this is an easy enough thing to accomplish (I have an old Finnish army gas mask bag I use for hiking that has the same peg-strap arrangement), but it strikes me as odd that more leather bags don't include this simple feature.

all my best,
dj

Messenger Bags

I simply couldn't bring myself to spend $300 for a "man bag" (Neither would my wife!).

I found a suitable match for me at Amazon...

Galaxy Messenger Bags

This is similar to the bag Jack Bauer carries on "24". A friend of mine recommended it to me so I purchased one to replace my old, falling apart, bag I had purchased at Wal-Mart a few years back. I'm really pleased with it. It's simple without a lot of bells and whistles but there's room for my Bible, a few magazines, the book I'm reading at that time, MP3 player, planner, etc.. It suffices for what I need. I could put my laptop in there if I wanted to but I choose to keep it in it's laptop bag for when I need it.

Climates and bags

I was actually looking at that one a little while ago, but unfortunately it's a bag that I'd only be able to use very occasionally. Between blizzards, -40 degree temperatures, torrents of rain, gale-force winds, long walks and my usual hard knocks, I do need something a little hardier. If I was living in a drier and warmer climate though, I think it would be a great choice for slinging over the shoulder and running errands or commutes.

all my best,
dj

I have this bag! It was a

I have this bag! It was a very special Christmas gift several years ago. It is everything the reviewer said and more. The only drawbacks, in addition to the ones mentioned, is that it will not hold a standard size 3-ring binder and it won't stand up on its own unless the contents are positioned precisely. It is very beautiful and the best of many quality products I own by Levenger. By the way, regarding "man bags", this is a briefcase!! It has a handle. You can carry it by the handle or use the shoulder strap. This style bag has existed for many years. Coach has sold these for a long time, long before the "man bag" nonsense started.