The useful thing about understated style? It works for everyone. Staples designed with clean lines and in neutral hues transcend aesthetics because they can be worn with anything, effortlessly dressing up (or toning down) your personal look. One such staple is a carryall that’s defined by its sleek simplicity, and the up-and-coming minimalist handbag brands that are currently on my radar hit all of these marks in spades.
These noteworthy labels — all of which have cropped up in recent years and are largely owned by women — are creating refreshed everyday essentials and collaborating with small, family-owned factories using quality and innovative fabrics. They’re based all around the globe, from New York to Paris to Amsterdam and beyond. And despite the diversity of this talented group of designers and their teams, they share a unifying minimalist ethos — and, of course, a knack for making dreamy handbags.
Design, sourcing, and production aside, other driving forces behind their success has been a mixed bag. “Being recognized by Vogue and T Magazine in our first year was so special,” Porto founder Loddie Allison says. For French label Polène, a placement in a Netflix series drew swift attention to their collection. “We were very lucky to have our bags featured in Emily in Paris on Lily Collins,” Co-founder Antoine Mothay shares.
For many of the designers TZR spoke with, the biggest pinch-me moments simply come from customer feedback and spotting their product in the wild. “The biggest compliment is when an acquaintance or a friend of a friend orders a bag without knowing it’s me behind the company,” Freja Founder Jenny Lei says. “It’s scary to put designs out into the world, and it’s such a humbling experience anytime someone shows interest. I’ve also seen two people wearing our bags on the streets of New York City. Did I run up to them? Yes. Those were big moments for me.”
Ahead, hear more from these five bourgeoning minimalist handbag brands and shop for a satchel that best suits your style.
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Parisians have an innate sense of effortless style and a foundation of classic accessories is part of that equation. Enter Polène, a leather goods brand founded by two brothers and a sister that sits squarely (and chicly) in the French minimalist brand category. “Our aim was to find the perfect balance between simplicity and efficiency, minimalism and creativity,” co-founder Antoine Mothay tells TZR. “Everything is done in-house, from the designing of the bags to marketing and customer service to the campaign shoots.”
Polène works with high-end French, Italian, and Spanish tanneries and all of its products are hand-crafted in Ubrique, Spain (a city which has specialized in high-end leather goods for more than a century). “Each design is timeless, minimalist, and refined. The primary inspiration is an organic one; we draw our inspiration from nature but also from art that surrounds us,” Mothay says. The brand’s bags highlight the beauty of curves, folds, and sculptural pieces. “We want to appeal to people who are looking for a long-term investment and who are unaffected by ephemeral trends and the passage of time.”
Desiree Kleinen had worked as a ready-to-wear designer for big name brands for over 20 years before deciding to found her own label, REE Projects. “I wanted to be able to design and produce on my own terms and at my own pace. I felt that everything had become so rushed and I think time is the epitome of luxury,” she tells TZR. “I take my time designing and creating and we take our time making the bags, too.” Her pieces are handmade in a specialist leather atelier in Northern Italy. “Our leather, which is zero-impact, is sourced locally. I want to mitigate as much unnecessary carbon footprint as possible,” she says. “I am based in Amsterdam and we shoot our campaigns in either Milan or Amsterdam.”
As for the bags, the assortment is defined by a streamlined aesthetic and Kleinen cites several art forms as inspiration. “Design has always been very instinctual for me. It's a feeling but I also draw inspiration from walking around, art, and music,” she shares. “I am very drawn to movement and that can be seen in REE designs.” She gives an example of the styles — all which are are named after women that have played a pivotal part in her journey. “From my mother Lily, who was a dancer at Studio 54, to my grandmother Elise who taught me to make soap baskets at age eight.”
Loddie Allison came up with the idea for her handbag brand Porto because she couldn’t find the pieces she needed in her own life (the origin story for many successful labels, really). “I wanted something that could carry all my essentials and move with me throughout the day, whether on its own or in another bag,” she explains to TZR. “But it was important to me that it was thoughtfully designed and beautifully crafted. It took a year or two of development to perfect what looks like a very simple product.” Her line consists of two bags at the moment — the pouch and the mini pouch — and they come in a variety of classic neutrals. “I wanted to create a brand focused on craftsmanship, the environment, and a more humble kind of beauty,” she explains. “All of the aspects of luxury that bring joy, without the excess that cheapens it. It was really about creating something I wanted to see more of.”
The leather for her pouches are sourced from small, family-run businesses in Italy and the collection is handmade at a father-daughter run factory in Tuscany. “We love being able to support family businesses where the craft is handed down from generation to generation,” she notes. Allison nods to her heritage as a source of inspiration. “I'm partially Japanese, and there are a lot of aspects of the culture that inspire and resonate with me,” she shares. “Wabi-sabi in particular is a source of inspiration for our approach as a brand and the ways in which we assign value to the product. We value the intimacy and tactility of natural materials and hand craftsmanship, and the relationship between the wearer and the object. There's a subtlety and nuance to it.”
The night before a job interview Jenny Lei had a moment of panic — she didn’t own a bag that was suitable for a professional meeting. “I’m still convinced that's why I didn't get the job,” she jokes. “But it all worked out because I launched something I'm more passionate about than any job I could have.” Lei founded her handbag brand Freja NYC with the intention of making something that was functional, animal-product free, and beautiful. It took her and her team 10 months to debut the first product, the Linnea Tote. “This was my interpretation of the perfect work tote,” she explains. “Our launch strategy totally flopped, and we also happened to launch one month before offices shut down in early 2020, so no one needed a work bag.” She also stopped all shipping for two months so the label’s bags were available for preorder only. “Needless to say it was a rough start but we learned lots of valuable lessons and also attracted the most patient, kind community who is willing to wait a little bit longer for items crafted with love,” she adds.
Freja NYC’s bags are made from a textile called ultra fiber. “It’s a leather-like, breathable fabric made by layering resin over microfiber, and commonly used where durability and premium performance is a priority, like airplanes and sporting goods,” she says. The bags are handcrafted in a small family-owned factory in China, somewhere she found after visiting several others leading up to the decision. “While this small factory might not have the most advanced technology, they have a passion and responsibility towards the product that other factories were missing, and you can see that through every bag they make.” Ultimately, it’s this emphasis on quality over quantity that Lei prioritizes with her brand. “I think it’s more impactful and meaningful to support a smaller factory trying to do the best they can, rather than add to the bottom line of a bigger factory that has an advantage in every way.”
Co-founded by sisters Millie and Kathryn Allsopp, Usisi Sister nods to their similarities and their differences. “Despite a decade separating us in age, we have always found ourselves buying the same pieces, only in different colors,” Millie says. “Our collection began with a simple guiding logic: to build a brand that offers the same classic and ageless tailoring that we both reached for, but offer every piece in two different color ways to acknowledge how no two shoppers look the same.” The brand produces its handbags in Turkey and uses gold-rated leather by Leather Working Group. "LWG certification is awarded to tanneries that demonstrate environmental best practices and performance in all areas of leather production, from chemical and water management to energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, waste management, and traceability,” Kathryn explains.
With regards to design focus, the brand nods to the past and present. “We have always found inspiration in art, decades past such as the ‘60s and ‘70s, and family,” Millie says. “That starts with images of our mother in the 1970s, who grew up in Cape Town and has always been the main source of inspiration and reason for founding Usisi Sister.” The two are also inspired by their grandmother, the late sculptor Stella Shawzin. “She was a leading figure of South African modernism, shaping an art scene that wasn’t used to radical women and pioneering a lightness of touch whilst working in the traditional masculine materials of heavy metals and marble,” Kathryn says.