Air travel has dominated luggage design and buying habits for a long time, but this evolution was imposed in large part by the same people who invented baggage fees and the 737 Max, and it rewards the ultralight, the swivel-wheeled, and even the disposable. While travel for most of us is now more grounded than usual, why not appreciate the new luggage freedom in this era of road tripping. It’s time to set aside the plastic box on tiny wheels and reacquaint ourselves with wide-mouthed duffels made of butter-soft leather or sturdy canvas that will only get better with time.
Here are some of the best, from the heirloom to the everyday:
Ghurka Express No. 2
In the early 70’s, American couple Marley and Linda Hodgson went to an estate sale of a British officer in England, and found a massive lot of British colonial military gear from India that was still in perfect condition despite being over 50 years old. The Hodgsons tracked down the original tanning formula from a descendant of the original manufacturers––all-vegetable tanned but still jungle-proof, rot-proof, and desert-proof. They founded their company in 1974, and named it for the Nepalese warriors in colonial India, called Ghurkas. The Express No. 2 was the first serious Ghurka travel bag they made, and it hasn’t changed since. $1,595
Ghurka Cavalier II No. 97
If I was going to buy one bag to last the rest of my life, it would likely be Ghurka, and it would probably be this one. Like most Ghurka bags, it’s somehow both masculine and feminine, and both rugged and formal. So, no matter who holds it, or in what setting, it always looks good.
But the appeal goes beyond aesthetics––the leather is soft from the start, with a smell as rich as tobacco leaves when you lean in, and the cutting, the stitching, and the tartan lining (they’re handmade in Norwalk, Connecticut) is impeccably done by hand. It’s the kind of thing that sounds expensive until you’re holding it, and then suddenly you cost it out over a lifetime, if not even beyond, and it becomes a lot easier to justify. Let me just say this from personal experience: when my father died, I got the Ghurka pieces he left behind, and they are some of my most cherished possessions. $1,495
Is it 'Duffel' BAG or 'Duffle' BAG?
Well, the answer is both. The name comes from the Belgian town of Duffel, where a rugged wool fabric—known as Duffel cloth––was made, and was used in cylindrical bags dating back to the 17th century. That word was corrupted to “Duffle” in English, and now both are considered correct spellings, and the word has a far broader meaning than the original cylinder-style namesake made of Belgian wool.
Filson Medium Duffle
There’s no mistaking a Filson bag for anything else. The circa 1897 brand has only been making luggage since the early 1990’s, but it looks straight out of the company’s Northwest frontier roots. The rugged twill, heavy-gauge brass zipper, and bridal leather are virtually ironclad Filson tropes, and these bags look just as good on a five-star hotel luggage rack as they do in a cabin in the woods.
The Medium Duffle is amply sized for a week away, but the upper leather loops on the handles self-adjust to however full the bag is, so it won’t look saggy if you’ve only filled it for an overnight. The dark navy has a dressy feel to it, the tan is a bit more Marlboro Man, and the Otter Green is a nice happy medium. As of this writing there are also new limited edition colors worth checking out: a royal Flag Blue, an evergreen Hemlock, and a blond Chessie Tan. $395, $395 for Limited Edition
Orvis Travel Grip
The Travel Grip is Orvis’ version of a Gladstone Bag––an iconic portmanteau named for the late 19th century British Prime Minister, William Gladstone. Made of leather built over a rigid frame, the jaws of the bag open wide and stay open. None of that flapping-back-down-while-you’re-looking-for-something-nonsense. In this way it combines the best elements of hard-side with the best elements of a duffel. It’s like an oversized vintage doctor’s bag, and once you’ve used one it can be hard to go back to a standard duffel. The Travel Grip is made in the USA of American Buffalo Leather, with solid brass hardware. $1,560
Paravel Grand Tour
Paravel is the newest brand on this list, and they make a broad range of vintage-inspired luggage and travel accessories with a focus on sustainability. I love the square shape of the Grand Tour for its uniqueness, and the flat sides are ideal for a monogram, which Paravel will add for as little as $15. This duffel is constructed with what they call “Ecocraft Canvas,” and each one is made from 17 upcycled plastic water bottles, protected by a silicone coating to prevent stains and increase durability. I can personally vouch for the stain resistance, after an unfortunate late night red wine incident.
The trim is made of leather that is eco certified by the international nonprofit Leather Working Group. To date, Paravel has upcycled 1.6 million plastic water bottles to use in its materials and has offset 4.5 million lbs. of carbon. And they aim to become the first 100% sustainable travel brand by 2021. $365
Shinola Mack Duffle
The Detroit-based Shinola has established itself as the first name in retro-inspired American Luxury, and their Mac Duffle reflects this ethos of simple clean design impeccably crafted. At first it looks understated––a tasteful black duffel with leather trim. But, on closer inspection of the details, you realize it may be the best-made simple black duffel you’ve ever seen. First of all, the European leather trim is exquisite, and like other details here, finer than it needs to be. Close your eyes and palm the bottom of the bag and it feels like an Armani leather jacket.
And then there’s the refined antique nickel finish on the square-edged hardware, the densely woven fabric of the handles, and the interior pockets with the same fine leather trim—it all warrants appreciation of the craftsmanship. The logo is a simple “Shinola” embossed into the leather, and there’s a trolley strap if you want to sit it on top of a rolling suitcase when you get back to air travel. It’s a more compact size than the others here, which gives it the versality of also working as a day bag, or a gear bag alongside something bigger. $495
Jack Georges Voyager Convertible Valet
The Voyager Convertible Valet is a unique bag that incorporates a hang-up bag and a duffel. Handmade of uncorrected full-grain buffalo leather, it transforms from a suitor to a duffel with a single zipper, so it’s easy to use and isn’t cluttered with multiple zippers and snap hooks. It works as a standard duffel and looks like one when it’s zipped up, but the ability to open it up flat for suits and shirts is the star feature here. Internal shoe pockets keep dirt off your finer threads, and the firm base with metal feet mean you can set in on the ground without worrying about a sidewalk puddle ending up on your sport coat. Jack Georges bags come with a lifetime warranty. $548
Moore and Giles Benedict Weekend Bag
Moore and Giles knows leather, and they make everything from bags, to accessories, to leather upholstery. In fact, I first came across the company when I was looking at samples for a leather couch, and so I knew their duffel bag would be decidedly material-centric rather than fashion centric. Their saddle leather option of the Benedict Weekend Bag is among the finest leathers they source.
Each hide is tanned in Tuscany for 60 days in a potent liquor of tannin-rich organic vegetable matter. The two-month soak deepens the color and accentuates the texture, creating depth to the hue and suppleness to the finished leather. Without the addition of chemicals to set the dyes, the tanning process for this leather never truly ends. Over the course of its life, you can expect Modern Saddle to evolve from its initial golden color, burnishing into a rich shade of dark caramel. $1,200