After 23 years, the Banker bag grows up
Doctors wear scrubs. Cops carry guns. Lawyers wear suits. Bankers carry the bag. You know the one. It's normally a muted green, blue, or gray. You may not notice it until you've seen it a hundred times on the subway in New York Citythat perfectly sized canvas bag with two ribbons emblazoned with the name of a bank. It's a subtle sign that the carrier is a member of a trade. He has been a firstyear associate. She has stared at an Excel spreadsheet for a full 24 hours straight. You are looking at a banker.
Traditionally, banks supply each of their new analysts with a bag, usually on their first day of employment. At one point, it was as common as getting your first business cards. Show up for orienta- tion, figure out where the bathrooms are, take a photo for your security badge, and get handed a small canvas bag with the name of your bank embroidered on it.
Oh, that bag. Yeah, you've seen bags that look like this. Oh, that bag. Yeah, you've seen bags that look like this.
Considering its ubiquity, the history of the bag is murky to most. How did these small canvas totes become the go-to satchel of the Street? The tradition started 23 years ago, with Lisa McCullagh, a new mom with a background in advertising promotions who saw an opportunity. When it came to professional promotional merchandise, "there was the very high end, like Tiffany's, then junk," she says. "I thought there was a middle ground."
She decided to focus on a versatile, everyday bag; something people could use at the gym or as an airplane carry-on. It had to be large enough to fit the essentials for a whole weekend, but small enough so that people would want to carry it every day.
McCullagh took over a cut and sew factory, decided to call her company Scarborough & Tweed, and set to work. "JPMorgan was my first client," McCullagh says. Some styling options for the banker bag.
The bag was an overnight success. "I became known as 'the bag lady.' Orders started coming in on handshakes," McCullagh says. She sold more than a million dollars' worth of bags in her first year, on her own. With a baby. Today her company employs 40 people.
When you look at the bag, it doesn't make total sense. They're wildly impracti- cal for business use. The straps aren't adjustable. There are no zippered pockets, no laptop sleeve, no interior structure at all. (They're no modern-day Trapper Keepers.) One wonders how they ever conquered the world capital of finance.
"It was sort of an awkward, saggy thing," says Eric Shapiro, a former investment banker who recently left a major firm to join a hedge fund. "People were bringing work papers home in gym bags."
Practicality aside, there were other reasons to love the bag. Over the years, it became a badge of honor. "I always found a certain level of camaraderie with anyone else that's been a junior employee at an investment bank because of the insane work-life balance," says Michael Boord, a former SunTrust employee. "There was a certain level of connection that you make immediately just by having that in common. If I saw someone on the subway, I'd think, ' That's someone who's going through the same thing as me.'"
More than two decades later, the original bag has spawned imitators and inspired others, but it doesn't have the same hold it once did in the Financial District.
"We don't give them out in mass numbers anymore," a spokesperson for Goldman Sachs said. "The class of 20082009 was the last time they were given to the whole class. However, people can still buy them on the internal website."
Perhaps as a result, the bag is beginning to explore second careers in other fields. McCullagh has begun making the bag for tech companies, colleges, and private events. "It's popular with law firms as well," she says.
The success of the bag has allowed McCullagh to start to give back. Next month, Scarborough & Tweed is launching a program that will allow customers to support select charities with every purchase they make. "Initially, every bag purchased from our signature bag collection will buy one meal for a person in need," through a partnership with the World Food Program McCullagh says. As the program expands, sales from specific products will go toward specific causes.
It's even spawned an upscale imitation. After spending four years at Oppenheimer as a senior director, Grant Hewit launched Hudson Sutler in 2011. The company makes a line of luxury bags that will immediately look familiar to any Wall Street veteran.