The artist Cynthia Talmadge first started using her mother’s L.L. Bean Boat and Tote to carry her books in high school. It was the wrong size and shape for the job, and filthy. But the rugged canvas bag that could hold a seemingly infinite amount of stuff still held a certain appeal. "I thought it was cooler than a backpack," she remembers.
For her recent “Leaves of Absence” series, in which Talmadge built a series of imagined dorm rooms for four psychiatric treatment centers and rehab facilities, she kitted each room out with a corresponding Boat and Tote for a “hint of the boarding school aesthetic,” a visual language she often plays with in her work. Now, she frequently carries around a green one that she had embroidered with the logo for McClean Hospital.
While she says no one has ever said anything about the McClean bag, she does get plenty of comments on another tote from her collection, a Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities tote she bought on eBay. Perhaps fittingly, it’s not a real Bean, but a knockoff.
The L.L. Bean Boat and Tote, made from structured canvas and trimmed with colors like “Fern Green” or “Regatta Blue” has been a coastal New England fixture and an icon for the L.L. Bean Brand for decades. Originally launched in 1944 as the “ice bag,” they were re-released in the ‘60s in their current form and remain one of the company's best-sellers to this day. On the L.L. Bean website, where prices for the bag range from $24.95 for a small open-top version to $49.95 for an XL zip top, your shopping cart is not a cart, but rather an illustration of a tiny green-handled tote.
If you’ve spent any time in Maine, Cape Cod or the Hamptons, you’ve surely come across many of them, often of indeterminable age, salt-stained and fraying slightly at the handles, customized with a monogram or the name of a yacht. The Kennedys use them. You can just picture an old man in tweed loading one in the back of an early 90s Range Rover next to a chocolate Labrador.
And although they’ve long been associated with preppy utilitarianism, nowadays you’re just as likely to see one stuffed with garment bags on a fashion shoot, stashed behind the front desk at a gallery opening, or in someone’s hands on an elevator at 1 World Trade Center as you are one filled with life vests on the deck of a Boston Whaler. In the W office alone, at least three editors carry one on a regular basis. People who work in the fashion and art industries have wholeheartedly embraced what Talmadge describes as “more of a household object than a fashion accessory.”
“I am always a big fan of apparel and accessories that capture Americana, and the L.L. Bean Boat and Tote is very that,” says the stylist and fashion editor Ian Bradley, who owns multiple versions of the bag. “It’s a subtle flex, especially with a custom monogram.” As Chris Black, writer and founder of the brand consultancy Public Announcement, puts it, they let you engage in “WASP cosplay.” But when it comes down to it, it’s also just a great, good-looking carrier. “It's simple, timeless, and functional,” he says.
They're a low key celebrity favorite, too: Chloë Sevigny is a noted boat and tote enthusiast, often photographed carrying a black-handled zip-top iteration monogrammed with her initials. Gwyneth Paltrow has also been photographed with various versions of the bag over the years. During her marriage to Chris Martin, she was photographed with a forest green one emblazoned with GPM, and another time, at LAX, with one that had her daughter, Apple's, name on it in a thematically appropriate shade of chartreuse.
On the runway, multiple designers have looked to the bag’s clean lines and simple construction for inspiration. For his pre-fall 2018 collection, Michael Kors made a dead-ringer with a crocodile-embossed trim. The Row’s canvas and leather Park tote slims down the handles but retains the shape. Bode makes a version that replaces the body with ephemera-filled plastic sheets and the trim with corduroy.
Even Hermès, whose creative director Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski has been known to carry a black-handled boat and tote around Paris, makes a Bean-esque bag, albeit with cowhide straps and palladium plated snap closures.
The bags have become a staple behind the scenes as well, especially on sets where stylists and their assistants are required to lug multiple looks, laptops, pairs of shoes, and other miscellaneous equipment when working in a studio or on location. Rather than dragging around a trunk or, God forbid, a wheeled suitcase, the boat and tote offers a practical, minimalist alternative. Bradley calls it “schlepping with style.”
“These bags can support a tremendous amount of weight, and you can fit just about anything you’d need on set in them,” says Steven La Fuente, also an editor and stylist, whose first tote was a prop left over from a nautical-themed shoot on a yacht on the Hudson. “I also love stashing my clips and pins along the rim of the bag for easy access.” Now he owns a custom black-on-black XL version (a color combination the brand no longer offers) and a miniature version he found on eBay.
For Vogue contributing editor Lisa Love, the primary appeal of the bags is that they’re waterproof. She cites summers in Maine as her first brush with the canvas accessory. Hers is large, with short black handles and LOVE embroidered across the side, and she frequently customizes additional versions as gifts. “I give them to all my assistants and children, so they don’t steal mine,” she says.
To some, their appeal lies in the ability to use the canvas as a kind of billboard, or to subvert the traditional stuffiness associated with monogrammed accessories. You get a maximum of ten characters to say whatever you want, excluding any obscenities. (I’ve tried, they rejected my order. Instead, I got a small, dark green zip-top version stitched with NO THANKS.)
Black has a custom XL all-white version monogrammed with FYI, a “a cheeky way to share my love of information (mostly celebrity gossip) with the world,” he says. The writer Sarah Solomon has multiple: GTH, G&T, SUCCUBUS and YUPPIE SCUM, the last of which “gets a lot of looks because of unfortunate spacing,” she says. “Hindsight is 20/20.” La Fuente’s is unmonogrammed, but, he says, "I was recently inspired by a very chic older queer man on the streets of Beacon with a camo boat and tote that read FAG in goldenrod thread.”
In the art world, the bag has found fans as well: The Bellport-based arts collective Auto Body sells a similar style in their merch shop, in leather-trimmed black or white canvas (a nice alternative for those who lament the fact that those colorways are no longer available on the L.L. Bean website).
For a few years, Gagosian Gallery ordered custom medium, navy long-handled versions that they would give away to clients or at events. They no longer make them, and they’ve become something of an art world grail item, popping up on Instagram stories from Frieze and Basel slung over the shoulders of stately collectors and scene-y arts reporters alike.
The painter Sam McKinniss snagged one and had his friend Borna Sammak, an artist who often works with textiles, add a contrasting red and yellow “LARRY” with an industrial embroidery machine he had in his studio. “Everyone used to comment on it, I believe out of jealousy,” McKinniss says. “I left it in a taxi two years ago, which was the worst day of my life.”
Although he still mourns the loss, McKinniss has since updated his collection with the full run of sizes in navy blue trimmed open-top, the largest one embroidered with his first name in all caps. He likes to travel with them. “Whenever I carry more than one at a time, the bags make me feel like Kimora Lee Simmons with her matching set of Louis Vuitton luggage, but way more WASPy, practical, and just as conspicuous,” he says. “The bags are obscene in that way. But they're also gender-neutral, utilitarian, well-made. All of that turns me on. They never wear out or look bad. They age gracefully, like Blythe Danner.”