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A Handle on the World

From Asprey to Zero Halliburton, Attachés Have Cachet. They Carry Clout--and Your Business Papers.
Debbi J. Karpowicz
From the Print Edition:
Ron Perelman, Spring 95

Robin Leach, host of the television show "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," remembers the day he lost his briefcase and vowed never to carry another. "I lost my briefcase in a New York City taxicab," Leach explains. "It contained three books with some of the world's most private telephone numbers. Subsequently, I went to the lost and found, but it hadn't been turned in. So I offered a $500 reward for it and then went to see a detective."

When that approach didn't work, Leach visited a hypnotist to see whether he could recall anything about the cab or its driver. "I came up with a pretty good description of the female driver," Leach says.

The detective tracked down the woman, who hadn't turned in the briefcase because she feared being arrested for stealing, even though the loss was an accident. She met the detective in a coffee shop, handed over the briefcase--everything was still intact--and collected $500.

Ever since the incident, Leach says he has sworn off briefcases. "I'm probably the only member of the 'rich and famous' who doesn't carry a briefcase," he admits. Today Leach carries his ideal tote: an Andiamo over-the-shoulder bag that was a gift five years ago from one of his directors. He just added one small detail: an outside label bearing his office address.

"The fabric is virtually indestructible," Leach says. "What I like about it is that it has got two central portions that expand: a zippered compartment and a buttoned compartment. It enables me to have two ever expanding compartments: one for files and diaries, the other for toilet supplies, electric razor, credit cards, keys, camera, film, checkbook, medicine, mobile phone and three very good Cuban cigars."

"I carry it every day," Leach adds. "I might be expected to have a Louis Vuitton, Mark Cross or Gucci briefcase, but I opt for practicality."

Leach is right. Based on his glamorous, jet-set lifestyle, it's assumed that he carries a prestigious briefcase. Why? Because a briefcase, like an Armani suit, Patek Philippe watch or Mont Blanc pen, is a business accessory that conveys power and speaks volumes about a person--before the first word is uttered. A briefcase is a subtle combination of fashion accessory, marketing tool, travel-ing office and security blanket. Some--like the silver Zero Halliburton--demand that the world notice. Some--like Swaine Adeney--are more elegant. Others--like Seeger--whisper rather than shout their credentials. Some--in "leather-look" vinyl--make a bad impression, while today's canvas and nylon totes make a trendsetting statement. As Leach might tell you, a briefcase will carry your papers and, depending on your motives, as little or as much clout as your heart desires.

Susan Bixler knows all about it. Author of Professional Presence, Bixler is president of the Professional Image, an Atlanta-based consulting firm whose 1,200 clients include Citibank, American Express and Ritz-Carlton. "A briefcase says a lot," says Bixler, who carries a soft case. "There's a certain status. The large, hard-sided, plastic-molded ones that cost about $40 say: 'I'm a worker. I have to have everything with me. So I keep it in my briefcase.' It's a security blanket."

On the other hand, Bixler adds, "if you walk in with a thin briefcase and a minimum of props, it shows you have a lot of intellectual capacity between the ears. The meeting is more customer focused than selling focused."

In Bixler's opinion, an executive's one and only choice is a leather briefcase in black, light tan or cordovan. "Vinyl or plastic doesn't last as long or look as good," she says.

Besides, when someone walks in with a vinyl "leather-look" briefcase (and probably cheap, scuffed midcalf boots), it raises the questions: Would you buy a used car from this person? How could you ever take him or her seriously?

Of course, if you're lucky--or rich enough--you might have an assortment of briefcases. Just ask Bob Ermatinger, executive vice president of the Luggage and Leather Goods Manufacturers of America, who owns what he calls a wardrobe of briefcases and selects one every day based on his destination. His six examples include an underarm envelope made by Stuart Kern of America, a Schlesinger soft-sided case with three compartments, two more soft cases by Coach and Stuart Kern, a "lawyer-type" Holland Sport glazed leather case, plus a $600 private-label suede-and-black-leather attaché. "It's the same case that Ronald Reagan carried," Ermatinger adds. "It's not made anymore. When the recession hit, no one could afford it."

Steve Berglas, a Boston-based psychologist and author of the book The Success Syndrome, also tailors his briefcase to his audience. When making a presentation to a successful firm, Berglas carries a soft, glove-leather Tumi briefcase. But when he meets with executives in a struggling business, he uses a less intimidating case. "It's like walking in with a jewel-encrusted Rolex," Berglas explains. "You don't want to wear it if the other people there are wearing Timex and Seiko watches."

Dick Forte, president and chairman of Forte Cashmere, owns three briefcases. His favorite is a $285 J. Peterman suede mailbag. " I can put two sweaters, or 12, in there," Forte says. "It's very convenient." However, when Forte travels to China and Mongolia, he uses a case that can withstand the rough treatment, a Samsonite that doubles as a carry-on bag and briefcase. "To go into China with a shiny leather briefcase is a mistake," says Forte. His third briefcase, which he uses for board meetings, is a soft London Fog that matches his luggage.

Another attaché enthusiast is Barry Berish, president and CEO of Jim Beam Brands, who owns six soft cases by Mark Cross, Bally and the Sharper Image as well as a 25-year-old Schlesinger. "I change briefcases; it's like buying a suit or tie," Berish says. "It gives me an uplifting feeling."

The ultimate briefcase connoisseur is Bob Saks, chairman and producer of the New York Friars Club, which created the famous "roast."

"I own six briefcases in black, brown and tan," Saks says. "I'm not going to take a brown attaché when I'm wearing a black suit. I have a wardrobe of cases," Saks explains, naming his Louis Vuitton and Mark Cross versions, which are two-and-a-half to three inches wide. "They're very sleek and stylish."

Every case that he owns "must have reinforced brass corners in all eight separate corners," Saks adds. "That's where all briefcases wear out the most."

Like Berglas, Saks adapts briefcase to audience. "I use my Asprey briefcase when I go from my office to a meeting. My briefcases that cost $1,000 to $3,000 and my $3,800 Dunhill alligator I use to go into a board meeting or a private conference room with a Fortune 500 company," he says. "It revolves around whom I'm seeing, how much paperwork I'm carrying and where I'm traveling."

The meticulous Saks uses the same modus operandi with his Corum and Piaget watches. His gray suits demand a white-gold watch, whereas his brown suits call for a gold timepiece.

Basically there are three styles of business cases. An attaché is a fully framed, box-shaped, hard-sided business case usually secured by one or more combination locks. This is the type people usually think of when they hear the generic term "briefcase." To open it, you lay the case flat on its side; the top inside is frequently fitted with pockets or files to organize papers and other accessories like your Filofax agenda and calculator.

A briefcase, which is typically associated with attorneys and accountants, opens at the top while upright. It can be secured with a lock. The interior is usually fitted with two or more compartments with gussets that allow for expandability.

Envelopes are carried under the arm and have flap enclosures plus locks or snaps.

In the market for a business case? If you want to be in style, you'll have to forsake the hard attaché--once the ultimate yuppie status symbol--in favor of soft cases, which are lightweight, have a place for everything and allow for a shoulder strap. Due to changing consumer lifestyles, there's now a trend toward soft, supple looks. Besides, if your company has "casual day" on Friday, do you really want to lug a formal attaché?

In fact, sales of hard cases have plummeted in the past three years. The most dramatic drop occurred in 1993, according to industry estimates by Showcase, the trade publication of the Luggage and Leather Goods Manufacturers of America. That year, 7 million business cases were sold--down from 8.6 million in 1992.

"Basically, more and more people seem to carry less traditional business cases in favor of more casual styles like briefbags, backpacks and totes," explains Michele Pittenger, spokesperson for the luggage and leather-goods industry.

Michael Gelman, executive producer of "Live with Regis and Kathie Lee," follows the trend with his soft, black Coach briefcase. "I bought it for myself in East Hampton," Gelman explains. "I've always loved Coach leather. It's sturdy, functional and classic looking. My briefcase weighs about 20 pounds, and I have tennis elbow in my right arm, so I carry it in my left. Then I developed tendinitis in my left arm from carrying it, so now I switch back and forth...maybe I need a backpack," he says with a laugh.

You might also follow the example of Matt Lauer, the news anchor on NBC-TV's "Today" show, who carries a black private-label soft case from Barney's. "It was a gift from my girlfriend last Christmas," Lauer says. "I carried around an old, black satchel for 12 years, and it was completely broken. I keep all my wire copy for stories [in my case], newspapers, keys, checkbook and sunglasses. It's very boring."

Lauer commiserates with Leach. "When I first got my briefcase, I tended to forget it. Now it's like a ring on my finger. In New York City, you can't put a briefcase down for one second. They tend to disappear."

Another soft-sided-attaché enthusiast is Daniel Boulud, the chef/owner of the French restaurant Daniel in New York, who carries a black Longchamp briefcase. "It's soft leather with three pockets," Boulud says. "I carry my weekly and monthly reports, recording machine, cash organizer, pictures of my daughters, keys, three pairs of glasses and cookbooks."

Besides using a soft case, another trend is "carrying a nylon or canvas bag," Pittenger adds. "Briefcases used to be leather. Now you see executives carrying canvas, for it suits their needs better."

Ed Safdie, owner of Connecticut's Norwich Inn and Spa, carries the canvas tote bag he designed for the spa, into which he throws his Hermès zippered portfolio. Massachusetts Rep. Joseph Kennedy traipses around with a carry-on bag usually reserved for planes. Tom Kershaw, owner of Cheers, the famous Boston bar, uses a heavy-duty, black canvas bag that he bought when helicopter-skiing in Canada. "I'm not really a briefcase kind of guy," says Kershaw. "A briefcase isn't expandable."

Some people, however, refuse to be left holding the canvas bag. For them, the only way to go is with a pricey, status-symbol case. Tova Borgnine, the CEO and chairman of the Tova Corporation cosmetics firm in Beverly Hills, California, is a perfect example. A huge fan of Louis Vuitton--which is known by its golden LV initials--Borgnine bought a briefcase for her actor husband, Ernest. (An LV monogram briefcase can cost up to $2,170.) She also included a gold plaque inside, inscribed with the words I Love You. When she gave it to Ernie, though, he replied, "you're the one in business. You carry it."

Now, when she opens the briefcase and sees the plaque, Borgnine jokes, "I don't know if I love me or I love him." What made her pick Louis Vuitton? "Two or three of my friends suggested it. I have Louis Vuitton luggage," Borgnine explains. "It's an investment because of its durability and practicality, and, after 15 years with it, it looks brand-new."

Borgnine also owns a second briefcase that she uses every day: "The most beautiful, soft, baby alligator case from Italy, which was handmade for me and given to me by QVC [the home-shopping channel] when I reached my first $10 million in sales."

Tom Corcoran, a consultant to clients at Hill & Knowlton in New York City, also carries a Louis Vuitton briefcase--but one with a distinctive provenance. "I carry an antique Louis Vuitton from the '30s," Corcoran says. "It was given to me by Joan and Melissa Rivers after Joan's husband, Edgar, died. I was very touched. He bought it in the '50s in London."

Ivana Trump also carries Louis Vuitton. "I call it my 'bad dream,'" she says. "It means that it is very big and spacious, and I keep filling it full of work and 'take-home' things and magazines and work files and on and on. It was a gift, and I cherish it."

No article about briefcases would be complete without mentioning some others that are also, along with Louis Vuitton, considered the world's best. The London firm Swaine Adeney Brigg & Sons, for example, makes impeccable briefcases handsewn with durable bridle-hide leather and brass fittings; prices range from about $500 to $1,300. The company also does a brisk business refurbishing locks and corners on vintage cases, some of which are 100 years old. "They're the Rolls-Royce of briefcases," explains Sir Thomas Lethbridge, manager of their Piccadilly store.

Swaine Adeney holds several Royal Warrants, including that of the Prince of Wales, for its leather goods. So...does Prince Charles use one? When interviewed on November 15, Lethbridge replied, "I just gave him one yesterday for his 46th birthday."

Another English standout is Asprey, which also holds Royal Warrants. Its steel-framed business cases are entirely constructed by hand and typically produced in bridle hide, although exotic skins such as alligator and ostrich can also be used. A salesperson described the solidly constructed cases as giving a solid "thump" when opened or closed--as would the doors of a Mercedes.

Yet another English maker of first-class cases is Papworth, whose four-inch and five-inch overlap cases are sold at Crouch & Fitzgerald. Drawing inspiration from Norfolk, England, is Alfred Dunhill, whose best-selling case, the Norfolk, is synthetic with brown leather trim and a signature plaid-cotton lining. It sells for $595.

In France you'll pay through the nez for an Hermès or Cartier briefcase. Hermès' best seller, for example, is its $3,175 handmade sac à dépêche featuring 24-karat-gold-plate-over-brass hardware. Cartier's bordeaux leather case with combination lock and jacquard lining is $2,250. In Germany you'll find Goldpfeil (pronounced: gold file) cases, whose production requires more than 100 different procedures. The cases are made from the hides of cows and calves raised in the Alps. Then there's the Seeger line, whose loyal customers include Johnny Carson, Frank Sinatra and Barbra Streisand. Known as the cashmere of leather, Seeger products are handcrafted of nappa lambskin that's tanned in aged vats, resulting in incomparable softness. Business cases range from $1,275 to $1,850.

If your Champagne tastes run more neutral, you might prefer Bally of Switzerland briefcases. For quality Italian briefcases, consider the examples made by Gucci, known for its red-and-green stripe, and Trussardi, whose symbol is the greyhound.

In Austria you might shop at Schulz of Vienna, which makes cases for Georg Riedel, president of Riedel Crystal of Austria. "Schulz is a craftsman who produces any crazy idea you propose to him," Riedel says. Riedel's cases include a $600 dark-green soft case that holds his phone and cigar box, plus a custom-made hard attaché case that contains four Riedel crystal wineglasses and a corkscrew. "It's my constant case that I carry everywhere...like a pet," Riedel quips.

Back in the States you'll find equally distinctive business cases. One brand with star quality is Zero Halliburton, an aluminum case featuring housed wheels, triple-digit combination locks and continual piano hinge. In other words, designed to last under the most adverse conditions.

The $476, three-inch-wide silver attachés are easily recognizable because they have appeared in countless movies and television shows, including The Pelican Brief, Guarding Tess and "Murphy Brown." It's also the case that Arnold Schwarzenegger carried in Total Recall.

In 1988 the company produced 50 limited-edition four-inch cases plated with 14-karat gold, which retailed for $2,500 each. One buyer was a Japanese collector who resold his for $9,000. Yet another buyer was the rock star formerly known as Prince.

What does a Zero Halliburton say about its owner? "It says, 'I want to be noticed,' and it's very popular in L.A.," notes Ermatinger of the Luggage and Leather Goods Manufacturers.

Consultant Bixler is more succinct: "It says L.A., stick out like a sore thumb in Boston, not appropriate in Chicago, pretentious in Atlanta, city slicker in Houston.''

Other brands have also given Academy Award-worthy performances. Another star of stage and screen is the Atlas Company of Boston (based in Philadelphia), whose cases have appeared in numerous movies and commercials. These bags, which are a staple on Wall Street, are frequently given as rewards in law firms when an attorney reaches partner status. The best seller, a four-inch attaché in Irish handmade leather, is about $485.

Seen an episode of "Northern Exposure" lately? A Ghurka $425 leather satchel recently appeared on the show. Ghurka bags were created by Connecticut entrepreneur Marley Hodgson after he obtained the original tanning formula once used for the leather gear of the Nepali soldiers in the British and Indian armies. Made of waterproof leather and twill, Ghurka bags never wear out, are said to improve with age and can even be safely thrown into the washing machine. Aficionados include Robert Wagner, former senator Gary Hart, John McEnroe, Nicolas Cage and Sylvester Stallone.

Remember the soft brown case that Harrison Ford gave to Melanie Griffith in Working Girl? It was a Schlesinger triple-gusseted briefcase. Eric Kobren, the investment banker who started "Fidelity Insight," a newsletter that documents Fidelity funds, knows all about Schlesinger. He owns Schlesinger's three-and-a-quarter-inch oxblood attaché and its brown pilot's case, plus a Goldpfeil black portfolio. However, owning more than one case has its drawbacks. "Using too many at the same time can be confusing."

Schlesinger is one of the best-selling brands at Crouch & Fitzgerald, notes Ellen Careaga, vice president and general manager. Hartmann and Coach are also popular. Hartmann bags, which are made of belting leather and retail for $525 to $1,375, are higher priced than Schlesinger, notes Careaga. "But they're well constructed, durable and classic. It's an extremely well-made case," she adds. Coach bags, Careaga says, "are well made and very classic." They average about $400.

It's hard to imagine that a powerful business person wouldn't carry a briefcase. But Stanley Marcus, chairman emeritus of Neiman-Marcus, doesn't. He used to carry an English attaché, but today walks around with a paper sack. "I sprained my back," Marcus explains. "A paper sack is lightweight and disposable."

Then you have the power brokers who don't carry any briefcase at all. Calls to David Letterman, Henry Kravis, Ron Perelman, Richard Branson and Sumner Redstone all revealed that they don't use any attaché whatsoever. Says Ermatinger: "That's the ultimate statement; they have an assistant who carries everything for them."

Debbi J. Karpowicz, a lifestyle and travel writer, is the author of the humorous dating book, I Love Men in Tasseled Loafers. She carries a leather tote bag.

THE WORLD'S BEST BRIEFCASES

National

Hartmann
Zero Halliburton
Underwood
Ghurka
Tumi/Schlesinger
Atlas Co. of Boston
Coach

International

Cartier; Hermès (France)
Goldpfeil; Seeger (Germany)
Asprey; Swaine Adeney;
Dunhill (England)
Bally (Switzerland)
Trussardi; Gucci (Italy) Schulz (Austria)

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT

What to give the cigar enthusiast who has everything? How about a "Perfecto" briefcase that an entrepreneur named after his favorite Cuban cigar?

In 1913, Irving Schott founded the leather-goods company that bears his name. In 1928, Schott Bros. claims it developed the first leather motorcycle jacket, which had a starring role in the film The Wild One with Marlon Brando and Lee Marvin. Schott named the jacket after his favorite accessory--his Perfecto.

Later, the Perfecto line was expanded to include handbags, belts, knapsacks, wallets and briefcases, all made with full-grain, black or brown cowhide and nickel or brass detailing. The collection retails for $20 to $375.

Got $7,800 burning a hole in your pocket? Consider the alligator attaché made by Charles Underwood of Dallas. Or try the $5,800 ostrich case. The company also makes alligator and ostrich desk sets that include blotter, pen stand, note holder and "In" box.

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