How Cuyana Made The Work Tote An It Bag

Must read

Photo: Courtesy of Cuyana.

In the post-mini bag world, the tote bag has come to reign supreme. Propelled by the return to offices and the emphasis on practicality, fashion brands that were once obsessed with giving women the tiniest handbags that could barely hold a lipstick are now going for more functional versions, putting the working woman’s tote bag center stage once again. 

Cuyana, the accessories brand founded by Karla Gallardo and Shilpa Shah in 2011, is a name that continuously pops up in the modern working woman’s wardrobe. And, more than a decade after launching, the brand’s array of tote bags, tailored for an on-the-go consumer, have gained a cult following of women who are just looking for a trusty handbag to match their hybrid lifestyles. It’s hard to swipe through my For You Page without seeing a handbag girlie praise Cuyana’s work-ready tote bags. Searches for “cuyana tote bag” on the platform have grown over four billion views. This kind of internet virality is what resulted in the company recently selling one bag per minute during the launch of the Paloma bag, a shoulder bag that first went viral this year when Meghan Markle used it over the summer, in its pre-sale period. 


Gallardo and Shah first founded Cuyana to provide core essentials for “a woman that’s on-the-go” and have largely maintained the same strategy over the past decade. “Back then, there were no premium quality leather totes on the market at less than a luxury level price point,” Gallardo remembers. “The coolest thing is that because we deliver it on quality, those bags are still being worn out there, and women are so proud to have them.” 

But nearly 15 years later, the culture is just catching up to the brand’s ethos. On TikTok, conversations around affordable luxury have propelled fans to move away from high luxury brands. Instead, they’re going for mid-tier brands, like Polene and Cuyana, which are in the under $1,000 price range and come with better quality than the high fashion labels. Leather expert and TikTok creator Tanner Leatherstein, known for his harsh criticism of the leather luxury market, gave the brand’s quality a good review earlier this year. Then, there’s the quiet luxury trend, which has made neutral palettes and muted styles the go-to pieces of 2023, a phenomenon that’s right on par with Cuyana’s classic color palette and no-logo designs. And finally, the Meghan Markle effect, one that has continuously heightened demand for the brand since she first wore it in 2017. In 2023, her pull reached new heights this year when she wore the brand’s newly-released Paloma bag at the Invictus Games in Germany. 

Photo: Courtesy of Cuyana.

Cuyana’s Paloma bag.

And while the brand could’ve raced to extend its offering, they expanded at a slower pace and with more sustainable materials, leading to its motto “Fewer, Better.” “We’ve delivered really on premium, luxurious products, on sustainability, on these products that fit the woman’s needs,” says Gallardo. “In a way that gives her functionality, but also makes her feel beautiful.”


Take, for example, the brand’s best-selling System Tote, a fully customizable bag that works with a snap functionality for add-on accessories, including a laptop sleeve and pouch, as well as a crossbody strap. First launched in 2021, it’s supposed to end the all-too-relatable struggle of having a messy oversized work bag that might fit it all, but somehow lose it all too. “It was the years of experience selling totes to customers, who just gave us so much great feedback about how they use it,” says Gallardo, adding that the bag also filled in a gap in the workwear accessories market for women who wanted to be practical and fashionable. 

Photo: Courtesy of Cuyana.

Cuyana’s System tote.

Beyond their functionality, Cuyana has also not compromised on size. In the late 2010s, when the mini bag craze took over, the brand stuck it out with large handbags. Even when mini versions were added, like the mini System Tote, the size — nearly 12 inches wide — was still meant to carry it all. Gallardo and Shah pride themselves on this consistency, which alongside its quality and minimalist designs, is one of the brand’s biggest values: “Brands get built through time and through delivering consistently.”

If the past 13 years are any indication, the trusty tote bag is not going anywhere. At least, not if Cuyana can help it.

More articles

Latest article