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How the Bank Industry’s Gym Bag Came to be Seen as a ‘Badge of Honor’

How the Bank Industry’s Gym Bag Came to be Seen as a ‘Badge of Honor’

Bloomberg News: “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 City – that 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.

Traditionally, banks supply each of their new analysts with a bag, usually on their first day of work. At one point, it was as common as getting your first business cards. Show up for orientation, 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.

Considering its ubiquity, the history of the bag is murky to most. How did these small canvas totes become the go-to satchel of Wall Street?

The tradition started 23 years ago, with Lisa McCullagh, a new mom with a background in advertising who saw an opportunity. When it came to professional promotional merchandise, “there was the very high end, like Tiffany’s, then junk,” she said. “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 said.

The bag was an overnight success. “I became known as ‘the bag lady’. Orders started coming in on handshakes,” McCullagh recalled. 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. It’s wildly impractical for business use. The straps aren’t adjustable. There are no zippered pockets, no laptop sleeve, no interior structure at all. One wonders how the bags ever conquered the world capital of finance.

“It was sort of an awkward, saggy thing,” said 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,” said Michael Boord, a former SunTrust employee. “There was a certain level of connection that you made 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 Manhattan’s Financial District.

“We don’t give them out in mass numbers anymore,” a spokesperson for Goldman Sachs said. “The class of 2008-2009 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.”


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