The question we put to our panel of testers was: "Is a briefcase merely a work tool, or an accessory designed to impress?" Their views coloured our final assessment of a selection of briefcases ranging from the cheap and cheerful to serious status symbols. The basic premise of the test was universal; as a bare minimum, a briefcase must be a reliable preserver of documents, be comfortable to carry and, given its relatively high cost, be built to last.
Taking part in the trial were doctor Mark Delaney, author Martin Sutton, systems analyst Nick Raffin, horticultural consultant Claire Blezard, NHS administrator Andrew Simpson, personnel manager Heather McLellan and actor Robert Farrant.
*REVELATION LADIES' BRIEFCASE
Produced for the specialised luggage stores Revelation Piccadilly, this small, polished leather briefcase with paisley lining, an unusual drop handle and shiny gold clasp was deemed "strictly for the hairband and flat shoe brigade" by Nick Raffin. While Martin Sutton enthused, "It's so small, so chic!", female testers overwhelmingly agreed that the silver and gold handle fixtures looked like jewellery, only as a prelude to the dismissive, "It's so horrible and prissy." Claire Blezard compared the clasp to "those gold taps that are incredibly expensive but look dreadful." As for the outer pocket with magnetic clasp, thought so handy by the manufacturers for stowing a newspaper, the trial revealed that only a tabloid would fit in here.
***TUMI DELUXE NOTEBOOK COMPUTER BRIEFCASE
Chosen to represent the needs of modern computer man, this complex Tumi case not only accommodates a laptop in a heavily padded compartment with adjustable straps, it also features disk pockets, outer pockets, zip pockets, inner zip pockets, pen holders and document compartments in a sincere attempt to create a portable office. The trouble is, as all the testers agreed, that its "authentic Military Spec Tru-Ballistic Nylon" may be "the most durable luggage material available", but it just didn't impress anyone. Robert Farrant complained, "It has no distinguishing features and regrettably probably would last a lifetime."
Panellists who owned laptops praised the Tumi's practicality. "It would fit under an aeroplane seat, and you could get your leads and adaptor in the pockets," noted Mark Delaney. But another portable keyboard user, Heather McLellan, said, "It's just so distressing, no one would know it cost that much." The briefcase is available in leather, which might have prevented Nick Raffin's final damning comment: "Frankly, it looks like the kind of thing you used to get free when you opened up a bank account."
*THE BRIDGE 5-GUSSET FLYER BRIEFCASE
This capacious, sturdy briefcase by a well-known Italian manufacturer has five inner compartments (one with zip) lined with tartan. Its name hints at a jet-setting image: the businessman who packs his shirt and underwear in the outer compartments to save time on airport luggage collection. Unfortunately, none of the panel was impressed by the briefcase's style. The Bridge's characteristic mottled-brown leather was thought by many to be "ugly" and to look "like plastic", or as Mark Delaney said, "like Chinese luggage - or from one of those places where they don't have modern construction techniques, so everything looks very pre-Seventies." The price was thought outrageous. The idea of stuffing clothes into it appealed to some, but Heather McLellan said, "I suppose it's okay until you get to your meeting - where do you put your dirty knickers then?"
****HERVe CHAPELIER ZIPPERED NYLON BRIEFCASE
This simple, French, single compartment, nylon, zippered briefcase with leather handle comes in half a dozen colours. It was greatly liked by most of the panel, including the men who said they would use it in a dark colour. "There aren't enough pockets," said Heather McLellan thoughtfully, "but then most women have a handbag anyway." "It's jolly nice," enthused Claire Blezard "and so light." I had one of these cases myself for four years; it was so robust that I abused it more and more, stuffing all my shopping in to it, until the zip finally broke, but I'll probably buy another.
***BARROW & HEPBURN FLAP-OVER 3-GUSSET BRIEFCASE
Every Barrow and Hepburn briefcase comes with a little tag relating the company's status as suppliers of the Royal Maundy purses to HM The Queen. As you would expect, then, this briefcase is a thoroughly traditional item with flap-over front, satchel-style straps and a lock with a tiny key supplied in a sachet. It is made from super-tough bridle leather in a classic "whisky" colour which darkens in use to chestnut brown - a chameleon feature which was not universally liked. Everybody loved the "divine smell" of the unlined leather. Nobody actually wanted to be thought the sort of person who would own a Barrow and Hepburn briefcase. "It's for an accountant," said Robert Farrant, while several people identified it as "the sort of thing parents would buy for a lad in his first job." The large handle was preferred by the men, and yet the case lost points for being "fantastically heavy". "Obviously, the person who carries this would have a chauffeur- driven car," remarked Claire Blezard.
***MH WAY POLYPROPYLENE BRIEFCASE
These fun and funky, brightly coloured, single-compartment, plastic briefcases were the cheapest I could find. They do come in more sober colours, but the cobalt blue and sunshine yellow were thought "perfect with a black Italian suit with collarless shirt and no tie," according to Andrew Simpson. Nick Raffin felt that the bags were for the student market. Mark Delaney said he couldn't possibly carry such a thing to work - "it's like a shopping bag." Mostly, they made the panellists smile. "At least you could never lose one of these by picking up the wrong briefcase," said Robert Farrant.
***MH WAY COMPUTER BRIEFCASE
"I regard this is as a toy," said Andrew Simpson of this small, neat and very contemporary Italian computer briefcase, with a gusseted outer pocket and rubber compartments for disks, calculator, etc inside. As Heather McLellan pointed out: "This is for one of the new generation laptops - tiny, in other words." Nick Raffin said it was "nicely designed but the materials don't do it any credit. It looks cheap inside." Other panellists admired the case in a vague way, but "couldn't think what to do with it." (Martin Sutton)
*****BILL AMBERG MEDIUM ROCKET BRIEFCASE
Bill Amberg's self-consciously named Rocket briefcase has a luxurious interior of green suede and distinctive silver handles held together by a magnetic disc. "I love it, it's fantastic," proclaimed Claire Blezard, though even she had to agree with other testers that its straps are awkward. "You couldn't do a snap resignation and march out of the room with this, there's too much faffing about," mused Andrew Simpson, while Robert Farrant designated it "for advertising moguls like Bogle, Beagle, Bogle and Bogus." The Rocket case is very heavy and its "affected, gallery-friendly design" (Nick Raffin) was deemed "not for a serious lifestyle, only for drinking in the Groucho Club." (Heather McLellan). It came out the overall winner, though.
Revelation Ladies', Tumi and The Bridge 5-gusset briefcases from branches of Revelation Piccadilly nationwide (0171 493 4138); MH Way Polypropylene from American Retro, W1 (0171 734 3477); Herve Chapelier and MH Way Computer from Liberty, W1 (0171 734 1231); Barrow and Hepburn is at 25 Bury Street, London SW1, (0171 925 2578); Bill Amberg is at 10 Chepstow Road, London W2 (0171 924 4296). !