How a £15 canvas bag turned a London bookshop into a global superbrand

Daunt tote
Emily Ratajkowski and Elizabeth Olsen are amongst the celebrity fans of the Daunt Books bag

In one sense, Daunt Books’ Brett Wolstencroft can easily explain the totes’ success: ‘They’re so sturdy, so well made. People keep them for absolutely years.’

They were created to do one job – carry lots of hefty books while maintaining their basic structural integrity – and they do that with both aplomb and minimal fuss.

What he finds trickier to parse is how they became, to use his word, ‘iconic’. ‘You see them everywhere. In war zones, on the arm of Benedict Cumberbatch, whoever the latest supermodel is… As a marketing thing, there’s no question it’s hugely valuable. But “accidental style icon” is closer than any kind of demon marketing strategy.’

He shrugs, then folds his arms. It’s a gesture of pride, defiance and aloofness all at once. ‘We’ve resisted making too much of it. We’re a bookshop, not a bag shop, and we want to keep it that way.’

The Daunt Books tote. That square, simple canvas bag bearing nothing but a white line illustration of the bookshop chain’s Edwardian flagship store on Marylebone High Street. If you’ve spent more than a fleeting second in London or the Home Counties over the past 15 years, you’ve either bought one or seen one.

More likely, you’ve seen hundreds, possibly thousands. The old cliché has it that you’re never further than six feet from a rat in the capital, but among certain circles and in certain neighbourhoods, you’re almost certain to be closer to a breeding pair of Daunt Books totes – be they the basic ivory colour, a classic racing green or any of the dozens of other shades sold at one time or another.

Keira Knightley, Benedict Cumberbatch and Ellie Goulding pictured out and about with their Daunt Books bags
Keira Knightley, Benedict Cumberbatch and Ellie Goulding pictured out and about with their Daunt Books bags -

Such ubiquity belies the facts that Daunt is a smallish chain of just nine bookshops, and that canvas bags are now sold by almost every public-facing company on earth, including luxury fashion brands (Gucci has one for £1,250); instead, the impression given is that they must come in a welcome pack – with a flyer for Gail’s, a map of Hampstead Heath swimming ponds, a labradoodle puppy and a phrasebook for navigating the LTNs debate without incident – gifted to literate middle-class urbanites as soon as they step off the train at Waterloo.

To quote one wag on Twitter/X, carrying a Daunt Books tote is ‘the most Lib Dem thing you can do apart from actually voting Lib Dem’.

Whether they are cool or not depends on who you ask (when I bought one for this article and took it home, my wife, a certified cool person, made it devastatingly clear that they are not), but they’ve appeared on the slender arms of Helena Bonham Carter, Keira Knightley, Rachel Weisz, Apple Martin, Kristen Stewart and Emily Ratajkowski, to name a handful.

Jodie Comer, meanwhile, lugged her essentials in a green one every night when leaving the stage door after performances of Prima Facie at the Harold Pinter Theatre in 2022. ‘Did I buy this Daunt Books tote bag just because Jodie Comer has it? Yes, yes I did,’ one fan wrote online. Killing Eve obsessives continue to make the pilgrimage to Daunt.

Jodie Comer
Killing Eve actor Jodie Comer is frequently seen with a Daunt Books bag slung over her shoulder - Dica/Backgrid

But a Daunt Books bag was also spotted, crumpled and mortified, in a notorious photograph of a Downing Street garden party during the Covid lockdowns. Wolstencroft told me his team were once sent an image of a refugee fleeing a conflict in the Middle East with all their belongings in one.

Some people buy a bag and never get rid of it; others – particularly souvenir-hunting tourists from East Asia and Gen Z ‘BookTok’ fans on TikTok and Instagram – buy it in every colour. They really are everywhere and show no signs of disappearing. And still nobody’s quite sure how it happened. The British tote that conquered the world just… did.

Wolstencroft, 60, is not a man who devotes great swathes of time to studying the vicissitudes of literary street style. If you typed ‘lovely London bookseller’ into an AI image generator, the rendering would likely give you an older middle-aged man with owlish glasses and floppy hair, wearing a crumpled shirt and corduroy trousers. That is Wolstencroft; it would have created Wolstencroft.

He is the manager of Daunt Books in Marylebone. Navigating through readers and shoppers on a Wednesday evening, he finds a quiet corner in the travel, nature and environment section downstairs, and sets up a couple of chairs behind the counter to consider this accidental bestseller.

He was part of the small team – along with the company’s founder, James Daunt – who introduced the bag in around 2006. At the time, they were contacted by Janjri Trivedi, founder of Re-wrap, a social enterprise which works with cotton farmers and trains women in India as artisans to make premium reusable organic products for export (to date it has supported 3,500 farmers and a team of 200 women artisans).

‘They came in saying we were the kind of company they wanted to work with. We’d always thought if we were going to give a bag away, it needed to be strong and reusable.’

Daunt Books
The Daunt Books flagship in Marylebone has become a place of pilgrimage for literary tourists, who buy tote bags as well as books - Sam Mellish/In Pictures via Getty Images

The first iteration Re-wrap made for them was a thinner fabric, with a small design and short handle, in green. It was purely a carrier bag for big purchases and given away for free if customers spent £50 or £60. This was in an era before branded tote bags were the orthodox solution to carrying any ancillary gubbins that wouldn’t go in your handbag or backpack, but Daunt soon noticed people were trying to put them over their shoulders.

‘That hadn’t really occurred to us, we weren’t thinking of it like a fashion item. So we lengthened the handles, and that’s what suddenly made it become a kind of weekend bag. People just sling it over their shoulder and jump on a plane.’

The original line-drawn illustration was done by an art student friend of James Daunt’s family almost 20 years ago, ‘but the bigger, simpler, more universally recognisable design [still used today] was done by the husband of a bookseller who used to work here. A guy called Jonathan Satchell…’

I hold up a pen to halt his progress. The man behind the bag is called Satchell? ‘Yes, yep,’ Wolstencroft says, breezing on. ‘And it was at that moment, with the longer handle and simpler design, that it started to take off.’ Since then, in around 2009, when Re-wrap had also settled on the sturdy structure – slightly boxier than many totes and therefore ideal for books or laptops – they’ve barely changed beyond the range of colours, which is updated perhaps once a year. ‘I think we added an internal pocket once, but that’s about it.’

He gestures around the shop, with its long oak galleries, vast skylights and William Morris prints. ‘They’re a bit like this building, how Edwardian architecture was over-engineered. In a way, the bags are over-engineered. The stitching on the bottom is extraordinarily strong. Most people would think it’s just not worth it, but [Re-wrap] do, and they clearly make them with love.’

Today, they’re still all made in India, and still given away for free with purchases over £80, or to any customers looking like they might struggle with an armful of hardbacks, but they’ve also been available to buy separately, in store and online, for around a decade. There are currently 10 colours available, each for £15. Miniature versions can be bought for £10. Special edition metallic print ones are £18. Given the number handed out for free, Wolstencroft has no idea how many they sell. ‘But I remember an early order was 10,000, which used to last us a year or two. Now we regularly order that in every colour.’

There is a curious alchemy to how one seemingly basic, functional item becomes ubiquitous and another doesn’t. Right place, right time; a particular celebrity endorsement; pure word of mouth; an appearance in a TV show or movie that’s in vogue; a design that is just that bit better than others. Luck often has as much to do with it as marketing genius, but Daunt’s bag probably falls into the first and last categories.

Daunt Books
The canvas bags have an inescapably 'bourgeois' association, gilded by the leafy locations of Daunt's shops - Mark Kerrison/In Pictures via Getty Images

Daunt certainly did not invent the tote bag. While some forms of textile pouches have been used all over the world for centuries, the modern version is often credited to the US outdoor clothing company LL Bean, which developed a waterproof canvas bag in the 1940s for people to transport ice from their cars to their freezers. Canvas was originally considered an industrial material, but as utilitarian workwear came in and out of fashion during the second half of the 20th century, canvas bags made their way into everyday use.

Plastic took over – but only until the late Noughties, a time when sustainability and environmental awareness changed everybody’s buying habits. Suddenly, a company launching a near-indestructible, ethically made bag had an opportunity. If it also happened to look chic, conjure a certain kind of London mainly confined to Richard Curtis films, and simultaneously suggest its owner is a cultured intellectual... well, the stars aligned.

Just before ‘statement totes’ were everywhere, offering the world a precise indication of your demographic group, and slightly digging into your shoulder in the process, Daunt was up and running with a market leader.

Sophie Tromans, a 28-year-old fashion designer from the Midlands, has seven Daunt Books totes. In her spare time she runs a ‘BookTok’ account on TikTok (@Sophi3saur), as well as a similar page on Instagram. The former has almost 200,000 likes. ‘What I love most is the balance between functionality and design – the little pockets inside are so useful while also being super-stylish,’ she says. ‘I think it’s fair to say they’ve transitioned into a fashion item, for book lovers it’s an easy way to spot like-minded people in a crowd.’

Totes are a big deal in the BookTok community, she says. Daunt and Shakespeare and Company, the English-language bookshop on Paris’s Left Bank whose bag also features a simple line drawing, are the most popular. They also happen to be two of the prettiest shops, which Tromans says is no coincidence. ‘Aesthetic book content always does well on my channel, and Daunt is one of my favourite places to film. The bags are a little bit of that aesthetic you can carry around with you.’

Online, people often ask her where to buy the bags, to which she has the grace not to simply reply: it’s written on the bloody bag, numnuts. But people often have no idea about the physical shop. A question to that end was posted on Reddit last year: ‘Has anyone ever actually been to Daunt Books?’

The user, called StaticCaravan, explained: ‘Every other tote bag in London seems to be for a shop called Daunt Books. I have never been there, never even walked past it, even though I’ve lived in London for 10 years. I’ve never even known anyone who has been there.’ They asked, ‘Is it good? Why do so many people have tote bags from there? Is this somehow an iconic London bookshop that I really have to visit?’

Founder James Daunt pictured in the bookshop in 1990
Founder James Daunt pictured in the bookshop in 1990 - Alex Lentati/ANL/Shutterstock

The year before, another Redditor asked, ‘Does every person in London have a bag from Daunt Books?’ The top comment offered one explanation: ‘It’s a middle-class mating symbol.’ The bourgeois association is inescapable, gilded by the leafy locations of Daunt’s shops. ‘Just saw the most Hampstead thing ever… Man in a Barbour coat entering a pharmacy realises he has no mask, so wraps his Daunt Books tote bag around his face,’ read one mid-pandemic tweet.

It helps, of course, that reading has become sexy. Or books have, anyway. Last year, 669 million physical books were sold in the UK, the highest overall level ever recorded. A large part of this is driven by Gen Z, who may be digital natives but also consider a well-thumbed paperback the chicest accessory. Though, whether the books are being read with as much enthusiasm as they’re being toted isn’t always obvious.

As the writer Sarah Manavis put it in the New Statesman recently, ‘Log on to Instagram or TikTok today [...] and you will find that books – and even more specifically, reading – are not primarily seen as a form of art, or even as entertainment, but as a trend-driven accessory.’ From Kendall Jenner to Harry Styles, famous bibliophiles are no longer rare.

Last month, Kaia Gerber, the 22-year-old model/actor daughter of Cindy Crawford, launched a book club called Library Science. It will be ‘a community of people who are as excited about literature as I am’, she said. ‘Books have always been the great love of my life. Reading is so sexy.’ That small earthquake you heard in early February must have been the sound of a million teenage boys reading that sentence and instantly bolting to Waterstones. The hope, of course, is that these celebrities’ interest and influence isn’t just a passing fancy.

Wolstencroft certainly hasn’t noticed anything but an ever-growing fanbase. Other totes have gained cult followings – The New Yorker magazine’s had its time; and the more hipster Gen Zs who’d rather die than call themselves BookTokkers buy from a company called Minor Canon, which sells £18 bags featuring prints of novels by acclaimed dead authors.

‘We’re always being told fashion’s moved on, or that it’s yesterday’s bag,’ says Wolstencroft. ‘But it doesn’t bother us at all because it always had that function for us, it wasn’t a marketing thing. It’s lovely that they have that “iconic” side, but if we started saying “This is how a bag should look now” or put a message on the side saying “This is a Daunt Books bag” or something clever, we’d have lost our way a bit.’

The bags are now bought ‘as a kind of English icon, particularly in Asia, and even more particularly in Korea’, Wolstencroft says. ‘The demand has exploded with social media, and that whole “I visited the shop, got the bag” thing is hugely important for people, and that’s nice because it’s attached to the shop and the experience of it.’

He concedes that Daunt could probably make a mint setting up a department devoted to the bags, or if it opened a pop-up in Seoul. But the company has never stocked them elsewhere, and wouldn’t. The internet is now rife with fakes, some of which are easier to spot than others. ‘You can’t stop that, it’s like rat-bashing, as soon as you get one taken down, another will pop up,’ Wolstencroft says.

True fans will always know an original; some even hunt down the very first batch. ‘If you’ve got an original, it’s like having a first edition of Harry Potter…’

It’s a legacy, alright. I bet he’s never talked for so long about bags. He smiles. ‘No, I don’t think I have. But it’s interesting, how times have changed. And they still do that job of carrying heavy books around.

‘I suppose it’s just nice that we’re all still buying enough books that we even need bags to carry them in.’