When you see an L.L.Bean's Boat and Tote in the wild—carried in line at the grocery store, perched on a beach towel—there's a certain expectation for what's embroidered on the side. "Unhinged" in baroque script or "FULL OF IT" in screaming capital letters is not it. For just shy of 80 years, L.L. Bean's canvas bags were mostly customized with preppy monograms and vanilla phrases—but a growing social media movement is taking the classic embroidery in a funnier direction.
Dubbed the "Ironic Boat and Tote," these bags eschew simple monograms for sarcastic phrases and pop culture references. The more unexpected, the better. Air Mail social media editor and "lifelong" Boat and Tote carrier Gracie Wiener catalogs sightings for an audience of 25.6k followers on Instagram (@ironicboatandtote) and another 25.3k on TikTok (@graciewiener). On the group chat app Geneva, Wiener manages a 24/7 Boat and Tote discussion with 544 members and counting. Beyond her profile, the totes have also been covered by a number of TikTok creators including @oldloserinbrooklyn and @glowupu.
The Ironic Boat and Totes Wiener posts can veer in all sorts of directions, but a few threads stand out. There's the self-aware, slightly unsettling adjective ("unhinged," "unwell," "psycho"), the probably litigious, definitely unlicensed high fashion reference ("Birkin," "Gucci," "Prada") or the pop culture nod ("Gone Girl," "Owl Theory," "Egoting"). One recent post showcases bags embroidered with commercial catchphrases and menu items from Taco Bell; Wiener tells me she has several as-yet-unshared photos embroidered with Twilight references. "Some of my favorites are the ones that are self-deprecating, or point at what might be a flaw or be something you wouldn't truly advertise, but then you advertise it," she says. See: "Xanax."
Tracking ironic totes is a passion project and second job for Wiener. Her collection began with a "psycho" tote for herself and a friend, and has expanded to include a "fake heiress" tote, a nod to Anna Delvey. She started the Instagram account last February as something of an inside joke, but after word-of-mouth discovery, thousands of followers are laughing along with her.
"It's so exciting for me because so many people are now discovering this timeless item," Wiener tells BAZAAR.com. "I always think about my mom carrying one growing up. If you didn’t have one, you knew someone who had one or whose mom had one."
But now the bag comes with a twist. "Instead of a monogram you have something snarky,” says Weiner.
Wiener and her followers aren't the first people to test the limits of L.L. Bean's customization tool—or circumvent it entirely. (The $8 monogram tool does block some trademarks and inappropriate phrases, leaving shoppers to seek out independent shops or pull out their own sewing machines.) Her "psycho" tote was inspired by an anonymous woman's bag from 2021, captured by stylist Juliana Salazar on Instagram. Before that, shoppers like fashion journalist Faran Krenctil were cheekily emblazoning their L.L. Bean bags with other designers' logos. In 2003, Krentcil had "Dior" embroidered onto a college tote bag she eventually passed down to a family friend; by 2018, she had "Gucci" sewn onto another tote and "BALENCIAGA" embroidered on a red backpack.
The "Gucci" bag made its way to a store opening party in Soho, where Krentcil says it got compliments from ASAP Rocky and a thumbs-up from Alessandro Michele himself. "I was thrilled. I was also, for better or worse, hooked," she tells us.
Both bags are still in Krentcil's rotation. "The quality of L.L. Bean's pieces is amazing, and I think it's very cool to hold onto your pieces, and wear your clothes and accessories for as long as you can." She doesn't remember how she found Wiener's account of new entries to the Boat and Tote canon, but now it's part of her feed. "I wanted to follow it because it was funny, and because it kind of verified my suspicion that I'm not the only one submitting crazy words to L.L. Bean's monogram department and seeing what I can get away with," Krentcil says.
It was Wiener's TikTok videos that introduced freelance writer and former Fashionista editor-in-chief Tyler McCall to the ironic tote. "Then I guess the algorithm knew I could be convinced, because I kept getting served excellent examples," she tells BAZAAR via email.
The bag addressed McCall's need for an everyday, durable bag, and the trend just looked like fun. "It took me a while to decide what to embroider. (To paraphrase Antoni, an Ironic Boat & Tote is something that can just be so personal.)" She landed on "unhinged" ("I both use it a lot as a descriptor and I feel like it captures my inner self best") and she says it's convinced several friends they need an ironic tote of their own.
Everyone I spoke to agrees accessibility is a large part of the Ironic Boat and Tote's ascension to unassuming status item. While one side of TikTok is unboxing their starter Birkins, another can show off a tote bag that starts at $29.99—and in the case of many fashion people, those sides overlap.
"The tote account makes everyone feel smart, irreverent, and part of the same joke," Krentcil says. "Plus, it's really delightful to see what's on other people's bags! It's like a vanity license plate—even if you're not inspired, you're never bored."
Whatever is drawing shoppers to the Boat and Tote—nostalgia, accessibility, fear of missing out on the joke—they're buying in droves. Many colors are currently on backorder until late August. A spokesperson from L.L. Bean said that the bag's "timeless appeal and utility" lead to consistent spikes in popularity every decade or so. But, "Sales over this spring and summer are the strongest we’ve seen in close to a decade, on par with what we typically see during our holiday peak, and attributed to growing demand over the last few years and increased popularity amongst new L.L.Bean customers—particularly younger shoppers who are keen to hop on the monogramming trends we’re seeing on social media." A diplomatic way of suggesting this moment has had an impact.
Employees are also noticing their brand's resurgence. Wiener, lifelong L.L. Bean user that she is, knows to call for extra embroidery characters on her totes. On a recent call, "The guy on the phone was like, 'Are you doing this because of that TikTok thing?' And I was like, I am the TikTok thing."
When new followers make their way to Ironic Boat and Tote HQ, they'll find a message from Wiener saved in the highlights on her Instagram Stories under the title: "READ." It has a gentle plea, asking followers not to embroider a bag for the sake of the photo op or keeping up with the social media moment.
It's hard to tell if anyone's pausing. Wiener has a backlog of roughly 1,100 submissions to share on the account. The pace at which her side project has picked up on social media feels "bittersweet," she tells me. "It does make me sad that it’s a blip in the trend cycle, but I’m hoping since it’s such a practical piece, people will use it forever. It’s not something from Zara. It’s not Shein that’s going viral. It's great quality made in Maine, which is so special nowadays."
Already, some Ironic Boat and Tote enthusiasts have taken the movement as a sign to breathe new life into old bags instead of buying new. One person messaged Wiener to say the account inspired her to remove her ex-husband's initials from a marital Boat and Tote collecting dust in her closet.
As it turns out, when "psycho" or "Twihard" is no longer how you want to introduce yourself, you can take out the stitches and start over. Maybe even with your initials.