With a new exhibition at the V&A museum, our love affair with the ultimate accessory is on display in all its glory, says Jane McFarland.
Like any fashion editor worth their salt, I should probably start with a nauseating tale of how I spent my seismic first pay cheque on a designer handbag. Except I didn't. (Indecisiveness, guilt, then hunger prevailed.) But I've basically been on "bag watch" since, dabbling with Chanel's iconic 2.55 (a doppelgänger snaffled in Thailand), renting a Dior Saddle bag and toying with Fendi's Baguette after endless reruns of Sex and the City. I will continue to set alerts for a mini black Hermès Birkin on the luxury resale site Vestiaire Collective, and always feel a pang of longing for Louis Vuitton's LV monogram, despite the logo's permanent association with Paris Hilton, who was rarely seen without it during the Noughties.
I'm not alone in my desire to splurge on The One — the average British woman owns 14 handbags and spends more than £6,000 ($11,800) on them across a lifetime. On a YouTube home tour in 2018, Kylie Jenner revealed her eye-watering "purse closet": a room with a reported 400-plus bags, including Diors, Chanels and Hermès Birkins. (Total sum: millions and millions.) Alongside tracksuit bottoms and facemasks, sales of luxury handbags soared during lockdown — notably, Gucci and Saint Laurent spiked as women diverted their social life savings into a leather consolation prize. Put simply, we are a generation of bag ladies.
The latest blockbuster exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London aims to chart our love affair with the ultimate accessory. Bags: Inside Out, which opens next month, has more than 300 bags on display, from the first Birkin (previously owned by Jane) to Margaret Thatcher's grey Asprey handbag. The exhibition is split into three sections — Function, Status and Identity, and Design and Making. Cult classics from Mulberry and Chanel will sit alongside military rucksacks, travel luggage and historical items including Winston Churchill's red dispatch box and a gas-mask bag owned by Queen Mary during the Second World War.
Like most featured in the exhibition, almost all It bags come with a backstory that has become almost mythical. A chance encounter between Jane Birkin and the former chairman of Hermès Jean-Louis Dumas on an aeroplane marked the creation of the famous holdall that bears her name — the actress mentioned she couldn't find a bag suitable to carry what she needed as a young mother, so Dumas sketched a new design on a sick bag. To score a first-hand Birkin today remains the stuff of fashion legend: the number made is limited to several thousand each year, and only select customers can purchase by invitation online (the infamous waiting lists are fictional).
After its release in 1997, the Fendi Baguette repeatedly sold out in department stores until the early Noughties, thanks to its regular placement under Sarah Jessica Parker's arm in Sex and the City. (Fans attending the exhibition will spot the purple Baguette bag that was taken from her character Carrie Bradshaw at gunpoint. "Give me your bag," says the mugger. "It's a Baguette," she corrects him, ensuring its permanent place in pop culture.) In the 1970s and 1980s, former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was regularly papped with her crescent-shaped Gucci hobo tote, originally named the G1244. She became so synonymous with the bag that the Gucci team unofficially renamed it the Jackie; the style was re-released earlier this year as the Jackie 1961.
It's said that when Kate Moss spotted Balenciaga's Motorcycle bag — a large, logo-less holdall — at one of the label's shows in 2001, she directly asked Nicolas Ghesquière, then its creative director, for one. It became ubiquitous with Starbucks-carrying celebrities — Nicole, Lindsay, Mary-Kate et al — and, oddly enough, discreet French fashion editors. In 2010, Mulberry's Alexa schoolgirl satchel — named after the TV presenter Alexa Chung — marked a new kind of It bag. At about £750 ($1,480), it was relatively affordable, a gateway bag, becoming a tangible rite of passage for 18-year-old boarding-school graduates and Sloaney mothers. The inimitable Chung and her identically dressed, fawning fanbase ensured its status as one of the British label's most successful handbags.
However, with popularity comes ubiquity, and later the curse of extinguished enthusiasm. Thousand-pound handbags became unrealistic in a global recession, while copycat fashion reeked of desperation in our endless pursuit of authenticity. "Now I think you can wear It bags or icons with more irony and it doesn't feel as victim-y as it did once upon a time in the early Noughties," says blogger Susie Lau. "I also think the clothes you wear with the bags have changed, so it feels like you can put more of your own stamp with whatever It bag."
Today, no single top brand dominates — the anatomy of an It bag has evolved. There's the luxurious, logo-less Bottega Veneta Pouch — a squishy £2,000 ($3,900) clutch carried by Rosie Huntington-Whiteley and most of Condé Nast. Launched in 2019, it became the fastest-selling bag in the Italian brand's 54-year history. The padded Cassette followed, with this season's intrecciato Jodie set to be another global hit. Another is the top-handle Demi by New York-based Gabriela Hearst, which now comes with an indeterminate waiting list, thanks to the Duchess of Sussex's unofficial endorsements.
Handbags are no longer an economic status indicator; social currency counts more than the price tag. Last year Amsterdam-based Wandler became Net-a-porter's bestselling contemporary bag brand: its £590 ($1,200) Georgia handbag was among the most photographed during fashion week. The itty-bitty micro version of Le Chiquito, the brainchild of the French designer Simon Porte Jacquemus, holds little more than a few coins and possibly a mint, but Rihanna happily clasped one close, resulting in stratospheric sales for the independent label. Shrimps, Staud and Simon Miller have launched their own dizzyingly popular bags (all under £500), while NY label Telfar's faux-leather rectangular tote, embossed with its logo, priced at about £115 to £195 ($225 to $380) depending on the size, repeatedly sold out in minutes all summer.
But it's the classic legacy bags that remain smart, long-lasting investments (and unlike cancelled holidays or postponed weddings, there's no insurance policy required). The resale market is huge: styles such as Louis Vuitton's Neverfull and Gucci's Soho maintain a high resale value, while Chanel's 2.55 remains Vestiaire Collective's bestseller (but be quick — prices went up by 17 per cent earlier this year). The ultimate safe bet? The Hermès Birkin and Kelly (a Himalaya white crocodile Birkin recently sold at auction for more than £100,000). And what if — and whisper it — lockdown has killed the handbag? Prada is already on the case: its cult nylon backpack will reappear as a practical knapsack next season — perfect for our work-and-live-from-home lives.
"Every time I dig it out it's like seeing a dear old friend"
India Knight writes a love letter to her favourite handbags
I used to be obsessed with handbags. It's because, as with make-up, you're never too fat, too thin (lol) or too old for accessories, and also because, if you do the per-wear calculation, you can persuade yourself that an expensive handbag that you carry pretty much every day is, in fact, a reasonable investment. This is true. You do tend to get what you pay for, and nobody wants a bag that falls apart after six months. The outright winner in the durability category is Louis Vuitton's classic Speedy, which is weatherproof, life-proof and absolutely indestructible, and its sweet shape is like carrying around a little (but surprisingly roomy) pet. The only issue is whether it is naff, to which the answer is yes, and also no: it entirely depends on what you're wearing. It can look unbelievably naff or extremely chic. If you can navigate that, it's a brilliant investment because it will never break. Mine is 25 years old and every time I dig it out it's like seeing a dear old friend.
Love-hate relationship with the old Speedy aside, there was a period of my life where I bought It bags, when It bags were a thing. They were good shorthand: they said, "I'm aware of what's going on trend-wise," without necessitating a whole (expensive, tiresome, seasonal, slightly desperate-seeming in middle age) wardrobe overhaul. But times change, and so do tastes. I didn't like time-limited clothes then and I like them even less now — does anyone? Every time I compliment someone on what they're wearing, they say, "It's five years old" — and I don't like the look or feel of most handbags. This is because I don't like structure or formality. I don't need a bag that makes me look like I'm off to bust some balls in a City boardroom, or like I click along in my heels all day long. I like soft, squishy bags that can double up as pillows in extremis, and I love leather that develops a conkery patina as it ages and gets used. Also, the bag must not be obviously branded, must not weigh a ton even when it's empty, must feel luxurious and must be genuinely timeless, as opposed to vigorously of the moment, and therefore by definition passé by this time next year. Bags that tick all these boxes are few and far between. (If you also like squishy, I direct you to Penelope Chilvers's brilliant and aptly name Pillow bags, pictured below, and see also vintage Bottega Veneta, back when all they did was intrecciato.)
Having said all that, you're never going to go wrong with a quilty Chanel, and it would be wrong of me not to admit to quite violently admiring Gucci's Horsebit 1955 shoulder bag in red. But there is such a thing as bag-life disconnect, and although I own the first (it lives in its dustbag and gets wheeled out whenever I need to look more expensive than I am), the second would look absurd inserted into my daily life: this is not a bag for chucking in veg from an honesty stall or for stashing a fine piece of cheese in. Still, one can dream. Which is what bags are all about. They're like carrying about a version of your ideal self — and, as you get older, the self you actually are.
It or miss? The best, worst and craziest bags of the century
1930s: Hermès Kelly
This became the first It bag when the ultimate Hitchcock blonde, Grace Kelly, used it to conceal her baby bump from paparazzi after she married Prince Rainier of Monaco in 1956. It was soon renamed for the star-cum-princess. A maternity-wear upgrade.
1947: Gucci Bamboo
Also called the 0633, it was the result of postwar shortages. Made from scrap materials, it soon became a hit with Hollywood stars Elizabeth Taylor and Ingrid Bergman, as well as Princess Diana later on.
1950s: Gucci G1244
The first hobo style gained It-bag status when the OG street-style star Jackie Kennedy Onassis took a liking to it. The bag sold out and Jackie O received a fashion knighthood.
1955: Chanel 2.55
Arguably the world's first shoulder bag, and suitably chic. The double-C gold clasp followed in the 1980s, courtesy of Karl Lagerfeld.
1984: Hermès Birkin
The bag of bags: there's hardly a more iconic (or valuable) holdall. It comes with price tags as big as mortgages and countless A-list admirers. It was famously named after the actress Jane Birkin, who asked to have her name removed from the crocodile version a few years ago.
1994: Dior Lady Dior
Originally known as the Chouchou, the Lady Dior was given to Princess Diana in 1995 by President Chirac's wife during a trip to Paris. It's said that the princess then bought the bag in every version she could find, and she was rarely spotted without one. The fashion house returned the favour and renamed the bag in her honour.
2003: Louis Vuitton x Takashi Murakami
One of fashion's earliest collaborations. Marc Jacobs, then creative director, invited the Japanese artist to reinvent the classic monogram (below), and it was seen on the arms of Kim Kardashian, Lindsay Lohan et al.
2004: Chloé Paddington
Held by It girls everywhere, it was the star of red carpets and LA paparazzi pics in the early Noughties.
2010: Givenchy Antigona
A Khloé Kardashian favourite in the early seasons of the family's reality TV show, and loved by Gwyneth Paltrow and Beyoncé.
2013: Mansur Gavriel Bucket
When Mansur Gavriel's £500 ($980) drawstring bag launched, it was impossible to get your hands on one. The simple, logo-free bag showed the big brands that they didn't have time to get complacent.
2018: Dior Saddle
Dior relaunched its Saddle bag (above) with an Instagram blitz — the brand-heavy equestrian-inspired line came with a serious dose of early Noughties nostalgia.
2019: Jacquemus Le Chiquito
The Chiquito was 2019's fourth most popular product according to the global fashion-search platform Lyst.
2020: Telfar shopping bag
Telfar's faux-leather tote — based on Bloomingdale's famous shopper — is this year's buzziest bag. Fashion folk are calling it the Bushwick Birkin.
Written by: Jane McFarland
© The Times of London