LONDON, United Kingdom — A woman walks into one of the large flagship stores on London’s Bond Street, where she is greeted by a vast display of handbags. Pouches, totes, cross-body, baseball style, shoulder bags and shoppers — the whole handbag family is there, with price tags upwards of £1,000 ($1,317). She is businesslike in her approach, wasting no time on handling them or deliberating over her choice. “That one.” “That one.” “That one.” “That one.” “And that one over there.” She points at five. “I’ll take the rest.” The story was told with both amusement and delight by the store manager.
Ah, the glory of the bag — it’s the item that every brand hopes will sustain them through good times and bad. The product that has been relied upon for sales when ready-to-wear is having a weak season, or in better times, is simply the lovely, high-profile icing on the cake, adorning store windows and providing catwalk fodder, while contributing only a small percentage to the bottom line.
You might have thought that there were enough handbags in the world to see us through to Armageddon. Yet, every season the showrooms of the world’s biggest fashion houses are crammed with new ranges to tempt the customer. Devoted PRs are given the task of enthusing about the newest and most telling details — the reworked links on the handles, the innovative clasp, the soft-sided capacious lightness, the elegant simplicity of the handheld style. And of course, with each season comes the introduction of the new ‘Icon’ bag — a phrase that every time I hear it makes me wince, for its overused appropriation, and which should only be employed in the case of something truly powerful. Not a calf leather tote, no matter how gorgeous.
Still, handbags do so much more than simply the role they fulfill. In the canon of fashion items, the handbag is a relative newcomer having arrived as the new kid in town in the early 20th century. Hermès’ fascinating monograph in “Carried Away”, a lavish illustrated volume, published to accompany a former “Le Cas du Sac” exhibition, features an ancient rock painting in Algeria, where one of the terracotta stick figures appears to have a bag in the crook of their elbow. But as civilisations evolved, bags were rarely attached to the body and were relegated to the company of animals and servants.
Along with showing off personal taste, a handbag suggests economic prosperity and acts as a soupcon of the childhood security blanket.
The handbag was part of the changes brought about after the First World War and the increasing emancipation of women, for whom carrying a bag became a sign of independence and stature. Women had their own cash and bank accounts, and keys to their own property and cars — and they wanted the world to know it. What better reason to flaunt the fashionable clutch of the 1920s rather than having to burrow for necessities in hidden pockets beneath voluminous skirts? Women carried cigarette cases and lighters and began to make a display of applying makeup in public, so lipsticks and powder compacts became part of every woman’s daily arsenal.
As the decades passed, handbags have grown in size, reaching the current outsize extreme shown by luxury houses like Balenciaga, Céline and Loewe. As the leading accessory of our times, they have even earned their own slot on Sotheby’s and Christies’ auction house calendars, where they are able to command bids of hundreds of thousands of pounds on occasion. This year, a Hermès Birkin broke records at $380,000.
Ironic then, that in certain milieus, the handbag has simultaneously been denoted to the more demeaning stature of ancient times where carrying such an accessory denotes inferior status. Today, the ability to be bag-free is a power move indicating that you either have a public relations person or personal assistant carrying it for you at a discreet distance or, for some people attending fashion shows, private views or dinners, keep a car and driver outside, enabling you to leave your bag and its contents in the backseat and sail around the event, unencumbered and unbothered by the hassle of cloakroom queue.
This, however, is not such a wide practice that it has dented the handbag business. For most women their handbag is a multi-tasking device that combines the virtues of practicality and utility: along with showing off personal taste, it suggests a certain economic prosperity and acts as a soupcon of the childhood security blanket. While women may often play it safe, either due to workplace convention or simply their lack of interest in clothes and so choose to dress unremarkably in their daily life, these same women will frequently have a standout handbag.
Yesterday, I saw a woman dressed in a cheap-looking black trouser suit and grubby faded pink plimsolls crossing the street in West London, while hanging off her was a Gucci Dionysus embroidered leather shoulder bag, retailing at £2,760 (about $3,637). Take any early morning flight out of Heathrow where the business traveller is on a daytrip to Frankfurt, Milan or Geneva and you’ll see the conveyor belt loaded with Mulberry, Burberry and Prada bags, costing upwards of £1,000 ($1,317). While shoes, coats, dresses, shirts and trousers are often bought by these women in middle-priced or high street stores, women are prepared to fork out substantial sums for an item that, in its most basic form, does nothing that a supermarket plastic bag can’t do.
Women are prepared to fork out substantial sums for an item that does nothing that a supermarket plastic bag can’t do.
Except make you feel good. There is something about colonising your new bag for the first time that is a rite of passage. Free of the general clutter that seems to unavoidably collect at the bottom of bags — pen lids, loose coins, elastic hair bands, coat check tickets, contact lenses (or is this just me?) — a new bag is virgin territory that allows you to become the best and most efficient version of yourself. Just add a smartphone, perhaps some headphones, a small wallet, and a makeup bag you have been inspired to clean out, so that it doesn’t sully its new home.
Given their visibility, a bag is like shorthand for conveying individual style. Are you a Mansur Gavriel type, canny and in-the-know? Or an I-just-love-Anya-Hindmarch-who-gets-what-we-really-need sort? Are you the kind of person who doesn’t believe you can ever beat Chanel for high-end luxury? Or are you someone who has zoomed straight into a J.W. Anderson Crochet Pierce, because “pretty well everything J.W. does is alright by me and isn’t the Crochet brilliant?”
Whoever you are, there’s no danger of supply slowing down, despite concerns that what had appeared to be an ever-expanding market might be contracting. Both Matchesfashion.com and Net-a-Porter currently offer an almost identical number of bags on their sites — Matchesfashion.com at 1,855 and Net-a-Porter at 1,865 — with Fendi topping the price list at £16,900 ($22,269) for a Peekaboo mini crocodile shoulder. At Mytheresa.com there are 2,938 styles while, at the other end of the market, Asos offers 926. Handbags are also one of the biggest categories on online resale sites, such as Vestiaire Collective.
Something for everyone then, as retailers get their hopes up for the approaching holiday period. Not everybody might be like the bulk buyer at the start of this piece, but ultimately, handbags have one huge advantage: there is no danger of gifting the wrong size. After all, no one has ever picked up a handbag and asked, “Does it make me look fat?”
Alexandra Shulman is an author and the former editor of British Vogue.