Saturday saw visitors returning to the cultural institution and the debut of a brand new exhibition titled “Bags: Inside Out,” which highlights iconic bags throughout history, ranging from Margaret Thatcher’s favorite lady-like tote from Asprey to the sparkly Fendi baguette made real-life famous when it appeared on the arm of the fictional character, Carrie Bradshaw, in Sex and the City. And while this exhibition was originally slated for April, it’s hard to imagine a more apt time than now to bring the bag to the center of the fashion discussion.
As Vogue’s Accessories Director, fashion fans both inside and outside of the industry have often asked me about the It-bag: do I believe in it? What is “It”? Is the It-bag over, and if so, why? Could this bag be an It-bag? Their curiosity makes sense. The phenomenon of the It-bag has proven to be big business for major fashion houses over the years, but as an editor, I’ve watched the industry move away from the must-own bag and instead gravitate towards the cult of the personality purse.
The constraints of the pandemic have given us few reasons to carry a handbag outside of pure utilitarianism. We carry our reusable totes for groceries or a wallet-like-bag that attaches to keys or holds hand sanitizer. Carrying a proper purse, whether it be for a quick walk around the block or even just around your own house, is purely for the pleasure of doing so. A bag for the bag’s sake. Now, more than ever, owning handbags is about a personal and emotional connection, as well investment. I know if I’m going to buy a bag in 2020 or 2021, it needs to be something that, quite literally, holds its value in addition to putting a smile on my face.
This idea of value is at the core of the V&A’s new exhibit, which serves to show off just how long the lifespan of a good handbag can be. The show not only focuses on some of the designer bags we know to be heritage pieces, like Hermès’ infamous Kelly top handle but also more modern options, like Anya Hindmarch’s incredibly clever and sustainable “I Am Not A Plastic Bag” tote or Manu Atelier’s Pristine style that shows the exemplary craftsmanship of a family-owned leather artisan workshop, sans a price tag that brings up thoughts of mid-sized cars or tuition payments.
Outside of the personal connection I find that this exhibit perfectly encapsulates by bringing not only the bag but the wearer to the forefront, the timeliness of the show and the handbags it spotlights is very much in line with where the market is now. From conversations with some of our favorite multi-brand retailers, we are hearing of steady and increasing handbags sales. Across the board, the market trends speak to the consumer’s desire to invest in beautiful bags that will stand the test of time much in the way that the bags do now in the V&A’s display cases.
Getting into the facts and figures, Libby Page, Senior Fashion Market Editor at Net-a-Porter, tells us, “luxury bags have been one of our strongest categories recently as customers used this time to finally invest in their forever bag.” She adds, “we saw huge interest with Bottega Veneta, Gucci, and Saint Laurent, and, just in the last few months, we sold over triple of the Loewe Puzzle versus last year.” Finding a brand that a customer has an emotional and potentially lifelong relationship with is also in line with what Tracy Margolies, Chief Merchant of Saks Fifth Avenue, is seeing. As she notes, “our customers connected to brands they know and love more than ever this year. They were drawn to emotional, timeless investment pieces that sparked joy by designers, such as Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Dior, Gucci, Saint Laurent and Fendi.” Similarly, Cassie Smart, head of womenswear at MATCHESFASHION, tells us, “we have seen a real uplift in customers making more considered handbag purchases, meaning pieces that are timeless, will work hard in your wardrobe, and that you will treasure forever.” She adds, “whether heritage styles from the big fashion houses like the Gucci 1955 Horsebit, Bottega Veneta Chain Cassette or Saint Laurent Loulou, or more emerging names with an original point of view, for example the Dragon Diffusion Totes which have been selling out.”
Handbags are certainly big business, but the business of buying them is done with as much head as heart. As the V&A exhibit proves, there are few things more precious than a well-made and well-worn tote or top handle, and few fashion items that will feel as special for years to come.
Below, 17 timeless bags to invest in now and love forever:
Bottega Veneta Jodie mini knotted intrecciato leather tote
Coach Swinger bag
Dior book tote
Loewe Flamenco leather clutch
Hunting Season hobo bag
Polo Ralph Lauren Bellport tote
Prada medium Re-Nylon backpack
The Row Ascot bag
Paravel Cabana tote
Gucci Jackie 1961 small hobo bag
Dragon Diffusion Triple Jump large woven-leather basket bag
Saint Laurent Tuc leather shoulder bag
Delvaux leahter satchel
Manu Atelier Pristine bpx bag
Anya Hindmarch I Am A Plastic Bag small appliquéd leather-trimmed printed coated-canvas tote
Fendi sequin mini Baguette
I have wondered at times what the Ten Commandments would have looked like if Moses had run them through the US Congress.