IT’S ALWAYS a good time to buy a bag,” said Sarah Newkirk, a mortgage underwriter in Waterford, Wis. Last year, some prominent fashion observers disagreed, wondering if we’d ever embrace handbags again, with Australia’s Daily Telegraph, for one, suggesting the pandemic might bury the accessory for good. Unaware of these death knells, Ms. Newkirk did a lot of embracing just last month, treating herself to a pink nylon Kate Spade bag for her 40th birthday as well as a black-and-rust Coach crossbody. “I’ve been buying bags [throughout the pandemic] to cheer myself up. And, like everybody else, I gained weight,” she said. “But a handbag always looks good.”
Ms. Newkirk is not in the minority. “In the beginning, the world seemed to stop altogether,” said Hallie Spradlin, director of accessories at Fashion Snoops, a trend-forecasting agency. But by last summer, cooped-up men and women “were looking for a mood boost…and started investing in mailer bag.” Yumi Shin, chief merchant of New York department store Bergdorf Goodman, called handbags “pandemic proof”—particularly, she added, when they’re in perky hues like tangerine or neon green. Perhaps that’s because they represent optimism: Buying a bag designed to tote essentials between home, school, the office and even the airport suggests that we’ll soon return to some version of our bustling former lives. Paul-Sebastian Japaz, a New York painter, said he began building “an arsenal” of bags last summer. His buys range from Telfar’s vegan Shopping Bag to an as-yet-unused leather Prada tote. Mr. Japaz, 29, cheerily called it the “back-to-school bag.”
However, as our lifestyles have shifted, so too have our handbag tastes. The awkwardly bulky, top-handle work bags so prevalent pre-pandemic have been ousted by smaller, more versatile options that facilitate a lighter existence. Giana Ballard, 29, who owns a New York photography studio, recently splurged on a canvas Balenciaga bag with a long shoulder strap. Before the pandemic, she used different travel duffel bags for day and night, work and play. Now she wears her roughly 8-inch-tall bucket bag (which fits her iPhone, camera, lipstick and a crucial can of pamplemousse LaCroix) for morning walks, afternoon errands and outdoor dinners. Once she needs to carry heftier cargo like, say, a laptop, again, Ms. Ballard plans to team her modest new pal with a roomier tote.
Curt Myers, a Boston public-affairs consultant and erstwhile traveler, has bought three bags during the pandemic—a leather duffel and two backpacks. Mr. Myers, 28, admitted that he “never really looked at bags” before, but with a surfeit of time and a new, social distancing-inspired love of hiking, he sought pieces that fused style and utility. His usual habit of searching for cities to visit was irrational, he said. “The alternative was to buy [these bags] that symbolized travel.”
Katrina Tracy waited until she was vaxxed to splash out on a faux-snakeskin Steve Madden crossbody-cum-fanny pack. “It was a little bit of an affirmation of, ‘We’re getting back to it!’” said Ms. Tracy, 34, who works in human resources in Los Angeles. She debuted the chain-embellished bag when visiting her grandmother, whom she’d seen only once in the past year. “It was fun to have a conversation with her about my shiny new purse,” she said. Her grandmother thought it was adorable.
In the 17th Century, small bags known as sweet purses were exquisitely crafted in unusual shapes such as frogs, while the fashionable technique of filigree was used to create elegant purses which were often exchanged as gifts between aristocrats. The 'reticule' – which emerged in the 19th Century and is considered the forerunner of the modern handbag – had a flat surface, so offered the perfect opportunity for artistic expression. "There is a surface to be decorated so women would decorate them with patterns and flowers," says Savi.
The appeal of the bag's creative potential to artists is evident as far back as the 1930s
The witty and innovative designs from the 19th Century, which included lunch cooler bags in the shape of flower baskets, scallop shells and pineapples, influenced the trend for the incongruous objects which appeared in bag design in the 1930s. Designers such as Anne-Marie of Paris created wonderfully eccentric bags in the shape of telephones, champagne coolers and even radios.
These in turn had an impact on the jewel-like creations of Hungarian-US designer Judith Leiber, whose sought-after evening bags come in the shape of everything from bunches of asparagus to lipstick, and the British designer Lulu Guinness, whose flower-basket bags from the 1990s can be seen as a three-dimensional interpretation of floral reticule designs.
The appeal of the bag's creative potential to artists is evident as far back as the 1930s. Hilde Wagner-Ascher, an artist and designer connected to the Vienna-based collective the Wiener Werkst?tte, used the clutch as a blank canvas for her graphic designs. "She used a very common and fashionable shape but the decoration of it and the pattern of it are really representative of her involvement with the Wiener Werkst?tte – the design movement that grew out of the Vienna Secession – and that type of aesthetic," says Savi.
In recent decades this trend has accelerated as brands collaborate with artists to reinvigorate their classic designs. Louis Vuitton in particular has worked with artists, beginning with Stephen Sprouse and his neon graffiti bags, under then artistic director Marc Jacobs in 2001. Since then, the brand has worked with everyone from Takashi Murakami to Yayoi Kusama.
"They're like artist pieces, limited-edition pieces where artists try and experiment in a different medium," says Savi.
To have and to hold
These experiments have included Bethan Laura Wood's series of interchangeable handles for Valextra's Iside and wine packaging bags, and Marc Quinn's designs for the Lady Dior bag. Wood's quirky aesthetic, inspired by Eduardo Paolozzi and realised in shades of Neapolitan ice-cream and sludgy 70s interiors, transforms the somewhat austere bags into modern poppy icons.
There's definitely a very strong relationship between fashion and art right now – Rachel Koffsky
Quinn, who was invited to re-interpret Dior's classic design to commemorate the opening of their New Bond Street Store in 2016, took his Fossil Record – the Age of Aluminium print series as inspiration. Embossing orchids in various states of bloom on to metallised lambskin, he created objects of breathtaking beauty.
Savi is particularly taken with the International Woman suitcases that Tracey Emin designed to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Longchamp's Le Pliage bags in 2004. "That is a piece where you really see an artist working as if on a piece of art," she says. Made in an edition of 200, each piece carries a unique rosette designed by Emin and is inscribed with a different location which reminds the artist of a moment of love.
"There's definitely a very strong relationship between fashion and art right now," says Rachel Koffsky, head of handbag and accessory sales at Christie's. "It's bringing art collectors into the world of fashion and fashion collectors into the world of art."
But it seems that what serious bag collectors are drawn to, season after season, is the classics – the Lady Dior bag, the Chanel Flap bag, the Hermès Kelly and, of course, the Birkin.
"The Birkin is considered the most desirable bag in the world because of the iconic design and the way that it's created by hand in the atelier. It really is the highest degree of craftsmanship," says Koffsky.
A Himalaya Birkin, sold at Christie's in Hong Kong in 2017, broke the world record for the most expensive bag ever sold at auction when it went for an astonishing ￡293,000. "This particular piece is adorned with 18-carat white gold and diamond hardware. It was really more than just a bag. It was also a piece of jewellery. It's like a wearable work of art," says Koffsky.
It is clearly an astronomical amount to spend on a handbag but, it appears, money well spent. "After the recession in 2008 customer spending was way down. However some bags, like the Hermès Birkin, continued to hold their value so collectors began to invest this amount of money," explains Koffsky. "Collectors' taste has changed and now they're looking at laundry bags as something that's an asset rather than just a fashion item." Indeed, according to a recent report by Art Market Research, Birkins have increased in value even more than Banksys.
Desire for these classic designs is being fuelled "by a sense that the fashion world is looking to the past to inform the designs of the present," says Koffsky. Dior's Saddlebag, which first debuted in 1999, has been brought back under Maria Grazia Chiuri, and Alessandro Michele at Gucci is heavily inspired by the Gucci archive. "The handbag that your mum had in the 1970s, all of a sudden you see it on the runway and the price for that vintage piece skyrockets," says Koffsky.
But despite their value these bags are not going to be gathering dust in a vault somewhere. "Some collectors will buy really special bags and display them like art in walk-in closets with carousels," says Koffsky. But, she adds, "the majority of collectors I work with, if not all, buy handbags because of love and passion and they make smart investment decisions based on what they love and what they're going to use".
Of course, for most us, the thought of owning a Chanel Flap Bag or a Dior Saddlebag, let alone a Hermès Birkin, is as out of the question as owning one of Tracey Emin’s sewn appliqué pieces or a print by Marc Quinn. It seems we will have to content ourselves with viewing them in a gallery like works of art. Which, indeed, they are.
Bags: Inside Out is on at the V&A, London, until 12 September, but is temporarily closed at the moment.
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