Hooray for handbags: The instant outfit upgrade that always fits

Oh, how we missed them during lockdown. So to celebrate the return of our beloved handbags, Laura Craik explores our enduring obsession.

None of us are emerging from lockdown looking our best selves. But when the jeans are too tight, the dress doesn’t fasten and the T-shirt appears to have ‘shrunk’, there will still be one item in our wardrobe on which we can rely. Our handbag may have been languishing at the back for the past few months but it doesn’t care if we’ve gained a few pounds. It loves us anyway.

Jackie Kennedy Onassis
For Jackie Kennedy Onassis in 1970 it’s all about the accessories – especially the chic tote. Image: Fairchild Archive/Penske Media/REX/Shutterstock

And we love it. Or rather: them, since the average British woman owns 14 handbags and spends £6,144 on them over a lifetime.

Queen Elizabeth II
Faithful service: the Queen parading a Launer bag in 1977. Image: Tim Graham Photo Library/Getty Images

Whether we favour capacious practicality or expensive status symbol, Britain has always been a nation of bag lovers. It’s in our DNA. And while we may not be as monogamous as the Queen, who has been faithful to British-based handbag manufacturer Launer London which received a Royal Warrant in 1968, our love for our favourite brands runs deep. We will yearn for them, save for them, queue for them, cherish them and pass them down to our children – if they are lucky (if my 14-year-old daughter’s proclivity for losing AirPods is anything to go by, she will be waiting a long time for my Chanel ones). Victoria Beckham’s personal bag collection is rumoured to be valued at £1.5 million.

Victoria Beckham
Victoria Beckham out and about with her Hermes Birkin: her personal bag collection is said to be worth £1.5 million. Image: ACau/REX/Shutterstock

Handbag lovers of all ages will be delighted by a comprehensive new exhibition, Bags: Inside Out, which will open at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum in November. As the keeper of more than 2,000 bags dating from 1558 to the present, it’s surprising that this will be the V&A’s first handbag display, not least when you consider the roaring success of previous fashion offerings such as 2015’s Alexander McQueen retrospective Savage Beauty and last year’s exhibition on Christian Dior Designer of Dreams, which had a record-breaking attendance.

Audrey Hepburn
Audrey Hepburn gets to grips with a cute mini tote, 1950. Image: Bert Hardy/Picture Post/Getty Images

Bags: Inside Out spans 500 years and comprises more than 250 examples, from a delicately beaded and handpainted 1950s Waldybag by H Wald & Co, to an iconic Chanel milk carton-shaped Lait de Coco evening bag from the autumn/winter 2014 collection. ‘It’s not a history or chronology of bags, it is more about trying to understand the importance of bags, in our economy and in our everyday lives,’ says the exhibition’s curator Lucia Savi. ‘Handbags are egalitarian. It doesn’t matter what size you are or what culture you’re from. The most iconic ones have that instant recognition factor, thanks to their hardware or their shape. They’re a status symbol and that’s why they’re so powerful.’

Princess Diana
Princess Diana showcases one of her good friend Lana Marks’s designs. Image: Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images

I can measure out my life by my bags. A latecomer to the game, my teenage and student years were spent toting a black Eastpak rucksack, a scruffy canvas affair that gave no hint of the handbag obsessive I would become. Only after securing my first ‘proper job’ on a style magazine did the spark ignite, its flames fanned by helping out on fashion shoots where, for the first time, I saw designer clothes and bags up close. After months of saving, when the time finally came to buy my first ‘grown-up’ handbag, I didn’t mess about: it was straight to Mayfair to purchase a white patent-leather Chanel 2.55.

Elizabeth Taylor
Fur coat, it bag.. Elizabeth Taylor is good to go in 1958. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It wasn’t practical, it cost me more than a month’s wages (if memory serves, I earned £12,000 a year). But, oh, it was worth it for the joy it brought and the thrill of independence that was implicit in its purchase. No matter that I’d have to live off baked beans – my Chanel bag was a symbol of my burgeoning financial autonomy. For many, the idea of expending such a sizeable chunk of income on a handbag would seem nuts. Yet a designer purchase can prove a very canny investment. According to the luxury fashion resale site Vestiaire Collective, a bag such as Louis Vuitton’s Neverfull (so called because of its generous size) can recoup more than 80 per cent of its original price, depending on condition. Other bags currently holding or increasing their value include the Gucci Soho (recouping 90 per cent of its retail price), the Staud bucket bag (92 per cent), the Dior Saddle Bag (100 per cent or more) and, of course, the Chanel 2.55 (the bestselling style on the site: hardly surprising, given their price has increased by 140 per cent in the past five years).

Jackie with her Jackie bag
A tale of two Jackies: the former First Lady with the trusty Gucci tote named in her honour, 1981. Image: David McGough/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Yet all of these are trumped by Hermès, the iconic French luxury brand that surveys consistently find to be a better investment than gold. One band of research, carried out by luxury online bag sales platform Baghunter in 2017, found that these status symbols had increased in value by 14.2 per cent each year (by comparison, gold and stocks provided average returns of only 1.9 per cent and 8.65 per cent).

The Queen
What does the queen love more – her corgis or her Launer London bags? The jury’s still out. Image: Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images

Hermès’s most popular bags are the Birkin and Kelly, named respectively after Jane Birkin and Grace Kelly. While some bags have waiting lists, the fashion house doesn’t even offer those: its most valued (read: high-spending) customers are able to purchase a Birkin by invitation only. Hermès carefully limits the production of these bags only a few thousand are made every year – so that demand constantly outstrips supply, ensuring exclusivity. Little wonder their value has increased by 500 per cent in the past 35 years, or that the most expensive handbag ever sold was a white Himalaya crocodile and diamond Birkin, auctioned by Christie’s in 2017 for £293,000.

Grace Kelly
Grace Kelly conceals a rumoured baby bump in 1956 with… an Hermes Kelly bag, of course. Image: Howard Sochurek/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

But price tag alone doesn’t make an ‘It-bag’. If I had to reduce this to a formula, it would probably be a combination of the right bag, on the right arm, at the right moment. Grace Kelly clutching her Kelly in front of her stomach in 1956 – reportedly to hide her growing pregnancy – is undoubtedly one. As is Jacqueline Kennedy who was always seen out using her Gucci Jackie in the 60s. Then, in the 90s, Princess Diana’s fondness for the Lady Dior conferred an It-bag status that it enjoys even now.

Princess power: Diana’s love of the Lady Dior gave the bag ‘it’ status. Image: im Graham Photo Library via Getty Images

While design, exclusivity and celebrity endorsement undoubtedly play their part, when it comes to achieving true cult status, years of bag-watching has led me to conclude that there is also something far more indefinable at play. While the winning formula of Fendi’s Baguette is easy to understand (tucked under the arm like a bread stick, its distinctive hardware and mainstream popularity, courtesy of Carrie Bradshaw in Sex And The City, made it a blockbuster), few could have predicted that an unassuming black rucksack emblazoned with a single triangle logo – simply titled ‘nylon backpack’, and priced at £940 – would have been such a huge hit for Prada.

Cara Delevingne
Here’s one I inspired earlier: Cara Delevingne with her Mulberry Cara. Image: David M. Benett/Getty Images

In the quest to create a cult bag, it never hurts to name it after a celebrity. Katie Hillier, then creative director of Mulberry, revived the idea when she collaborated on a style with her friend, the designer Luella Bartley. named after the Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bündchen, the Mulberry Gisele debuted on Luella’s catwalk in 2002 – modelled, of course, by Gisele herself. It was an instant hit, leading Mulberry to repeat the same formula with 2010’s Alexa (named after model Alexa Chung), 2012’s Del Rey (named after singer Lana) and 2014’s Cara (named after model Cara Delevingne). Other bags that owe their success to their namesakes include Marc Jacobs’s Stam (named after the model Jessica Stam) and Saint Laurent’s Kate (named after Kate Moss).

Grace Kelly in Dial M for Murder
Grace Kelly making the mini tote fashionable in Dial M for Murder. Image: Snap/REX/Shutterstock

While it felt cool and innovative in the early 2000s, some might say that naming a handbag after a celebrity is a formula that has worn thin. In an era of influencer culture, customers have become more cynical and when they see a celebrity toting her eponymous bag, they now know that money has changed hands.

Bella Hadid
The hippest way to hold your handbag? On your hip a la model Bella Hadid. Image: Getty Images Europe/ Jacopo Raule

There has also been a shift away from flashy, obvious status-symbol bags towards more discreet offerings, a move that was started by Phoebe Philo at Celine and has been continued by designers such as JW Anderson, Bottega Veneta’s Daniel Lee and mid-market brands such as Danse Lente, Staud and Mansur Gavriel.

Elizabeth Taylor
Talk about a statement tote: Elizabeth Taylor reveals all with her transparent handbag, 1951. Image: Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

Which begs the question: what are the It-bags of today and the cult purchases of the future? What will be displayed at the V&A in 2050? That’s entirely up to you. Bottega Veneta’s BV Jodie was winning the game before lockdown – Matches, Net A Porter and Selfridges all reported being unable to keep up with demand. But at £2,465, it may remain a pipe dream for even more customers than usual.

Grace Kelly Hermes bag
She holds it well: Grace Kelly with the Hermes bag that was named after her, 1956. Image: Allan Grant/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images

And while nothing beats the feeling of unboxing a designer bag you’ve saved and saved for, love affairs don’t have to come with a four-figure price tag. Whether it’s a second-hand Vuitton bought for a bargain on a resale site, or a high-street find that has stood the test of time, what matters is that it brings you joy. Now, more than ever, perhaps the best definition of an It-bag isn’t what it costs or who else owns it, but how it makes you feel.

Just one careful lady owner…

In the pre-loved world, bags are doing big business

Michael Kors Selma
The Michael Kors Selma satchel is a big pull for second-hand shoppers

Any stigma about buying second-hand has gone, says Charlotte Staerck, co-founder of Handbag Clinic, a retail and repair business that has seen sales leap by 400 per cent in the past 18 months. ‘People are thinking more sustainably and have rewired their tastes from “must have now” to “will love for ever”.’

Lyst, the global fashion search platform, says that searches for second-hand pieces have increased 45 per cent since November, with handbags in the top three search categories. Searches for preowned classic Chanel double-flap bags have seen a 75 per cent increase over the past few months – perhaps driven by the fact Chanel does not sell bags through its own website and that bricks-and-mortar luxury stores have been shuttered during lockdown.

To make sure you don’t get fooled by a fake, stick to reputable resale sites that guarantee the real deal. Try Handbag Clinic, Vestiaire Collective, Hardly Ever Worn It, Bagista and Farfetch. Auction site eBay has also got its eBay Authenticate service where items are inspected and verified by specialists to give the buyer piece of mind.

However, if you can’t imagine committing to just one bag, try a designer rental site. MyWardrobeHQ has a well-curated selection where you can hire bags by the day (a Givenchy clutch, for example, is £21). And newcomer Cocoon is a handbag version of Netflix – allowing you to borrow bags for a £99 monthly subscription fee.

Going, going, gone!

When it comes to collectable pieces, luxe bags are up there with art…

Hermes Birkin
This limited-edition Hermes Birkin went for £22,500 at a recent Christie’s auction

Christie’s auction house runs handbag and accessories sales as a standalone category. ‘They exist between fashion and art, combining quality craftsmanship with the best materials in the world,’ says Lucile Andreani, Christie’s handbag specialist.

Hermès, Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Dior are leading brands, but the Fendi Baguette is making waves, too. ‘We offered nine limited-edition Baguettes in our London sale last year and they sold well, between £625 and £1,200 each,’ says Andreani. If you’ve never bought at auction don’t be intimidated – first-timers make up one-third of participants at each sale. ‘The range of estimates is wide – from £100 to £100,000. We have clients who own more than 100 bags but also people who’ve saved to buy their first investment bag. Collectors can try everything in our preview exhibitions and ask our specialists questions.’

Christie’s next online handbags auction will run from 24 November to 10 December. For more details visit bit.ly/302XDCS.

How to show your tote some TLC

PACK IT AWAY PERFECTLY

‘Stuff your bags with towels or small pillows. This will prevent folding or creasing,’ recommends Emily John, co-founder of luxe handbag restoration service The Restory. ‘And keep them in dustbags away from radiators that could dry them out.’ Another common crime is to store bags for long periods hung up by their straps, which can lead to them becoming stretched or misshapen and potentially damage metalwork.

KEEP YOUR STUFF IN CHECK

‘Avoid overfilling because this can damage zips and stretch the leather and handles,’ says The Restory. Handbag Clinic’s Charlotte Staerck advises putting items such as make-up and pens in small pouches within your bag, so they don’t stain the lining. This also makes it easier to move everything if you switch your bag.

YOUR HERO BUY? A BAG HOOK

The most common damage seen by Handbag Clinic is from spillages in restaurants and hair salons on to bags that are plonked on the floor. With a hook you can hang your bag from most tables and bars away from trouble.

READY, STEADY, RUB…

Leather needs its own skincare regime. The Restory recommends rubbing on a pea-sized amount of leather cream every couple of months before buffing. For suede use a suede brush or very soft toothbrush to dislodge dust and dirt, and polish hardware with a clean cloth. As for the lining, shake out the debris regularly or use a small vacuum attachment.

LEAVE IT TO THE PROS

Handbag Clinic and The Restory can fix everything from stains and broken zips to fire damage. If you’ve got a bag languishing in your wardrobe, consider giving it a new lease of life – specialist restoration services can change handles to turn a shoulder bag into a cross-body style, dye it a new colour, and add studs or motifs (good for disguising damage, too).

Bags: Inside Out will open at the V&A on 21 November (sponsored by Mulberry). Tickets go on sale in September. See vam.ac.uk for more information