Memories to carry forever: Shelly Vella on the handbags that have shaped her life

From the beloved tote she met on holiday to cherished family treasures, YOU fashion director Shelly Vella reveals the handbags that have shaped her life.

My first crush was a white printed-fabric bag from a Grecian holiday circa 1977. At the age of 11 it signified something so much more than tourist tat; it was my tentative step into adulthood, the independence of having my own treasured belongings. I loved and used that bag until it fell apart.

handbag full of letters illustration
Illustration: NabIl Nezzar

Of course, there were other dalliances: a clutch that was perfectly sized for clubbing and a practical tote or two. Then came my big love – the first designer bag. Its purchase signified my arrival as a bona-fide magazine fashion director. Bought at Heathrow airport on my way to New York Fashion Week (I spent the whole flight in a panic about the obscene amount of money I had parted with), the Mulberry Roxanne is a reassuringly hefty, multi-pocketed beauty. It signalled I had my finger on the fashion pulse – indeed, it was the design that heralded the new age of It-bags. The kudos I received from my peers didn’t go amiss, either – as I’m sure you’ll not be surprised to know that the fashion pack could be intimidating at times. By buying that bag I had made the right choice, apparently passing the first test in what would turn out to be a longstanding fashion career.

mulberry handbag illustration
Illustration: NabIl Nezzar

Next comes the heirloom bag, inspired by my ever sophisticated nana. Oddly, I did not inherit one iota of her style – as a lover of all things bohemian, I’m at the opposite end of the spectrum. But I wanted to honour my nana’s passing (and the money she had left me) with an investment piece that she would have been proud of. It could only be one iconic bag: Chanel. Some days even this hippy chick needs to channel timeless class and a bit of posh. So much more than a bag, it’s a piece of fashion history that I intend to pass on.

Chanel handbag illustration
Illustration: NabIl Nezzar

Handbags are an extension of us and our style, and often capture a moment in time. My most heart-wrenching bag moment came recently, following the death of my beloved mother. Mum loved beautiful well-made clothes and had created the perfect capsule wardrobe way before the fashion press started using the term. She was very much of the generation where different outfits had specific bags to ‘go’ with them, so when we came to the poignant task of clearing her wardrobe I wasn’t surprised to see she had amassed a collection of more than 30 bags. What I was taken aback by, however, was the emotional effect their contents had on me.

Shelly Vella with her mum
Shelly with her mum Jacqueline in 1996

Each bag presented a time capsule of their last use, giving me another moment I could share with my mother. From the ‘all needs covered’ selection of necessities, including tissues, a nail file and headache pills, to treasures such as a cherished pair of diamond earrings we had long thought lost, safely hidden away in a lining pocket. An older bag retrieved from the depths of the wardrobe was the resting place for forgotten love letters in the scrawled hand of my father.

Precious things kept somewhere she knew was safe, the heart of many a woman’s wardrobe – her handbag.