My handbag holy grail
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A bag, like any other burden, feels personal. In her hilariously accurate essay “I Hate My Purse”, the great Nora Ephron even remarked that “your purse is, in some absolutely horrible way, you. Or, as Louis XIV might have put it, but didn’t because he was much too smart to have a purse, Le sac, c’est moi.”
So very true. And yet, surveying my collection of bags as I began a new FT job a year ago, I found each one a dislikeable stranger to my current tastes. Among the crumpled, crinkled, dated and rain-ruined assortment, I also lacked a right-sized work bag, something that could contain all my handbag items (one of everything useful), but not take a bite much bigger than £500 (which may sound like a lot, but is considered mid-range).
Twelve months on, I still have the same problem. I have spent hours dithering: over chic Parisian labels (Jérôme Dreyfuss, Polène, RSVP), over brands championed by retail sites such as Net-a-Porter (Wandler, Nico Giani, Mansur Gavriel), and, briefly, over the supremely unaffordable but beautiful category — from Loewe to Céline and Hermès.
In the late 1990s, the pursuit of the ideal handbag was an even pricier affair, with fashion houses such as Fendi and Gucci reissuing classic bag designs and creating demand through limited availability. The names of these bags spoke of a kind of borderline silliness (the Fendi Baguette, the Gucci Jackie, the Mulberry Roxanne) and prompted a raft of articles trying to understand the handbag trend like sociologists try to understand moral panic. (“Across Britain, there are thousands of women from all walks of life who will make any sacrifice for the perfect designer handbag,” observed a Daily Mirror writer in 1999.)
By the time I started work in 2001, there was a marginally more affordable set of swishy “It” bags, embodied by the boxy Kate Spade holdalls beloved of early noughties go-getting Manhattanites. Now, the bag sector is much more settled at a relatively reasonable price point. And yet, the expansion of choice has arguably put pressure on the purchase. It’s less a search for a good handbag, more a quest for the ideal handbag.
The internet feels very much like a false catalogue when it comes to leather goods, so I set about looking for perfection in person. Given how much of the bag world I’d already surveyed, I decided to look at the newest designs, and the newest designers.
First, though it’s nice to imagine the accessories that my more groomed alter ego might carry, I don’t want a bag that upstages me by virtue of being too sophisticated. Naturally, this was one of the first convictions to fall.
Givenchy’s Pocket Mini Pouch (£780, in stores September) combines two features I would instinctively avoid: quilted, cross-hatched stitching on the front, and a strap that is part gold-linked chain. More to the point, it can also be worn — fearful cringe — as a belt bag (this costs more, too).
Once past the ignominy of buckling it into the last belt hole, I appreciated the unintended corsetry effect. It also had impossibly neat proportions, not more than a wallet wide, nor an iPhone tall. In truth, this bag is just a bit too tiny for a grown woman, even if the jam-red leather had a pleasing lipstick quality, and was perfectly made.
Second, my ideal handbag should be neither too dull and featureless nor too daring and gimmicky; nothing that says “experimental fun”. Again, I didn’t appear to know myself that well. British designer Sophia Webster’s new Romy bag (£375) is not only designed around a bugbear — a drawstring strap — but the strings are also garlanded with rose-gold baubles. Both features, when I saw them in the flesh, hit some unknown weakness, and I felt buoyed by the bag on a sandwich sortie. On the downside, it has a bubblegum-pink leather interior, but isn’t lined: it wouldn’t take long for a lidless biro to make its mark.
Third, as a person of non-Amazonian height, I want the strap to be adjustable, or else to be the right, short length in the first place. It was Coco Chanel who took the purportedly radical step of adding a strap to the shoulder bag, and her famous “2.55” bag, with its gold-linked chain, has an echo in the new Elise bag (£675) by Lutz Morris. This brand was launched by designer Tina Lutz in her German homeland, capitalising on the skill of a small leatherworking factory. Shaped in a petite rectangle, the Elise has a super-soft back and a hard-croc print top, opening like a little box. With its hand-linked chain strap, it tucks snugly under the arm, and is a bag I very much covet, but in a larger size.
Fourth, much as I can see the point of designer cachet (I felt a definite Givenchy elevation on a trip to Pret A Manger), I would also like to support a newer business. Lutz Morris is one such, but so is Ferian, a sturdy bag-maker based in the West Midlands, using saddlery techniques and vegetable-dyed leather. The Chatham (£895) is a simple design at first glance, a boxy shoulder bag with a flap cover, but closer inspection reveals thoughtful details: a snap-fastened interior pocket, and a doubly reinforced strap with hidden buckles.
Just one snag: like a horse’s bridle, it creaks stiffly when bent. This bag will look terrific leather-worn in 100 years, so could technically be an heirloom item. Its little sister, the Penzance (£585), would just about hit my budget.
Other roomier options include the Mini Phoebe by London label Danse Lente (£355), which would work best for someone tall and lean, given the attention it draws to the hips with its concertinaed doctor’s bag shape.
Fifth, a non-leather option. Or rather, a vegan leather design by LA brand JW Pei. This brand uses “ultra microfibre” vegan leather and recycled plastic bottles instead of animal leather. The Fiona ($129) is a sweet boxy shape, and has two well separated compartments, a zip pocket, an open pocket easily accessible from the front cover, plus card holders. Ten out of 10 for pockets, and there are some nice candy colours.
Sixth, had I overlooked something good at the beginning of my quest? Jérôme Dreyfuss’s new Azure Bobi bag (£520), in a bright, fishing boat-blue, has plenty of pockets and a good strap. Amsterdam brand Wandler’s new Mia tote (£580) also looks tempting, with its excellent trapezoid shape — perfect for hiding variable kilos of detritus. But I haven’t taken the plunge.
Which brings me back to square one, or “I still hate my purse”. Perhaps not totally true: I now have designs, with some future riches, on the larger Lutz Morris. It is one for the heart, not the head, but from an ideal handbag, it’s probably unreasonable to expect both.
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