The best accessory for the party season is a stock of intriguing anecdotes and Dorothy Parker-like bon mots. But while you work on sharpening that scintillating smalltalk, fashion has come up with a party prop that’s a guaranteed icebreaker: the “conversational clutch”.
That’s how Anya Hindmarch describes her unusual evening bags, and the term applies to numerous quirky clutches this autumn. There are bags shaped like dominoes (Diane von Furstenberg, Charlotte Olympia and Lulu Guinness) moons and Russian dolls (Olympia), pop-art pictures (3.1 Phillip Lim), and Jimmy Choo’s crystal, panda-shaped miniaudiéres in collaboration with artist Rob Pruitt. Then there is the oversized foil packaging clutch by Maison Martin Margiela for H&M, Yayoi Kusama and Louis Vuitton’s £83,500 “Pumpkin” miniaudiére which comes in a limited edition of seven, and the popularity of Olympia Le-Tan’s book-like bags, carried by Natalie Portman and Michelle Williams.
Hindmarch says of her designs, which includes clutches that light up (£495) play a Christmas carol (£595) or have a built in a snow globe (£895)): “I like to think of them as charming and fun … the snowstorm and the musical box came from the idea of being a child looking through a toyshop window at Christmas and seeing all the fun things.”
According to Luisa De Paula, buying and merchandising director at My-wardrobe.com, “Quirky clutches have been bestsellers this season, led by the 3.1 Phillip Lim Break-up oversized clutch (£415) and the Bang pop-art clutch (£415). Anya Hindmarch’s Marano Dancer light-up clutches have had fantastic sales in the past two weeks and is set to be the best-selling clutch this Christmas.”
Nostalgia and a sense of fun often influence fashion at Christmas, but Hindmarch and Olympia see the handbag trend as part of a more general desire to make individual statements through accessories.
“There’s so much fashion that’s the same and sometimes you just want people to say, ‘Wow that looks really cool’,” says Hindmarch. Olympia agrees: “People are having more fun with accessories. It’s an easier way for people to wear something ‘out there’.”
Olympia says that she takes inspiration from the 1930s and 1950s, “when bags could be quite a novelty, and they had a real sense of humour”.
Marnie Fogg, author of Vintage Handbags: Collecting and Wearing Designer Classics, says: “It wasn’t until the 1930s that new materials such as Bakelite introduced an element of fun and whimsy into handbags. It was mainly Elsa Schiaparelli who popularised the novelty bag, thanks to her association with the surrealists.”
Schiaparelli’s creations included the Lite-On bag, designed in collaboration with Salvador Dali in 1938, with two internal lightbulbs, and other bags based around a telephone, a Chinese lantern and a birdcage. Schiaparelli’s eccentric style caught on among other designers, including Anne-Marie of France, who created a suede ice-bucket full of Lucite ice cubes and a telephone. In the 1950s, as global travel became more common, American visitors to France considered bags shaped like the Eiffel Tower or poodles with their fur in a French cut the height of sophistication. Fogg says: “Novelty bags aren’t about conspicuous consumption, labels or status. [They are] just a bit of theatre on your arm designed to amuse.”
Not everyone is in on the joke. There’s a fine line between a surprising sartorial flourish and a bad visual pun: piano ties, hot and cold tap cufflinks and Santa-print socks – all suggest the wearer may have the wit of a bad cracker joke. The key to making quirky designs work is quality craftsmanship.
One woman who isn’t converted is Avril Graham, New York-based executive fashion and beauty editor of US Harper’s Bazaar. “I know there are many fabulous, whimsical variations [of bags], but I prefer the sleek variety that will have longevity – along the lines of the original Hermès H clutch.”
Other key styles this season include the pouch and the box clutch, while Graham’s favourites include the red leopard version from Balenciaga – “a real statement number” – and “modern and chic” deep envelopes by Celine. Despite her preference for refined hand-candy, Graham says “only time will tell if anyone opting for the more elaborate pop-art versions may have collectors items in their closets”.