Fierce competition between car industry titans, racing to win the hearts and minds of their traditionally male-heavy customer base, is hardly anything new. But some of the biggest luxury car marques have taken to battling it out for another unexpected yet highly lucrative pole position: the arms of female clients.
Last August, for example, the German-owned British luxury carmaker Bentley launched its collection of leather handbags, priced from $5,500 to $7,000.
Bentley’s luxury handbag collection comes in 12 hues drawn from the marque’s classic colour palette (think vivid “Dragon” red or “Cumbrian” green) and in two signature styles.
The Barnato which comes in five colourways, is a square, two-tone model with a quilted interior and side-split panels that echo the sculpted curvature of a car. Its more rounded sister, the Continental – named after one of Bentley’s most famous designs, and also available in five colour ways – is shaped and detailed to reflect the boot of its eponymous model.
Then there’s Mercedes-Benz, which launched a high-end accessories line earlier this year called Burn Out Bags. These are made by driving (in a Merc, naturally) over high-quality leather taped to a road and then making purses and suitcases out of it.
The slightly gimmicky range starts at €780. It comes in pale hues, each bag imprinted with a unique tyre mark pattern.
Bugatti and Porsche, too, have gone full-throttle with their latest efforts. The former last year launched its Porsche Design collection of bags. Bugatti, meanwhile, launched a collection at last year’s Milan Fashion Week – but it includes mainly men’s clothes and accessories, as well as a few women’s bags.
“Ultimately, we see ourselves first and foremost as a luxury label first and a car brand second – and we’re in a unique and exciting place to leverage that potential through the appetite we’re seeing for these handbags,” says Daniele Ceccomori, Bentley’s head of product design.
Ben Johl, chief executive of Destroy vs Beauty, the Frankfurt-based design unit that collaborated with Mercedes on the Burnout Bags, agrees. “We worked with Mercedes-Benz AMG, the division of the brand that engineers and customises Mercedes branded models that are typically the most expensive and highest-performance of each Mercedes class,” he says. “So the car enthusiasts attracted to those vehicles – the super cars – are the same ones who show an interest in the Burnout Bags. They know about Louis Vuitton, Hermès and Chanel but want something different. And the patterns we offer – scorched into the fabrics as a car shrieks away from a stationary position – are impossible to replicate. They are absolutely one of a kind.”
According to both Mercedes and Bentley, the bags are also proving popular with male customers. “A significant proportion of the last collection were bought by owners as gifts for their wives, daughters, and granddaughters,” says Ceccomori. “I think they like the idea of bringing Bentley into every part of their lives.”
Johl, too, has noticed the appeal to male as well as female customers. “Men who had initially enjoyed making the bags as a gift for wives and girlfriends were returning to make more purchases, while women were getting in touch simply because they liked the distinctive look – from as far away as China and New Zealand,” he says.
When the Mercedes collaboration started a year ago, customers were initially making the “bespoke” prints themselves while test-driving the carmaker’s vehicles. “They would make the [tyre] marks, then we would take the material away and create a bag in the design they requested,” says Johl.
In response to demand, Mercedes started offering the range on its website at the beginning of this year.
Bentley keeps a tight hold on distribution by offering the bags for sale via its car showrooms – which it sees as vital to preserving an aura of exclusivity. “The dealerships are our equivalent of flagship stores,” says Ceccomori. There are no third-party sellers of the car marque’s handbags – although potential customers can register their interest in a purchase on the Bentley website.