The handbag phenomenon

The battle between the army of handbags becomes increasingly intense. Do handbags come into power and dethrone designer clothes? asks Seda Yilmaz

Times was that there were only a few It-bags per season. Back in these old days Chanel 2.55, the Hermés Kelly and Birkin bags reined the fashion scene alone. Their hard-to-achieve status made them more and more appealing for women. Fast forward to the early 1990s, and get ready to witness the launch of a battle between handbags. Ever since designers recognize the growing power of handbags, a new bag is hailed each season as the “One.” Not surprisingly, women become obsessed with having all the It-bags of the season. They persistently look forward to seeing the next big thing. High fashion is there to meet women’s growing passion for handbags. The superbrands of today are well aware of the fact that the buzz for their handbags is far louder than the chatter about their outfits. So, are bags taking over?
The 1980s was the precursor for the It-bag mania of the following decades. It was the time when handbags became the tool for the display of conspicuous consumption. Chanel’s classic 2.55 was the staple of the Eighties. With its interlocking C’s and chain strap it was the icon of the status dressing. Once the Nineties arrived, the pace picked up. Prada’s black nylon rucksack was the crown of “It.” The triangular Prada logo turned out to be an instant status provider. However, Prada didn’t rule the fashion scene alone. In 1997, women were introduced to the Baguette bag. I suppose Silvia Venturini Fendi gave the name of a French bread to this bag as she foresaw the future of it. It was sold just like hot and tasty baguettes in a patisserie. Women wanted to carry these yummy Baguettes that were made in a variety of materials from white minks to woven raffia. After Prada and Fendi, it was the turn of Gucci’s Jackie, Dior’s Saddle bag, Louis Vuitton’s Speedy and YSL’s Mombasa. The It-bags of the Nineties paved the way for the handbag wars of recent years. They beckon the sirens of the growing power of handbags.
Today, handbags become design legends. Each season crowns at least five It-bags concurrently. Not surprisingly, fashion brands generate most of their money from the sales of their leather goods. Accessories are the engine that drives today’s fashion world. Gucci generates more than 80 per cent of its annual turnover from shoes, belts, wallets and most of all, bags. In Chloé’s case, handbags celebrate an apparent victory. “The bags outsell the ready-to-wear in Chloé. The Paddington bag is totally sold out in all Chloé boutiques and Selfridges,” says Laura Liverpool, Chloé brand specialist in Selfridges. “There is a 2-3 months waiting list for Paddington bag. Waiting lists make women feel special. They like waiting for the next big bag.”
So, are handbags becoming the conqueror of the fashion world? Thanks to high street fashion, designer clothes are copied as soon as they are displayed on the runway. Topshop, New Look, H & M and Miss Selfridge are there to provide the exact copies of designer outfits. So, it’s no surprise that women prefer designer handbags rather than outfits. They know that as long as they accesorise up, they can wear high street. By having the It-bag and wearing it with the hip clothes of the season they can keep up with the fashion trends. This is the easiest way to make their statement. They are still buying designer clothes, but if they have to make a choice between a designer outfit and a designer handbag, they will definitely invest in the latter. “Women can still wear the same clothes they have from last season. All they need to have is the new looking bag of the season. So, they look very much in touch with fashion. They think the bag is a better investment as it lasts longer,” says Clara Mullens, women’s designer department manager at Selfridges.
What makes designer handbags more preferable than designer outfits is their ability to say more about their owners. A designer bag is very powerful in terms of defining its owner. It says who you are, where you shop from, which social class you belong to. It conveys lots of different meanings and talks on behalf of its holder. It displays its holder’s cultural and economic capital. Hence, as Bourdieu puts it “the interest in self-presentation is proportionate to the chances of material or symbolic profit a person can expect from it.” Women are well aware of the symbolic profit they acquire by carrying a designer bag. Semiotic supremacy is the most beneficial symbolic profit of handbags. They are the easiest way to make a statement. So, women no longer need the designer outfit. The designer bag is there to tell who they are. Basically, it’s the portable social status symbol. This makes it more appealing than the designer outfit.
A bag is the ultimate uncomplicated purchase. It always fits, and there’s no concern about how much weight a woman puts on. Fendi can sell its B Bag to meaty women as well as skinny ones. Maxine Cywan, the product specialist at Liberty, says that the biggest recent change in buying patterns is that women want to spend less on clothes and more on upscale accessories. “No matter what size you are you can get the right look with the right bag. You don’t have to be a size 10 model to look really stylish. There is no age or size limit with handbags,” she says.
Undoubtedly, the handbag speaks louder than the outfit and that’s the secret of its success. Superbrands make use of this communicative power by coming up with a new It-bag each season. So, women become more and more obsessed with handbags. If there were to be a fashion hierarchy, they would certainly place handbags on top of it. Because women know that the more coveted their handbag, the higher their status in the social hierarchy.

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