Women's Fashion | Past Masters

Clutch bags

From Hermès classics to power-dressing bags, the clutch is having a moment. Avril Groom gets a grip on the most desirable.

March 25 2010
Avril Groom

How gratifying it is for collectors to find that the market in their object of desire is not controlled by the whims of fashion. Thus a little word of advice to anyone who has ever invested in a vintage handbag: sell Birkins, buy clutches. The small, handle-free clutch bag is currently the last word in modishness – the perfect accessory to curvy 1940s-inspired tailoring and for the smart card and iPhone generation who no longer need to tote around a bulky organiser and a cheque book.

Yet vintage versions, from the 1930s originals often influenced in design terms by art deco to their 1980s revival as part of the power-dressing culture, do not fetch prices near those of classic designs, such as the Hermès Kelly or Birkin styles (especially if in crocodile or other exotic skins) or even early Chanels.

“People tend to have tunnel vision about the major brand names and obvious styles,” says Pat Frost, director of textiles at Christie’s, who last year ran a sale of Hermès bags where the top price was £49,250 for a large crocodile Birkin with palladium hardware, but only £2,500 for a lizard clutch bag. “Pochettes and clutch bags do nicely but you can find them at very good prices” – and there will be a chance at this year’s Hermès sale in July, plus another later in the year for Gucci, for which the auction house is collecting.

Kerry Taylor, of Kerry Taylor Auctions, says the top price for a clutch bag she has sold was £2,200 “for a one-off 1930s Hermès in green leather, hand-painted with a racehorse and jockey and with a gold filigree clasp – I assume it was made for a lady with racing interests and it was appropriately bought by someone in that world”.

At Tony Durante’s specialist vintage bags shop at Alfies Antique Market, Emilia Porto says their highest sale has been “£4,000 for a large – 50cm – crocodile Hermès envelope bag with a red leather lining, a unique piece in mint condition”. Other brands that fetch a premium for clutch bags are, according to Frost, Mappin & Webb, Asprey, Chanel and Cartier, including Les Must bags from the 1980s, though these are worth less, says Taylor, than the jewel-clasped styles of the 1930s, “which were smaller and veering into precious evening bag territory, the kind that the Duchess of Windsor popularised”.

“Condition is paramount,” says Porto, who runs a restoration service. “We can only restore provided the skin is not dry, brittle or split. Checking its softness is your first move. Then check the clasp works and is not out of alignment.” Carmen Haid, co-founder of vintage site Atelier-Mayer.com, recommends keeping vintage exotic bags in dust bags in a temperature-controlled environment “and feeding them at intervals to keep them supple”.

Taylor says that Hermès restores its bags, whatever the condition, while Frost highlights the risk of illegal sales because of Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species regulations. “It’s accepted that exotic skin bags from before 1947 have no certification,” she says. “For examples from that date to 1974 you have to apply for the relevant certificate before you sell. The tricky area is from 1974, when certificates guaranteeing the skins’ origin came in and should be with the bag. We’ve had a number we couldn’t sell because they lack it.”

Not only precious skins guarantee a clutch bag cachet. “Certain rare styles are much sought after,” says Leslie Verrinder of Tin Tin Collectables at Alfies. “The bag given to first-class lady passengers on the Normandie’s maiden voyage, with its clasp shaped like the funnels, would be about £3,000, if it came to market. A style made like a poodle that sits under your arm, by a Belgian firm called Walborg, is another – I have a long waiting list for such pieces.”

And it’s not just the big brands that make good buys. “In the early days, the 1930s and 1940s, it was all about design, not names, though a few such as Anne Marie of Paris stand out,” says Verrinder. “Certain details like a good Bakelite clasp or a typical period material like shagreen make a difference, but £500 is a good figure, often less. Prices went up a couple of years ago, but now there seem to be fewer dealers vying for them and it’s more sensible.”

Haid, who has several pretty styles – including a 1960s navy snakeskin clutch (£250) and a 1970s green suede scallop-shell design (£120) – says that lack of branding “was a positive in the 1950s, as it is now. The people who mattered knew by telltale details where a bag was from. The ultimate was bespoke, often made in Italy, where the only logo was the owner’s initials.”

Taylor estimates labelled exotic skin bags at £800 upwards, but has sold a 1930s Cartier pochette for £660, its 1980s styles for around £400 and a “beautifully topstitched” 1950s pigskin Hermès style for £360. Some are much less. At the time of going to press her March 16 sale has an olive 1960s Gucci clutch estimated at up to £250, while a group of unlabelled 1930s and 1940s clutches are estimated at £60-£80, which is, she says, not unusual.

Susie Nelson of Vintage Modes at Grays Antique Market says crocodile Hermès pochettes average £700-£800, “but unbranded clutches with pretty clasps in good condition are £180-£200. Classic colours sell best; brighter shades can be bargains – currently I have a gold leather clutch with an ornate clasp at £140”.

Such a unique piece would have appeal for collectors who use their bags, such as Diana Feldman, the New York-based chairman of special events for the American Cancer Society. “They’re the perfect size for events, where the uniqueness of vintage stands out,” she says. “I have several Hermès crocodile envelopes and Chanel styles made to pull the strap through to the inside. It started with a little 1960s Chanel wool clutch I had from my mother.”

Male collectors take a more forensic approach. Robert Opie, who runs the Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising, has been collecting handbags for 15 years, “to build up a picture of women’s lives over the past two centuries through the types of bag they carried, and what went in them, so I’m searching out the contents too”. He sees clutchbags as “reflecting eras such as the art deco period and the 1940s suits’ style, and they seem to revive as those styles recur in fashion”. He is “astonished by the prices of today’s designer examples compared with vintage finds”. All the more reason, then, for collectors and fashionistas to keep buying the originals.

See also

Collecting, Handbags