Women's Fashion

The lady or the tramp

This season’s most desirable handbag styles couldn’t be more different: one is retro, framed and ladylike, the other soft, slouchy and boho. How to choose, asks Avril Groom.

October 23 2010
Avril Groom

At the opening of the recent Grace Kelly exhibition at London’s V&A, the biggest crowd was not in front of any of the 50 or so elegant outfits, but instead jostling to look at a small (by today’s standards) and somewhat battered handbag. Neat, restrained and undeniably bourgeois, the iconic Hermès model that eventually acquired Kelly’s name encapsulates her legend better than the 1950s couture suits or beaded première gowns. The best-known anecdote about it is how she used it to hide her pregnancy at a time when royalty was expected to behave with discretion.

The Kelly bag would have looked perfectly at home on the autumn catwalks, as a 1950s revival revealed itself as a key trend. The exhibition, its book Grace Kelly Style (V&A, £19.99), and the successful TV series Mad Men strike the same chord as the full-skirted, corset-busted dresses from Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton and Miuccia Prada, and the striped shirts worn with cigarette pants and headscarves at Brooks Brothers. It also fits with the edgier version of a new bourgeoisie being proposed by younger designers such as Phoebe Philo at Céline, Hannah MacGibbon at Chloé and Stuart Vevers at Loewe.

Kelly is not the only star with a current resonance. Ingrid Bergman was a loyal jewellery customer of Bulgari, a tradition continued by her actress daughter Isabella Rossellini, who asked the house to embark on a collaboration. “I like a proper bag, big enough to store stuff in and easy to open,” she says. “That reflects my practical Swedish side, while the finish comes from my Italian appreciation for luxury. Most of all, it’s a lasting, beautiful object.” She is right. The Rossellini bag (from £1,110) is structured yet not stiff or heavy, with a striking clasp in enamel and semiprecious stone – inspired by her collections of Bakelite bangles, enamelled cigarette boxes once owned by Andy Warhol, and her mother’s 1960s Bulgari jewellery – coloured to tone with the leather, canvas or ponyskin.

In a similar vein are Jacobs’ new versions of the Vuitton Speedy (from £1,700), originally designed in the 1930s, and the updated Hermès Kelly (from £3,500). These properly constructed bags are perfect vehicles for the exotic skins now driving the top-end and bespoke-bag market and the natural accessory for a more formal look. And therein lies the catch: the nostalgia of such dressy style may be charming on the catwalk, but the disjoint with rushed modern life is glaring. Women who are used to relaxed dressing may not want a return to rigid formality, or to forsake the ease of the slouchy bag, which, paradoxically, is growing softer and stronger, as illustrated by Gerard Darel’s advertising line-up of models, each with a buttersoft Moon bag (from £250). So, long after the demise of the It Bag, handbag wars have resumed – but now it is not the brands leading it, but style and customer demand.

Many customers will be deciding whether to give their heart to the lady or the boho: two opposing camps loosely separated by the gap between formal workwear and weekend kit. “There are women who enjoy a structured bag and the air of pedigree it carries,” says former Tanner Krolle designer Quentin MacKay, whose own-label Persia bag (from £1,495), with its formal clasp and hollow metal ball and claw hardware inspired by the feet on his grandmother’s sewing box, is a standard-bearer of the new movement. “It looks ladylike but it’s an efficient work bag, with two pockets for iPhones or BlackBerries and an extra zip-pocket for security. It helps organise your life, like a mobile filing cabinet. My wife says in this type of bag everything stays exactly where you leave it, unlike a soft bag where items spill out or end up in a jumble at the bottom.”

Jacobs is so committed to the bourgeois bag that he has given the Speedy, initially not very formal, a dressier look in a flap-over, doctor’s-bag shape with the house motifs interpreted in exotic fabrics from guipure lace to mink. The result is decorative retro styles that are perfect partners for his grand prom dresses. A similarly retro mood pervades Dolce & Gabbana’s big and beautiful Miss Sicily bag (from £980), designed to complement its finely sculpted tailoring and slimline dresses. Inspired by original 1950s styles, it has leather-wrapped handles and details including hand-worked macramé, lace or tweed, all with luxurious but nostalgic treatments.

Vevers at Loewe sounds a warning about laying too great an emphasis on retro style: “I think the bourgeois bag can be made of a soft or natural leather, something that moves it forward so it’s not just a retro-design exercise. A hand-held or neat shoulder bag generally feels more bourgeois. It’s about not feeling overdone, replacing obvious design details with good craftsmanship, clever construction and discreet branding.” His treatment of the key Amazona (from £850) and Ava bags (from £1,225), with darkened metal padlocks and leatherbound clasps, fits this viewpoint, playing on a “recent reassessment of the values of leather goods. There’s a return to pieces with real substance and leather-goods houses that have authority and heritage. There’s something cool about seeing a ‘proper’ bag with a T-shirt and jeans at the weekend, while as a work bag it lends a grown-up status. It’s about getting the balance right.”

To work in a wider context, such bags need to be essentially understated. Some of the season’s hottest models fall in this category: Phoebe Philo’s simply elegant, structured Classic Box shoulder bag (from £1,600) for Céline; Roger Vivier’s boxy Miss Viv’ bag with its signature retro buckle (£1,680); MaxMara’s Margaux working bag (from £590) with modernist zip trim; Gucci’s reworked 1973 styles, with clutches and shoulder bags in soft suede, ostrich or crocodile sporting a revamped original logo (from £490); Ferragamo’s W bag (from £899) based on a model designed for the founder’s wife, Wanda; and Marni’s surprisingly traditional frame bag made almost futurist with bold punched cutouts (from £624).

But despite the spotlight on the ladylike bag as a media favourite, store buyers have reservations. “There is no doubt that the ladylike look is important this season, but I think a bag you can invest in and wear every day, whatever your look, such as versatile models with a cross-body strap from Proenza Schouler or Pauric Sweeney, will retail more commercially,” says Alexandra Stylianidis, head buyer of womenswear and accessories at Liberty. “The prim, understated look also comes at a premium price.” This point is reiterated by Fenwick’s buying manager, Debbie Christopher: “With very pared-down, ladylike styles, top-quality leather is essential but expensive. We have gone for Mulberry styles, which are more textured and have chain handle or metal catch details, or Osprey flapped-frame styles [from £345], which are still neutral and sophisticated.”

Even in the less obviously boho territory of Harrods, fashion accessories merchandise manager Simon Longland says, “The ease of the hobo will probably mean it is more commercially successful, and it’s often larger, which makes it more useful for working women. But with fashion trends this season ranging from ladylike to sportswear, one bag is not enough to render every look finished.” Some clients, he believes, “will prefer the ease and comfort of a soft shoulder bag, such as Chloé’s soft but bourgeois drawstring bag or Bottega Veneta’s soft metallic woven style, while others will find the structure of a framed bag by Dolce & Gabbana or Louis Vuitton more elegant”.

Understandably, many designers are riding both horses. Anya Hindmarch veers this season to soft styles, including the delightful new Peggy with its stud-trimmed floppy bows (from £695). But she has also reworked her formal Carker bag in soft, “battered” leather (from £525) “so it’s more relaxed, actually less structured. The clasp, lock and key are instantly recognisable but the extra, cross-body strap and slouchy leather make it more insouciant and easy.”

Similarly, Smythson has come up with a large tote version of its Nancy bag (from £650), which started, presciently, as a hybrid – a frame bag with a signature soft, pleated finish – and has added the very informal Virginia (£695), a small and soft under-the-arm design. “There are benefits to both”, says creative adviser Samantha Cameron. “The Nancy tote is a multitasker, for both work and the weekend. Soft bags are practical for work because they expand to hold clutter without losing their silhouette, and can add femininity to a tailored work outfit. On the other hand, a structured bag makes a serious statement when occasion demands.”

Meanwhile, in addition to the formal Rossellini, Bulgari also has the new Chandra (£1,300) in impeccably soft leather, its pleated front and signature double-ring clasp giving a decorous slouch that manages to be both casual and ladylike. Prada runs with both: a bourgeois little patent shoulder bag softened with handstitched leather details rather than hardware (from £990), and a big hobo bag whose knitted leather (£2,600) mimics the chunky cable knit of Prada’s sweaters this season.

Bottega Veneta balances its soft woven style (from £1,045) with the simplest, single-handled croc flap bag (£19,035), which is formal yet utterly modern. Sonia Rykiel adds rabbit fur and pearl details to a shoulder bag (£810) “to give what could be a classic lady bag a cooler yet comfortable side,” says Nathalie Rykiel. Even Chanel now has the butter-soft Coco Cocoon (from £1,290), its sporty quilted leather a counterpoint to its chain-handled styles – the epitome of bourgeois elegance.

The secret, on both sides, seems to be a lightness of craft by the makers and a little imagination on the part of the wearer. As Vevers points out, modern fashion sets few rules and unlikely but confident combinations often work. Dior’s creative director of accessories, Camille Miceli, gives an object lesson in how to do it. “We have two very different bags,” she says. “I felt we needed a new structured bag in addition to the successful Lady Dior, so I designed the 3D (from £1,300). It goes with tailoring but it could also add presence to a wispy little dress. The other style, the Libertine (from £1,450), is softly pleated to go with John Galliano’s ready-to-wear theme of lush femininity. Yet the clothes also have a shapely, equine sports aspect, which the bag would soften. It’s interesting to break the rules.” So both of autumn’s bag styles can modernise a look and are not, in their new guise, mutually exclusive. Go with whichever you fancy – and then emulate the best designers by doing the unexpected.

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