Women's Fashion

Catcher in the eye

Handbags that provide intense hits of colour are the accessory of the season. Avril Groom reports.

March 09 2011
Avril Groom

Last summer, when Mulberry launched the Alexa bag (£766), which helped the company to a record tripling of half-year profits to £4.7m, I was fascinated not so much by its geeky shape but by the bold colours in which it came. Tan was the obvious, and bestselling, colour yet the rich yellow version was far more interesting, immediately taking the season’s neutral clothes away from a bland realm to somewhere far more piquant. Designer Emma Hill also put forward a 1980s-inspired bright, deep-blue and a hot-pink leopard version as well, which delivered a slight shock with their almost-vulgar, witty appeal.

Hill is a visionary, for this spring those colours look quite normal, and she has done a saturated blue version of the business-friendly Bayswater (£766) and a hot-pink ostrich chain-handled clutch (£1,532). You might find it impossible to imagine that such a bag could be an object of desire, but you might be about to be proved wrong. As so often, fashion this season has two opposing facets – neutrals (again) and searing colour. Designers followed Cézanne’s edict that “there is no model, there is only colour”, leading to outfits in bright orange or vivid green at Prada, colour-blocked combos of peacock, purple and orange at Gucci, Klein blue, orange and pink from Raf Simons at Jil Sander. However, the counterpoint of neutral clothes – white, nude, honey and camel, plus a new injection of navy and other blues – is a safer commercial bet.

What links the two? Simply a smallish, bright bag in as intense a colour as you can manage – it will lighten up the neutrals like the flash of a kingfisher by a dark pond, and equally add an extra dimension for those confident enough to try a mix of near-miss shades. The inspiration behind the current cacophony of colour is Yves Saint Laurent, arguably the greatest fashion colourist of all time, who routinely looked to artists such as Picasso or Van Gogh for ideas. Last year’s exhibition of his work at the Petit Palais in Paris came at a pivotal moment – the safety-first mentality created by the recession had locked fashion into undemanding neutrals for three seasons, so designers soaked up his crunching colour mixes, then added their own modern signature.

Saint Laurent’s colour blends were breathtaking – he would make an outfit in two quieter shades and add accessories in two unrelated brights that should not have worked, but in practice were perfect. The difference today is an injection of fluorescent and saturated, intense tones with a streetwise edge. These vibrant hues were used by Giles Deacon and handbag designer Katie Hillier to add a subversive touch when they set about reviving the fortunes of Bottega Veneta before it was bought by the Gucci Group in 2001. Edgy London style proved a step too far and it was Tomas Maier who went on to oversee the brand’s renaissance, but fluorescent shades have remained an undercurrent that this summer reaches the mainstream.

As a bolder palette has been advanced, so has the technology to manipulate skins, especially exotic ones. Mauro Orietti-Carella, designer for his family firm Zagliani, which specialises in crocodile and python bags (£11,250), says, “I found that silicone and resins make the skins much softer.” This results in the skins behaving more like fabric, and enables bags to be as pleated and plumped as cushions (one is even called the Puffy, from £2,200). “The injection, which I’ve patented, also makes the skin lighter but strong and waterproof. It makes exotic skin bags practical for everyday use.” Orietti-Carella also adds a crucial “secret ingredient” that alters the character of the skin, “causing a reaction to make the colour more concentrated and vibrant, or softer and matte almost like velvet. I handpaint the prototype to get the exact colour.”

While Orietti-Carella will not reveal the ingredient, others are on the case. Phoebe Philo at Céline set the agenda with a fluorescent yellow python version of her coveted Classic bag (£2,750) in her early spring collection, to wear with her minimal white tailoring. In their first collection for Bally, Michael Herz and Graeme Fidler created a stir with bright, saturated shades of green or blue for cross-body textured leather styles (£695) to wear, they say, “with neutral leather or, more daringly, with a block-colour dress”. This idea is also pursued by Stuart Vevers at Loewe, who uses fluorescent shades as handles and trims on tan leather, as in his Amazona bags (£930), which are, he says, “easy to wear as a counterpoint to neutrals, but it is interesting to experiment with other bright shades. The bag should be the investment – choose a shade that suits you, knowing that it will always tone with whites and neutrals. But avoid brights with black – it’s too hard and 1980s.” Anyone with a bright outfit can update it without serious investment – Furla has practical little holdalls in fluoro PVC (£170) and crocodile-print leather clutches (from £190), while Cédric Charlier at Cacharel says the latest bright colours in latex “have allowed me to experiment, to use this material as a clutch [£175-£250] that looks as good for work with a neutral trench coat as it does off-duty with a bright jumpsuit”.

For many designers, subversion is key to the bright bag’s appeal. Pauric Sweeney, whose designs include bright Mini bags (£395), hot-coloured patent leather cross-body bags (£459) and startling clashes such as orange with shocking pink clutches (£768), says, “Such odd mixes make a statement, especially when worn with powdery colours. They reveal a woman who does not go by conventional rules, and the bag becomes a colourful vehicle of semiotic meaning that lends confidence, no matter how conservative the attire.” Bruno Frisoni of Roger Vivier, whose summer range includes primary-coloured versions of the ladylike Miss Viv bag (£1,330) and a multicoloured, patent-strip woven clutch (£1,265), says frivolous shades are “a way to play down a luxury accessory”.

Crocodile fluorescents such as Zagliani’s are a case in point, while Lana Marks’s subvert their own bourgeois origins. The American queen of bright bags set up her Florida-based company in the late 1980s “after being invited to a reception on the royal yacht Britannia and being unable to find a bright red bag to tone with a suit in white, red and purple. I saw a market gap, though it took years to research the tanneries to produce the best alligator skins in really bright, rich colours.” She regards red, purple and green as neutrals that can be toned with a wide range of colours and, now that technology allows, has added fluorescent shades to such ladylike shapes as the Jet tote (from £12,800), the two-pocket International (from £12,217) and the jewel-like bead-handled Cleopatra clutch (from £6,157).

Marks is one of the few who advocate wearing a bright bag with print, though Herz and Fidler find it “intensifies the print’s impact”. However, most designers prefer a bright bag with what Frisoni calls “clean looks – fashion always reverts to minimalism and colour breaks the monotony”. This can easily be colours other than neutrals, and toning is, according to LK Bennett’s creative director Annick Gorman, “a matter of confidence and personal taste. Our suede and leather working bag [Chaiara, £295] in bright coral red sparks up sand or blush tones, but equally works colour-blocked with bold fuchsia.”

This is how most favoured it on the catwalk, from Albert Kriemler’s tonal orange outfit with plain leather bag (£1,210) and horsehair hobo bag (£2,875) at Akris to bright tasselled snaffle bags (from £1,400) and python clutches (£745) worn with 1970s colour-blocked shades at Gucci, and clashing-stripe jersey bags (£494) or bright tasselled clutches (£1,045) worn with darker 1970s colours at Sonia Rykiel, where designer Nathalie Rykiel says she treats bright bags “like jewels on a plain outfit or with jeans”. Accomplished colourist Matthew Williamson’s bags for Bulgari (from £1,250) take gemstones as inspiration, both in their geometric shapes and colour. “I am drawn to sapphire, ruby and emerald, and I wanted to recreate their depth of colour,” he says. An alternative is to break it up with a natural, textural contrast, as with Bally’s matte canvas duffel bag with bright trim (£695) or Bulgari’s natural Leoni bag with hot-blue handles (£1,230).

This new colour spectrum is certainly exciting and may even cheer everyone up. “It’s joie de vivre, a feel-good pill,” says Frisoni, and “a way to inject a little happiness in a sombre world,” say Herz and Fidler. Fashion has played safe for long enough – “It’s time to embrace a pop of colour,” says Anya Hindmarch of her new shagreen clutch (£995). The bright bag can indeed have a long and cheerful life as an adjunct to classic neutrals. Colour-blocking may last less long. But, if only for a brief season, the recession has shaken the fashion world out of its obsession with black, then we have something to thank it for.

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