Women's Fashion

Practically perfect

Sturdy handles, room for a netbook, plenty of interior pockets… and sexy too. Avril Groom sizes up the new work bag.

September 11 2009
Avril Groom

Until this season I had never been seduced by a bag for work. They always seemed like the ugly sisters of the small, precious bags on which designers lavished embellishment and attention – plain, square-ish and built primarily for function, not love. Now, however, it happens all the time.

It started with styles worshipped from afar on the catwalks, such as the artfully worn-looking, burgundy leather bags at Prada (from £910), or the elegant crocodile or calfskin Invader bag with its bold geometric clasp and frame (from £1,255) that brought extra modernity to the lyrically nostalgic yet contemporary suits at Lanvin.

It continued on closer acquaintance in showrooms, with bags such as Jimmy Choo’s Blythe (£1,150) – in black, taupe or natural snakeskin, capacious and superficially sensible but with a cascade of defiantly rock-chick straps and buckles down each side – or Hermès’ Shadow Birkin (£5,000), the ultimate stealth-wealth bag, whose “hardware” is created with layers of perfectly fitted, moulded leather in a pain­staking process know as gainé that results in a smooth, subtle yet intricate surface.

All these, and many more, have the essential attributes of the work bag – plenty of interior pockets, sturdy handles, and big enough to fit an A4 file, laptop/netbook, BlackBerry, make-up pouch and spare shoes – but without the overblown dimensions and gratuitous hardware of recent big bags. The new element is the amount of design detail, imagination and – in the case of some, including the Choo and the Hermès – wit that have gone into making these bags as desirable as their more decorative sisters. They also have real quality and are designed to be admired and enjoyed long-term. As designer Alber Elbaz says of his Lanvin creations: “The idea of an It Bag is now anathema; one minute it is ‘it’, the next it is not. There is nothing scarier than designing the bag of the moment, because the moment ends.”

In a downturn it is logical for designers to focus on businesswomen as a market area that should still prove reliable, with the resources to buy and to do so out of need rather than whim. They have also responded to women’s changing shopping habits. “Nowadays, a woman needing a new bag is going to think very carefully about its function,” says designer Anya Hindmarch, whose two newest working styles, the Cassie (£765) and the Belvedere (£725), are crafted from leather strips on suede to be soft, luxurious and malleable yet strong, and have inlaid metal and leather details. They join the plainer Carker (from £675) and Ebury (from £895), which are long-term bestsellers. “She may well only make one purchase, so it is going to have to fit every area of her life, from practicality at work to looking stylish in the evening,” adds Hindmarch. “It needs to be decorative and desirable because it is more important than just a carrier for files or a laptop that she would previously have used alongside a smaller designer bag.”

Marlin Yuson, Cartier’s accessories creative director, highlights additional factors: “Discerning customers are looking for value now. They want a long-lived bag they can use day and night that’s practical, light when empty and not dangling useless hardware.” And the newest version of the subtle but decorative Marcello (from £600), a file-friendly tote by day which folds over to become a neat evening clutch, fits the brief. Meanwhile at Jaeger, whose heritage is the working woman, new design director Stuart Stockdale is upgrading the brand’s bags to suit the new climate. “Women now feel they don’t need two bags,” he says, “but the one needs to be fabulous, a substantial bag that’s functional but glamorous, dressed up yet easy to wear and use.” Two new styles – the Ursula tote in matte and patent leather (£599) and the Alberta (£450) with resin and metal detail – encapsulate the look.

Like most trends, this one also has a contrasting face. Confident women can find a distinctive bag helps to make an assertive style statement in a plain season. “Clothes are reserved at present, so you need one item that’s a little less serious, for contrast,” says Stockdale. “For us that’s graphic patent trims and art deco details.” At Smythson, whose latest designs include a practical, zip-up version of the iconic, softly pleated Nancy bag (from £595), creative director Samantha Cameron feels that now is a good time for women to assert their individuality. “Senior women feel increasingly free to be fashionable and feminine at work while still being taken seriously,” she says. “A working bag has to be a practical friend but a beautiful, highly crafted one is also a symbol that reflects a woman’s personality and status in a competitive world and, even more importantly, a confidence in her own style.”

Both Cameron and Hindmarch are acutely aware that practicality must be matched by aesthetic appeal inside and out. Hindmarch’s latest styles have lightweight canvas linings, multiple interior pockets and loops, and, of course, there are also her renowned free-standing pochettes (from £78) for specific items such as make-up. Smythson bags always feature a cleverly contrasting lining in signature silk with nostalgic ruched pockets – the navy version of the Erica is lined in unexpected vivid malachite green, which adds an instant pop of individuality. And Yves Saint Laurent’s new Roady, with its contemporary hooked-on handle and range of finishes from patent leather (£735) to ostrich (£4,920), includes an extra leather pocket inside, on a thong for easy access.

Even more luxurious is the inside of some models of Dior’s new Granville bag (from £1,505), which a spokesman describes as “feminine but practical, and reliable for any occasion” – a prime example of a somewhat “ladies who lunch” brand turning to the business market. In a raised-seam version of Dior’s signature quilting with small, more Lady Dior-style metal charms, it is a classic, large, two-handled bag (with a detachable shoulder strap) and relatively plain – until you open it, that is, and its rich lining of natural python glows out at you. This mirrors John Galliano’s idea behind last season’s haute couture collection, where clothes were embroidered on the inside and showed seams and darts on the outside in homage to traditional couture structure that was equally a symbol of private pleasure and the stealth-wealth mindset. As Cartier’s Yuson says of the Marcello, “Finely crafted detail counts on a less in-your-face bag. It’s about finish, down to the stitching thread size or the colour of the hand-drawn edging; things that aren’t visible from a distance but add to your enjoyment.”

You could say the same of the Shadow Birkin, which shows a studiedly expensive disdain for the symbolic hardware – which remains, but in sotto voce form – and even of Chanel’s new Coco Cocoon range (from £700 in nylon, £1,700 in leather), where there is not a chain handle in sight and even the famous logo is reduced to subtle relief. However, the opulent padding in wide, quilted bands and the ultra-soft leather breathe luxury, and the shapes – soft but practical, including a small wheelie-bag (£2,700) – are targeted straight at the business market. It also applies to the D bags by Tod’s (from £690), which are all about the finest of smooth, tactile leather, comfortable, moulded handles and a wealth of traditional stitching, with logos and hardware conspicuous only by their absence.

Equally, you could not say it of Jimmy Choo’s Blythe bag (£1,150), which has the style-bolstering element described by Cameron in spades. The multiple buckles add what the firm’s president Tamara Mellon calls “a touch of rock’n’roll” to an essentially straight bag. “It has great storage, deep pockets and dividers so you can find things,” she says. “It’s a modern, chic staple; classic with a twist” – a winner for a woman wanting to emphasise her resolve, with a nod to fashion’s rock-chick edge but not so extreme that it will date.

Classic designs from times when bags were smaller are being redesigned to fit the needs of today’s working women. Emma Hill, creative director at Mulberry, has stretched the iconic Bayswater bag horizontally to make the croc-print suede East-West (£750), while at Gucci Frida Giannini has enlarged the classic 1950s design that Jackie Kennedy championed and added signature leather tassels to become the New Jackie (medium from £1,214, large, from £1,240). Daks has added subtle straps, metal buckles and a shield-shaped charm to soften and feminise classic leather work bags (£750), while Donna Karan’s streamlined Gotham bag decorated with elongated zips (£1,060) is both smart and savvy.

Place your character and choose your style; whichever it is, the new bags are the answer to a working woman’s prayer.

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Bags