Serapian is not a name widely bandied about in the world of luxury goods – and yet in the 1960s, when Milan was emerging as the design capital of the world, many women from a certain well‑bred milieu would have had a Serapian handbag somewhere in their wardrobe. For back then the Milanese were known for their classic elegance, and the Serapian handbag – along with the beaver fur, a string of pearls, shoes by Prosio and scarves by Gucci – was their insignia.
But Serapian wasn’t just admired by the discreet bourgeoisie of Milan; in the postwar years its bags and luggage were carried by the international style icons of the day – Audrey Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman, Frank Sinatra, Bette Davis – many turning to the company for pieces specially made for them. And today, unknown to most, many bags paraded down the catwalks by the swankiest labels will have been made, with the utmost attention to detail, by Serapian in one of its three Milan workshops.
In spite of this, Serapian remains largely an insider secret, known mainly to those who make it to one of its shops (in Milan, Venice, Rome and Taormina). But now, for the first time, much of the Serapian collection, as well as its bespoke service, will be available at Harrods and Case London.
Though Serapian, with its emphasis on traditional craftsmanship, sounds like a heritage Italian company, it is in fact a relative newcomer. It all began with Stefano Serapian, an Armenian refugee who came to Milan in the 1920s and found lodgings with two women earning a living stitching shoe uppers for a local manufacturer. Intrigued by their skills and bored by his own work in a confectioner, he started to learn their craft, picking up leather off‑cuts from ateliers and turning them into small leather goods. His flawless workmanship soon attracted high-society customers, who came to him for bespoke handbags and luggage of every kind.
It was the Gina bag, created for his Tuscan wife after the birth of their daughter in 1946, that became the house’s first really iconic design. Classic in shape, it was originally made in ostrich (rather an innovation at the time) and had a mother-of-pearl clasp that became emblematic of the brand. Today’s Gina (from about £500 to £1,200), which still has the same clasp, comes in two sizes and an array of colours, from chocolate brown to aquamarine.
But it’s the Audrey (from £850), the style that Audrey Hepburn carried in the 1966 film How to Steal a Million, that is the all-time bestseller. An elegant trapezium featuring a square envelope fastening, it has a short handle, so it has to be held in the hand or on the lower arm, just as Hepburn did in the film. The Ani (from £600), named after Serapian’s daughter-in-law and a favourite of Taylor Swift, also has enduring appeal. It too was innovative in its design, being made with travel in mind and having a soft “ear” or circle of contrasting leather at the sides so it can be opened up and all the contents seen in one go. It comes in nine colours. And of the beautifully soft and capacious totes, I like best the versatile Lorelei (£1,050) with snap fastenings and a zip for extra security.
While the craftsmanship may be traditional, a lot of quiet innovation has gone into the materials. Stepan is a resilient rubberised fabric that showcases the brand’s signature “S” in a vertical and horizontal pattern; it looks particularly spectacular in the Secret (£415), a medium tote with long handles. The Evolution material is a calfskin with a water-resistant varnish finish.
Serapian’s luggage, which, like the handbags, is also made entirely by hand, is designed to age gracefully as it acquires a patina. Two- and four-wheel carry-on cases (from £1,450), weekend holdalls (£935) and overnight travel bags (£935 in leather; £505 in Stepan) come in black and jewel tones including emerald, tourmaline and ruby.