There’s a row of incredible objects lined up on Rafé Totengco’s desk in the Manhattan studio of his label Rafé, a few blocks along from the gleaming silver art deco radiator caps of the Chrysler Building. “This is the Azura,” he says, handling a pearlescent, salmon-pink minaudière ($795), a box clutch with such surprising, pleasing lines and surface shapes that it looks like it might be half natural phenomenon, half Chinese puzzle. “It’s one of my earliest designs. I remember being in a taxi in Porto, passing the Rem Koolhaas Casa da Música building, and shouting at the driver to stop so I could take photographs of it. That’s where the inspiration for the shape came from.”
The tiny proportions of these hard-sided box clutches clearly inspire designers to come up with singular and extravagant creations. Besides the Azura, Totengco’s current collection includes the new Ramya ($945), inspired in part by the vintage furniture of Paul Evans but also by a Zaha Hadid building in Cincinatti; and the black, white and brass cubic-patterned oval Liz ($795), which has its roots in the designer’s first visit to Venice. “I remember walking into churches and taking pictures of the flooring – the imagery was so amazing,” he says. Each of these bags takes craftsmen in Totengco’s home country of the Philippines four days to handmake from shell.
Architecture and interiors, both real and fantastical, are a recurring theme. This season’s minaudières by Rauwolf were inspired by 1960s light fittings by Glashütte Limburg. “We played with multiple materials, using mirror, wenge wood, lamé and Plexiglas to create a unique striped effect,” explains Rauwolf founder Kristine Johannes. One of the most arresting pieces from the collection is the silver and Arctic-blue Bristol ($2,200), suggestive of a sci-fi interpretation of New York City art deco. Nathalie Trad takes sci-fi to another level with her Astrid minaudière (£655). Inspired, like Totengco, by the likes of Zaha Hadid, Trad created a mood board, imagining “an unfinished city, built as big and tall as possible”. Her monochrome pieces, with graphic black lines and grey patina, have a brutalist quality that will appeal to the sort of women who love Yohji Yamamoto.
Lolita Lorenzo is another brand whose designs have a rich narrative, but rather than architecture, founder Carol Muthiga takes travel as her inspiration. Her Palmares minaudière (€1,578) is made to order from Plexiglas, fabric and gold-plated brass, and takes you on a high-gloss trip to Africa with bright blue, yellow and fuchsia elements, inset with distinct wax-print batik. It’s an extraordinary, modern minaudière that combines jewel-like qualities with sci-fi sheen. Similarly, Bea Valdes’ colourful embroidered minaudières (such as the Talisman clutch, $2,950) have a strong sense of place, featuring delicate beading handcrafted in a workshop in Manila. “I’ve always believed that objects should tell their own stories,” says Valdes, “and at our workshop we really celebrate the art of beadwork.”
Of course, the major Paris-based fashion houses constantly reinvent their accessories, and collaborating with an artist is a particularly exciting way to freshen their appeal – the minaudière is nothing if not a blank canvas. This season Dior commissioned Marc Quinn to work on a selection of classic Lady Dior bags and wallets, including a Croisière clutch (£800) bearing one of Quinn’s photorealist orchids, first seen in the artist’s In the Night Garden series. This flower appears to have been refracted through hallucinatory filters, its colours inverted to negative. It’s a powerful image, subverting something that could otherwise appear banal.
Every fashion brand has its own DNA and how it develops a minaudière can be one of the most expressive interpretations of its aesthetic. At Saint Laurent, this season’s clutch (£655), in black calfskin, has a metallic gold ruff sliced across it on the diagonal, creating a minaudière reminiscent of something Jerry Hall might have danced around at Studio 54.
The new Jimmy Choo Cloud Tube (£1,795) has a more contemporary take on high glamour. In anthracite lace decorated with crystals and pearls and topped with a highly polished sculptural knot clasp, the minaudière channels the spirit of both The Snow Queen and Frank Gehry, but equally embodies the ethos of the quintessential Jimmy Choo shoe – delicate and fantastical in equal measure.
“Alexander McQueen, Bottega Veneta, Ethan K and Judith Leiber are among our bestselling minaudières, and each has its own distinctive style,” says Helen David, fashion director at Harrods. “Judith Leiber’s, for example, have an element of fun and novelty and her fantasy designs of crystal cupcakes and fan-shaped bags are always a hit.” Those at Alexander McQueen are the most embellished – the exquisite metalwork on the black Knuckle Duster clutch (£1,995) takes its lead from the label’s runway gowns. Bottega Veneta’s minaudières (such as the Knot Boutis Snake clutch, £1,405) use the label’s signature woven snakeskin, while Ethan K’s designs (£4,050) often feature a distinctive metal animal.
Judith Leiber is one of the biggest names in the minaudière universe and has built up an enthusiastic corps of collectors since the brand opened for business in 1963. Creative director Jana Matheson’s recent visit to Château des Milandes in the Dordogne, once the home of the famous jazz singer Josephine Baker, was the starting point for this autumn’s Jazz Age collection. “I drew inspiration from her costumes, jewellery and pet cheetah, Chiquita,” says Matheson, referencing a design ($5,495) in the shape of a dazzlingly patterned big cat. “Another that I called Les Rêves [$4,695] was inspired by the tile work in Josephine’s favourite room, her bathroom – it is richly decorated with geometric patterns in jet crystal and bright gold.” But Matheson’s favourite new piece is Jazz Age ($1,495) in resin, brass and crystal: “It’s clean and modern, but with a nod to vintage cigarette cases and decadent art deco diamond-encrusted cuffs.”
Some minaudière designers have come from other disciplines, enticed by the opportunity to focus all their creative energies on something with exquisite potential. Rafé’s Totengco, for example, started out as a fashion designer, while Paris-based designer Sylvia Toledano used to be a painter. “I use Swarovski crystals just as I did my oil paints,” she says of the swirling topographical lines and pop-art images on her minaudières (from €1,300). “My current malachite clutch is inspired by my travels through India and in particular my visits to Jaipur, which many people call the ‘jeweller’s city’; I always find new stones there. I also designed a bag inspired by my childhood in Africa. I have had a wooden Ashanti doll – believed in Ghana to influence fertility – for a very long time, and I wanted to incorporate it into a clutch. I view it as a talisman, but with a sense of humour.”
The romance of travel is something that luggage brands naturally have a handle on, and none more so than Louis Vuitton. When creative director Nicolas Ghesquière joined the company in 2013, he took inspiration for his Petite Malle minaudière from various trunks Vuitton had created between 1911 and 1929 for French businessman Albert Khan. The range (from £3,500 to £26,600 for the crocodile version), which miniaturises the scale of the trunks, has become a permanent fixture in the accessories collection. There’s a lovely cream rendition (£4,200) featuring a “J”, inspired by a trunk made for the Croisière Jaune, the 1932 Citroën car rally. And new this autumn is an embellished Petite Malle with green and silver sequins (£3,800).
The minaudière is the epitome of the luxury accessory. Designed to hold very little, it is as much an object of display as it is functional. And, like the ultra-high heel, its lack of practicality is offset by its beauty and sheer desirability. It did not surprise me in the least when Totengco told me, “I have had women buy eight of my bags at a time.” Or when Ana Maria Pimentel, fashion director for women’s accessories at Neiman Marcus, confided, “I’ve heard so many women say that the minaudières sit on the mantelpiece when they’re not in their hands at a party.”