The handbag is the accessory of the moment, second only to fine jewellery as today’s luxury object of desire. There is no rationality: a staggering $379,261 was paid at a Christie’s auction in Hong Kong in May for an Hermès Birkin bag (though admittedly, one with 18ct gold and diamond trimmings). This was no vintage piece with a historic, starry provenance; it was a mere three years old. The frenzy was caused partly by the gems and partly the material – a gradient-shaded, matte white Nile crocodile called Himalaya, which is exceedingly rare and difficult to work and which, according to rumour, Hermès may shortly discontinue. “The business has changed beyond measure in the past five years,” says Christie’s international head of handbags and accessories Matt Rubinger. “People are beginning to see beautifully crafted, rare bags in the same investment light as a fine watch or jewellery piece.”
Hermès remains the nonpareil of bags, but this season there’s an abundance of magnificent craftwork, materials and design on offer. Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Fendi, Bottega Veneta and Dior are all producing highly covetable, mostly limited edition items, handmade in tiny quantities – often catwalk pieces or highly ornate occasion bags. Premium is now put as much on designs that set the pulse racing as on the best exotic skins. Maria Grazia Chiuri, Dior’s first female creative director, says the best bags “evoke a story, summing up and adapting to the personality of whoever has chosen them”. Top brands now balance their signature, more diffuse models with ornate, handcrafted styles that demand the plainest suit or dress to set them off, making them desirable one-stop wardrobe updates as well as objects of distinctive beauty and character. Rubinger agrees: “The best bags give me a lot to talk about – a complex story of design and precious materials finely crafted. In the 1980s and 1990s some brands put profit above all else. Hermès never did, Chanel only slightly, and they have held their cachet. But others are now getting the idea that absolute quality is the key to desirability – and that is driving the change.”
Chiuri has, surprisingly to some, toughened up Dior’s image, moving to a more contemporary, masculine-inflected aesthetic. “I’ve worked with our iconic bags, from the Dioraddict in our leatherwork tradition – which I’ve made cross-body, so that it can be worn in personalised ways, and given the cannage studded quilting that used to line Dior dress trunks – to the C’est Dior minaudière from the 1950s.” Decoration on the special editions, such as a small Dioraddict (£5,300) beaded with stars, cosmic symbols and angelic figures, and the metal-framed box bag (£5,300), beaded in gold on “velvet” lambskin or engraved with Cocteau-esque zodiac symbols (£4,100), reflect her interests in cosmology and skilled workshop crafts – interests Monsieur Dior himself shared. “The artisans and I decided to create luminous embroidery using metallic thread with leather, creating a pearly, almost lunar effect,” she says. “The minaudières are small yet demonstrate many crafts, from engraving and handpainting to technical metalwork, and encapsulate my interest in how moon phases affect women’s lives.”
Chanel still makes its classic 2.55, of course, but it, too, has stopped playing safe. Witness the small Gabrielle Hobo (£3,045) in ivory tweed, hand-embellished in gold, for the Métiers d’Art Paris Cosmopolite collection. There are many versions of this bag, all handworked using couture-style techniques, but only a few of each kind. Surprise and scarcity are their appeal; in this they’re different from the social media-incited popularity of the main autumn space-inspired bags – yet each has enhanced value for connoisseurs of handwork and well-off millennials alike.
At Louis Vuitton, Nicolas Ghesquière has also upgraded both the craftwork and individuality of its bags. Each season, certain shapes are made in small editions showing traditional trunk and bag makers’ crafts. The Petite Malle, made exactly like a miniature trunk in Vuitton’s historic Paris workshops, has become a collector’s item, each new season’s designs (which reflect details of the catwalk collections) eagerly awaited. The bag (£3,650) is now a slightly larger, more user-friendly shape, and autumn’s design is subtle, consisting of the screen-printed, monochrome Chantilly pattern taken from an original that appeared under a layer of black tulle on a romantic dress. The popular Twist chain-handled shoulder bag has been reworked in pastels (£2,700), as well as in a mix of leathers, monogrammed canvas and delicate, precision broguing (£2,710), reflecting Ghesquière’s signature masculine-feminine juxtapositions. All are made in very limited editions. Similarly, Bottega Veneta has evolved its bestselling Knot box clutch into a family of four designs that between them come in 15 limited versions, from hand‑inlaid Swarovski crystals (£4,195) on the original shape, through crocodile versions (£16,900) of the City Knot and a striking Olimpia Knot – worked in water snake in the characteristic intrecciato weave (£3,405), or in wool thread knitted so tightly it recreates the intrecciato (£3,060) – featuring a new version of the metal Knot clasp and an extra‑chunky metal chain to wear doubled as a shoulder strap or single for cross-body.
A change of designer can radically advance the aesthetics of bag design for a brand. Since Alessandro Michele became creative director at Gucci in 2015, the bags, like everything else, have become more ornate, exciting and varied, while retaining references to heritage details like the bamboo handle and webbing stripe. Gucci bags rarely feature at auctions, but the craft and sheer creativity of this season’s styles, reflecting Michele’s interest in wildlife, may change that, and they are Rubinger’s latest tip for investment. The pick is a bamboo-handled Broche bag (£3,160) in black or deep-red calfskin with a gold-embossed border and two large stag beetles; a tiny, crystal-winged, appliquéd bee; and a small second flap in natural snakeskin, precisely positioned to look like the body of the moulded, jewel-eyed fox-head clasp. It showcases Michele’s eye for detail, which is also evident in the frame-print bag (£3,230), with a copy of Jane Austen’s Juvenilia inside – recalling the early days of public transport, when women were given a bag with a book to read while travelling to avoid being bothered by men.
Here the variety is not just in colour or skin – there are crocodile, python and ostrich variants – but in design. Michele’s insect menagerie of bees, beetles, butterflies and moths appear as gold embossing, colourful prints and metal or resin appliqués on a variety of styles, the two most striking of which feature in one instance (£6,400) a white ostrich bag with a mother-of-pearl-finish resin moth and a webbing stripe inlay, and in the other, on the double-flap Ottilia (£2,840), a handprinted hawk moth and ladybirds and a parade of gold-metal appliqué butterflies, bees and lion heads around the locks.
An outsider’s eye can give a brand the shake-up it needs to make its accessories extra desirable. Spanish house Loewe, with its respected heritage in leather, has reached new creative heights under Northern Irish designer Jonathan Anderson, whose smash hit, soft‑geometry Puzzle bag has been followed this autumn by designs using handcraft techniques from the catwalk collection – namely, needle-punching, whereby handknitted Fair Isle-style motifs segue into plain soft calfskin (£2,175), or into suede (£2,175) overstitched and handprinted with whimsical polka dots, set into a frame of fine, precision leather piping in several colours. They are traditional crafts, used to quirkily modern effect. At Mulberry, Spanish designer Johnny Coca demonstrates an astute appreciation of both the brand’s affordable-luxury heritage and its craft tradition. He has wisely kept the bestselling Bayswater bag (reworked in cooler, laidback ways) and added more ambitious designs, such as this season’s sumptuous Brimley (£1,995), its crocodile-printed calfskin sporting a festoon of marquise Swarovski crystals, applied in Italy using jewellery techniques to resemble a glittering laurel wreath. Despite not being the “real thing”, its sheer beauty will likely make it desirable for many women, who will see a future heirloom for their daughters.
Prada’s little sister brand Miu Miu is similarly upgraded with a younger but equally luxurious viewpoint. This season there are 16 ultra-feminine variants on a fur-handled clutch bag, the best of them in python with a decadent Swarovski-crystal fringe and fox-fur strap, or with a contrast python “belt” and round crystal buckle (both bags £2,750; fox-fur strap, £505) – all in pale cachou colours, and undeniably distinctive.
When handbags approach jewellery in their ornament and intricacy, the jewellery brands themselves understandably enter the game. Preeminent among these is Bulgari, whose bags – with their precision-quality workmanship, including distinctive clasps worked in enamel and semiprecious stones – have long been a semi-secret pleasure for their fans. Now the intricacy extends to the leather, set either with a pattern of matte black studs interspersed with gold stars and contrasted with a border of colourful geometric shapes (£1,520), or with micro-studs outlining snake-scale shapes that have the look of an ornate quilt (£2,030). Bags for life and the future – and, compared to the house’s jewels, gold-edged bargains.