Handbags with art at their heart

A clutch of strikingly beautiful, masterfully constructed handbags, whose design cues stem from art or architecture, are worthy of being put on a pedestal. Avril Groom reports

Gabriela Hearst leather Diana accordion bag, $2,495
Gabriela Hearst leather Diana accordion bag, $2,495

From Elsa Schiaparelli’s surrealist 1930s collaborations with Dalí to Yves Saint Laurent’s de stijl dresses in the 1960s, fashion has always rubbed shoulders with art and cultural movements. Over the past decade, these worlds have forged a closer connection – with the rise of vast luxury brand-funded cultural projects like Fondation Louis Vuitton and Fondazione Prada, and artists of note creating permanent installations for fashion flagships. So it’s perhaps no surprise that the simplest form of tribute – fashion directly inspired by an artist or aesthetic movement – continues to emerge.

While art-inspired clothes are not easily carried off, accessories are fertile territory – and handbags are currently stealing the show. No longer just highly prized as long-lasting investments for the wardrobe, the best bags are now miniature art objects in themselves. These precious examples of supreme creativity and craft are worthy of being put on a pedestal and displayed as much as being carried. Take Gabriela Hearst’s gorgeous single-colour leather accordion bag ($2,495): its links to surrealism are clear, and, like Schiaparelli’s balloon or telephone-dial bags almost a century ago, it’s a masterpiece to behold.

Roksanda leather bag, £575
Roksanda leather bag, £575

Designers are also manipulating tricky materials like exotic skins and wood to achieve unexpected visual effects and art-gallery gravitas. And while highly decorative surface embellishments such as embroidery and beading still have their place, the focus has turned to shape, structure and the art of composing bags – leading to striking pieces akin to sculpture and structures that borrow from both art and architecture.

The word Memphis has been cropping up this season and in keeping with the 1980s nostalgia that underlies current clothing collections, many handbag designers have tapped into the spirit of the Milan-based, postmodernist Memphis design group – which in that decade created everything from ceramics to furniture and buildings – and its playful linking of geometric shapes and bright colours.

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Mansur Gavriel designers Rachel Mansur and Floriana Gavriel have opted for pure geometry in bright shades – a sawn‑off circle (from $695) or the whimsical, wave-sided Ocean bag ($695) – to achieve “clean, perfect forms in beautiful leather that, with subtle, luxurious detailing, become functional art objects”.

The precise geometry of the new Moynat collection is also typical of this movement. The brand’s cubic, loop-handled Mini Vanity trunk has been joined by a hatbox-like cut-off drum (from £3,460), a perfect pyramid (from £3,460) and studded deconstructed trunks (from £3,500). The latter – composed of various segmented cubes that are pieced together, like a 3D jigsaw puzzle, to create a sculptural shape – seem like mysterious receptacles for cult objects, as if they were intended as jewel or watch boxes as much as evening bags. “The precision work required to make these bags, with their wood interior structure, is incredible, especially as they’re so small,” says Moynat creative director Ramesh Nair. “Every detail is under scrutiny, so each stitch or stud has to be perfect.”

From left: Delvaux calfskin Madame Mini shoulder bag, £2,150. Valextra calfskin Iside bag, £2,750. Moynat leather mini trunks, from £3,500, and leather pyramid handbag, from £3,460
From left: Delvaux calfskin Madame Mini shoulder bag, £2,150. Valextra calfskin Iside bag, £2,750. Moynat leather mini trunks, from £3,500, and leather pyramid handbag, from £3,460

The new summer versions, in soft, bright colours, were influenced by Memphis founder Ettore Sottsass’s travels in India, as well as the work of Charles Eames. Displayed on gallery-style stands so there’s no mistaking their inspiration, they have an alluring abstract surface design in fine leather inlay handwork.

Perrin Paris, the family-run leather accessories company, took inspiration from sculpture-led Memphis-group artist Peter Shire, alongside the vibrant colours of suntan product packaging, to create colour-block leather marquetry versions of the Cabriolet clutch (£1,200) and Le Seau bag (£1,295); while Sacai’s Chitose Abe finetuned a precise patchwork of squares (from £825) in characteristic Memphis shades. Delvaux, meanwhile, has created a punchy, colour-blocked small shoulder bag (£2,150), as well as a top-handled Brillant design (£5,400) in which the colour effect showcases superb precision marquetry.

Verbreuil alligator La Gare bag, large €23,550
Verbreuil alligator La Gare bag, large €23,550

There is equal intricacy in the distinctive geometric (and mainly rigid) forms created by Verbreuil, established by Sylvie Véron Hériard-Dubreuil in 2015. This season, her styles – ranging from the signature La Gare (large €23,550), with its striking slanted wedge profile, to the two-handled Callihours (from €2,880) and the softer-silhouetted Tranicq (from €990) – appear in both classic and bright, modern shades inspired by the painters David Hockney and Edouard Vuillard, and in a variety of sizes and skins from calf through python to alligator.

Roksanda Ilincic’s clothing designs draw on art and architectural movements such as Russian constructivism and dadaism, and her recent venture into handbags continues the theme. Her minimal, geometric shapes (£575) are some of the most tactile and superficially simple, yet difficult to construct: fine leather is hand-stretched around a wooden mould and stitched so the seams are unobtrusive. “Though this is not a new technique, it’s unusual,” explains Ilincic, who says her aim was to design “a timeless object. The bags have structure built in between the leather and the lining to hold their shape, like a man’s tailored jacket.” They are also modular so you can add on the little evening version in a slightly different shape.

Clockwise from left: Versace calfskin and bead Warhol Marilyn handbag, about £3,060. Prada calfskin Elektra bag, £1,720. Mansur Gavriel calfskin Ocean handbag, $695
Clockwise from left: Versace calfskin and bead Warhol Marilyn handbag, about £3,060. Prada calfskin Elektra bag, £1,720. Mansur Gavriel calfskin Ocean handbag, $695

Louis Vuitton’s new Square bag (£1,360), a futuristic, sculpted cube (carried suspended at the corner) was teamed with 18th century-inspired jackets on the catwalk – part of designer Nicolas Ghesquière’s statement on mixing historic style with new. Fashioned in high-tech, rubber-coated scuba material and lined with black microfibre, it is finished with a leather handle and a metal shoulder-bag chain. Counterbalancing it is the Petite Boîte Chapeau (£2,800), constructed using the brand’s traditional trunk-making technique but in a striking silver Epi leather for a contemporary, display-worthy finish.

Working directly with an artist often adds the dimension of individuality that elevates a bag to art object status. Prada’s work with feminist cartoonists Trina Robbins and Brigid Elva has resulted in striking appliquéd, layered bags (£1,720), which are essentially the artists’ canvas. Meanwhile, Versace has referenced pop art with a 1991 Warhol Marilyn print (about £3,060) and an elaborate handle composed of clusters of oversized beads and baubles that would make anyone stop in their tracks.

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Multimedia artist Bethan Laura Wood’s work is as flamboyant as her personal style and her collaboration with once-classic Italian brand Valextra for this season is highly original. Entitled Toothpaste, it is based, she says, “on a combination of the signature black, hand-lacquered edge of Valextra bags, the Mexico '68 Olympics logo and the curvy work of the graphic artists at design agencyM/MParis”. As an artist used to producing one-offs in her studio, the challenge of working on volume production, yet still at an artisanal level, meant looking to the sculptor and artist Eduardo Paolozzi, “who explored links between art and mass production”.

“I love Paolozzi’s mixes of pastels and pop shades and I wanted to merge Valextra’s minimal forms with my more maximal aesthetic,” she says. Taking the brand’s classic Iside and Passepartout styles (both £2,750), she has added bold, curving, geometric stripes with a leather inlay technique she also uses for furniture, and has created whimsical brass and acetate clasps and handles in abstract forms.

Sophie Hulme’s new collection, The Project, reuses surplus leather for inlaid, geometric, colour-blocked designs (from £440) and includes a special edition collaboration with the illustrator Rose Blake, daughter of Peter Blake: a gallery scene of abstract canvases, made from a mix of leather offcuts, intarsia and print, that wraps round the Exchange tote (£1,750).

“Sophie is an old friend and the idea evolved organically as a combination of my fine-art style and her design expertise,” says Blake. While tapping into their combined art and architectural inspirations – Sonia Delaunay, Josef Albers, Donald Judd and Frank Lloyd Wright for Hulme; Hockney, Matisse and Picasso for Blake – they experimented to find new ways of achieving the best finish, working in saddle leather, which, Hulme explains, allows very precise geometric work. Available in just one colourway, it involves many different offcut shades – so when one runs out, production will stop.

These bags are designed to be treasured – but, as ever, the canny art collector will move fast.

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