What is the recipe for an “It” bag? It should be an easy question for the woman who, in 1997, cooked up the Baguette. Despite this, Silvia Venturini Fendi still laughs when asked about the magic ingredients in a bag that has been sold more than a million times and made in over 1,000 iterations. “Oh my God, I have no idea! If I knew that I could make one every year.”
For all her protestations, as the brand’s creative director of accessories for more than two decades – she went on to create the Peekaboo in 2008 and then charmed a new generation with quirky, customisable Bag Bugs – Venturini Fendi knows more than most about what makes a bag take hold. “These things come when it’s the right bag at the right time,” she says, perching on a gold velvet sofa in the Palazzo Fendi in Rome. “The idea for the Baguette came in an organic way. It was when everything was so functional and this was a bag with a personality.”
This spring the Baguette is back. Did it ever really go away? The slender, unstructured, logo-clasped design, widely acknowledged to have put the “It” in what was previously just called a “hit”, has remained firmly in the style consciousness. But this feels like an apt moment for a full-on relaunch: fashion is in the grip of a highly styled, archly idiosyncratic phase and the character-driven Baguette will fit right in. Fendi is not alone in reprising its greatest hits; Versace, Prada and Dior are all reissuing iconic pieces that appeal to older fans and new ones too. “We like change, but there’s also a bit of nostalgia,” says Venturini Fendi. “It’s nice to see things come back, but in a different way.”
The Baguette has certainly moved with the times. For a start, it now comes in multiple sizes and with detachable straps so that it can be worn as a cross-body bag, as well as over the shoulder. There are plush, monogrammed, butter-soft leather varieties in delicious colours such as lemon, purple, turquoise (embossed leather Baguette, £2,190) and bubblegum pink; others (denim Baguette, £1,690) come in denim with colourful stitched edges – and then there are the embroidered and embellished versions (embroidered jacquard and Swarovski crystal Baguette, £4,590, embroidered jacquard Baguette, £2,190, and embroidered jacquard Baguette, £4,590) with bejewelled clasps, elaborate beading and colourful tassels that recall the rich decoration of their forerunners. There are are also techniques on show – such as beautiful matelassé leather (for the aforementioned monogrammed designs) with a quilted appearance – that would not have been possible 20 years ago. Although, as the designer is quick to point out, the Baguette has always been experimental.
When she started on the original design in 1996, the fashion landscape was much less colourful: still in the grip of 1990s minimalism, Prada’s black nylon backpack ruled. Venturini Fendi had taken over as head of accessories just a couple of years before and although she was charged with designing a practical bag, she also noted how mobile phones were already becoming more compact. “I thought about a small bag to wear with a short strap in an ergonomic way so that you can still use your hands.”
But the bag’s inspiration had deeper roots. “My grandmother had a collection of beautiful beaded bags from the 1920s and ’30s – I always had them in my mind,” the designer recalls. Growing up, she was always drawn to the room of evening bags in the family’s Rome store: “Instead of playing with dolls I used to come to the atelier; there was a grey velvet room that had little vitrines with all the evening bags in them – in satin, in crocodile, and then the most beautiful decoration… flowers, exotic designs. I played with them for hours.”
When she came up with her first designs for the Baguette, however, the in-house reaction was muted. Small and simple, it was practical in that it could be tucked under the arm – hence it was named after the French loaf, carried the same way – but compared to that Prada backpack, it seemed a frippery. Yet its creator was confident. The Baguette was soft and unstructured in the same way that Fendi furs were famed for their lightness. And crucially, the bags, in denim, cashmere, leather or fur, were also the perfect blank canvas for surface decoration. They could be adorned with kaleidoscopic hand embroideries and beading, intricate stones and extravagant appliqués, just like the vintage bags that had inspired her… except these were for daytime too.
There followed one-of-a-kind pieces made with artists such as Damien Hirst, Francesco Vezzoli and Jeff Koons, and ultra-precious Baguettes in silk brocades and velvets made with the Fondazione Arte della Seta Lisio, where the exquisite fabrics were created by hand on 17th‑century looms. “They can make just 4cm of the material each day – can you imagine?” the designer exclaims.
The rarefied materials and decoration were a production nightmare. Mirrors, beading, silk thread, crystals, silk satin all came from different suppliers and, combined with the small teams of artisans at Fendi, led to growing waiting lists. It was, she says, the ultimate anti‑mass-production bag. Far from putting customers off, it had the opposite effect: “We thought, ‘As long as we love it, we will do it’ – and people were with us on this. They would wait months to have it.”
Within a year of launching, the bag became a fashion phenomenon and fundamentally changed the handbag scene. It was, the designer points out, the first bag that had its own name. Before it, memorable bags like the Hermès Kelly or Birkin took on the name of the elegant women who carried them, but the Baguette would kick off an era of bags that had the starring role – their own personality: Chloé’s Paddington and Mulberry’s Bayswater followed in its wake and would be huge commercial hits for those brands.
Venturini Fendi says the Baguette’s success really hit home for her when the boutique called the studio to let her know that Madonna had arrived in the Rome store to buy some. But classicists were equally enamoured, with a broad church of admirers from Charlotte Casiraghi to Catherine Zeta-Jones. Joan Burstein, the eternally chic co-founder of Browns, is such a fan that she built a collection she has described as being “soft, practical and always in style”. Her favourite Baguette, in simple grey cashmere, is a perfect example of how they can be understated too. Many of Burstein’s Baguettes were stolen in a burglary – a plot twist that echoes the Sex and the City storyline that made the Baguette a pop-culture sensation.
Fendi was the first luxury house to take a chance and lend pieces to stylist Patricia Field for the first season of the show in 1998, and she repaid their faith in her by making the bag one of its stars. In one episode, Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie Bradshaw was mugged for her treasured purple accessory (another two episodes would have storylines on the bag). When the mugger told her to give him “the bag”, she set him right, squeaking back: “It’s a Baguette!”
For the Fendis, who had long collaborated with directors including Visconti, Fellini and Zeffirelli, taking a chance on a new television series was a calculated risk – and they liked the plot based around a group of women who were crazy about fashion. “It was very similar to us,” Venturini Fendi reflects. “We are a company of women and we thought it was a very good story. What we didn’t expect was the success.”
The bag’s popularity fundamentally changed the business too. In 1999, following the Baguette’s stellar performance, LVMH bought a quarter of the house, before paying $225m to double its stake and take control of the brand two years later, when annual sales were around €289m. By 2017, annual sales were estimated to be around €1.2bn with double-digit growth.
For Rachel Koffsky, handbag and accessories specialist at Christie’s London, the longevity of the Baguette is all about the versatility of Venturini Fendi’s original design: “She created a prototype for a handbag that could be modified in seemingly infinite ways. No embellishment was too fantastical; creativity reigned supreme. The It bag life cycle is generally about two years, but the Baguette has outlasted this lifespan 10 times by constantly evolving to suit the trends of the season or the style of a client. If you haven’t seen a Baguette perfect for you yet, you probably just haven’t seen enough.”
Predictably, the Baguette has also become a collector’s item, fetching high prices at auction. Koffsky’s favourite past lots at Christie’s include one in monogrammed silk that belonged to Elizabeth Taylor, and a canary-yellow calfskin Baguette with multicoloured beaded flowers and fringing. The most avid collector Venturini Fendi has met had over 500 of them.
Arguably, though, it is craft that has made the Baguette into a museum-worthy handbag. At Fendi, these age-old skills have always been at the heart of the operation. “Before, there was a separation between artisan and designer. But for me to work directly with artisans is so inspiring, because they have ideas, which helps us do new things,” Venturini Fendi enthuses.
The night before we meet, the company has thrown a party for some of its longest-serving employees, but it’s the young artisans rising up that will also ensure its future. To that end, the company has specialist schools (the bag school is based in Florence), where students come at 18 or in their early 20s after a university degree and the best then go on to work for the company. For Venturini Fendi this nurturing of talent is fundamental in terms of future-proofing the company – that, and never resting on her laurels. “You should never say, ‘Oh, look what I’ve achieved’. The moment you think you’ve arrived is the moment you can go home.”