A large, multicoloured woven shopper was a surprise accessory at Dior’s spring/summer 2018 catwalk show. Although reminiscent of the beach totes that can be found in any tourist resort, its intricate pattern was a masterwork of hand-guided machine embroidery on canvas, its bold centre stripe emblazoned with the French fashion house’s name. Long before it hit the shops, the Dior Book Tote was slung over the arms of Hollywood’s finest, top editors and influencers, where a lustrous leather, hardware-adorned bag might have previously hung.
This is the high-profile tip of a fast-growing iceberg. Luxury brands are taking materials such as rattan, straw, raffia and canvas and treating them with the same care and attention as they would high-end materials. What’s more, they are employing techniques more commonly associated with cottage industries – such as weaving, macramé and crocheting – to create pieces with a more handmade appeal.
The Book Tote is a prime example of the high-low combination – a beach bag made to the highest standards of design and craft, and correspondingly pricey. “I don’t like to think in hierarchical terms, in life or materials,” explains Dior designer Maria Grazia Chiuri. “I like the challenge of mixing materials considered humble with extremely fine processes, experimenting with demanding techniques usually reserved for precious objects or couture.” She already sees the Book Tote as a house icon: “It’s incredibly functional, holds anything, is contemporary and customisable, so it’s unique.” It has already had several iterations since its debut, been elevated in embroidered toile de Jouy (£2,100), which takes 42 hours, and with kaleidoscopic flowers (£2,100), while the multicoloured, embroidered canvas has returned on the Diorcamp Messenger bag (£2,350).
Another example comes courtesy of Loewe, which had huge success with its first high-end version of the craft beach tote (£295): a basket handwoven from palm leaves and accented with the house’s signature leather. For the new season, creative director Jonathan Anderson’s imagination has run riot. Raffia baskets have patterns of contrasting woven leather (£1,525) or are studded with pigeon-egg-size crystals (£550). Further high-low contrast comes in the form of the popular Gate bag (from £775), made from tactile woven raffia with a contrasting leather flap. The Barcelona flap bag (£2,100) has woven straw stripes, the edges hand-thonged, while soft straw shoulder bags (£1,995) sprout brilliant feathers. A battery of different specialist craftspeople is involved in the making of these pieces. The designer has long enjoyed elevating homespun-looking materials and techniques such as macramé and crochet in his own JW Anderson collections; this season that includes bags (£1,570) with webs of macramé backed with woven straw and leather.
Moynat’s creative director Ramesh Nair says the brand’s wicker Cabotin Escapade bag (£6,250) is made “by a French cooperative, founded in 1849, the same year as Moynat, of 25 artisans who cultivate, select and work the material. I was musing about picnic baskets and our 1870s English trunk with a wicker structure that made it light and sturdy. What makes a material noble or humble is what we do with it and the value it brings – the refinement of technique and design that elevates it to artistry”. Chanel’s pert box bags (£6,710) in handwoven rattan are backed with soft calfskin, while its braided-straw shopper bags (£3,390) feature the house’s signature chain and leather strap. Delvaux crafts bags in its native Belgium, but the ultra-smooth raffia used in its D to D MM Bohème style (£1,900) is woven with Belgian linen in Italy and sent back to its atelier to be assembled. Italy also supplies the woven raffia for Jimmy Choo’s Marianne shopper (£995) with its silky velvet handles and trim. “I thought a lot about how this bag would feel and be used,” says creative director Sandra Choi. “The velvet – not a summer material – is the surprise that elevates it, alongside raffia woven by experts, with whom we evolve traditional methods so they’re relevant to today’s needs.”
Many of these bags are highly refined versions of the ones Mediterranean women took to market long before Riviera chic, so it’s not surprising that Provençal native Simon Porte Jacquemus scores a summer bullseye with his oversize fringe-edged straw bags ($408). Elsewhere, Dorothee Schumacher’s fringed bag (£125) is handmade from traditional weaving paper, inspired by “Havana’s mix of grandeur and roughness, and the way its people create something new from available materials”. Stella McCartney’s version (£625) looks charmingly homespun, with a stitched signature, while Altuzarra’s raffia bag (£595) is crocheted in Italy and attached to a traditional Spanish espadrille-style base. And Michael Kors’ Sedona Messenger (£620) is crafted with a loose raffia weave and elevated with black leather accents.
Meanwhile, Hermès’ Musardine bag (price on request) in a herringbone Cuenca weave with a leather frame has a hint of surrealism, inspired by a 1953 design by Aline Hermès. Etro, too, succumbs to traditional crafts, swapping its boho prints for embroidered, multicoloured weaves (£1,125). At Salvatore Ferragamo, womenswear creative director Paul Andrew explores raffia, which was used by the house during the second world war when leather was in short supply, with the likes of the top-handled bag (£1,370) and lidded bucket (£1,645). “[These are] now timeless warm-weather essentials, with their lightness and neutral shades. Luxury pieces don’t always entail precious materials if they are high quality, durable and finely crafted.”
According to The Modist’s buying manager Suzanna Cadbury the move towards traditional craft reflects the desire for authenticity and “something made with love that has a story to tell and is original enough not to be a one-season trend piece. Often these are from small, lesser-known brands whose interesting designs and high quality make them a talking point, such as Wai Wai’s exquisite leather-lined, rattan or cane box (from £545) or bucket bag (£705).”
Smaller labels compete by seeking even smaller-scale skilled artisans from around the world. “Customers are engaged with sustainability and brands that use natural materials, support local communities and home-working women artisans,” says Net‑a‑Porter’s global buying director Elizabeth von der Goltz. Muzungu Sisters gets its designs made in eight countries, working with artisans to refine designs for a sophisticated market. The Sicilian coffa basket (£310) is made from local straw collected and woven by one elderly man and decorated with pompoms and mirrors by one woman – each takes three days. Women from the remote Wayuu tribe in Colombia, whose motifs are individual to each weaver, make tasselled bags (£150) coloured for modern tastes. “Our background in international development fieldwork set us looking for the best cooperatives and family businesses,” says co-founder Dana Alikhani. “Our aim is authenticity – we and our customers want to help these crafts in today’s world. Few young people want to work in craft, and cheap copies affect shoppers’ appreciation of the originals. But a real coffa lasts – people often inherit their mother’s basket”
Lorna Watson has set up a workshop in Bali for her contemporary brand Stelar. She became intrigued by the island’s artisan weaving which, she says, is dying out. “We started working with higher-value materials like local leather. Then, last year, Mount Agung erupted and the weaving families were evacuated to camps. There, they started working with local ata grass, which they draw out until it becomes strong like steel wire, and now we have straw totes [£235] by default, made to clean-lined designs by an experienced local family firm with leather and metal trims.”
Whether created on a small or a large scale, this season’s designer handbags redefine the materials we associate with luxury.