It was, as we all know, the launch of Fendi’s Baguette in 1997 that irrevocably changed the way handbags are regarded. Seemingly overnight, they became objects of immense desire. Waiting lists for those eager to acquire the latest It bag became a major trend and fashion journalists began to write about them intensely, as if they were a matter of huge social import. Few seemed to mind that everybody else they knew lusted after the same design; bagging one, and showing that you knew the current hot ticket, was all part of the allure.
But while the appeal of eternal classics – such as Chanel’s 2.55, Hermès’ Birkin or Dior’s Saddle – never seems to fade, there are far too many lovely numbers out there for a single design to claim the top spot. On top of that, a band of niche designers, many of whom cut their teeth working with bigger, better-known brands, have come up with some charming lines of their own.
Take Nicholas Knightly, Louis Vuitton’s current leather goods design director and the former creative director of Mulberry, where he designed the Bayswater – still the brand’s bestselling bag some 15 years later. Three years ago he quietly launched his own line of bags, called Mallet & Co. “I am fascinated by brands and how to build them,” he tells me. “I wanted to see if I could start something very small and build it from zero.” He started with some slouchy totes in sophisticated colours (oyster, mushroom and pale blue, as well as black), made in a factory in Italy from ultra-soft leather and with as little external detail as possible. “I want these to be forever bags,” he says. “I’m not interested in making things that don’t last.” Knightly offers just four designs: the Laurie, a large, easy tote available in lots of colours; the Hanbury, a more formal bag; the Archie, which comes in two sizes and can be worn as a crossbody; and the Holland, a smaller, less slouchy tote, which comes in black and dark blue or black and burgundy stripes. He wants to grow the company, but slowly, in his own time: “If and when we find some like-minded souls who want to invest, then we might grow faster – but I’m not rushing anything.”
Fabrizio Viti – another from Louis Vuitton’s stable, as the brand’s current shoe style director – launched his own footwear line in 2016 and has this year released his first handbag, inspired by the line’s signature cage sandal. The daisy-embellished bucket style, which is made in Italy, has a silk inner pouch for keeping valuables safe and comes with a removable long strap and top handle for more elegant occasions.
Then there’s Alvaro González. In the 1990s, he designed handbags and shoes for Valentino, before coming up with the first bag at Tod’s (dubbed the D bag because it was a favourite of Diana, Princess of Wales), and then later working for Jimmy Choo. In 2013, he started his own line, Alvaro, out of a need for “pieces that were useful to my husband and me while travelling – we live between Florence and London and so we are always on a plane.” His latest design is the Apollo – a simple yet supremely elegant small bag that can be worn crossbody and is just big enough to hold a phone, credit cards, a passport and boarding card. It’s one of his most successful bags, and as many men as women love it. “I try to design functional, clean, simple things that people really need. It’s only when I design for other brands that I give them some embellishment and make more of a statement.” Other bags include the Agata, a soft bucket bag, and the Amina, a big, slouchy clutch with a drawstring. Another classic of his is a beauty pouch that’s the same volume as the clear plastic ones airlines insist we put our lipsticks and creams in. “This means nobody has to think about how much to take when travelling with just a carry-on.” All the pieces are made in small ateliers around Florence, where he lives.
Barcelona-born Isaac Reina used to work for Hermès, under Véronique Nichanian. He’s another designer who goes for a refined minimalism – his shapes are clean yet sophisticated and inspired by geometry. “I make very simple goods, without any pretention. Almost industrial, mass-market shapes, but very high quality. I am trying to forget the traditional iconography used for luxury. The things that matter are beautiful materials, beautiful craftsmanship and the right proportions.” All his bags are designed and made in Paris using French and Italian leathers. His range includes spacious totes, shoulder bags and a chic triangular crossbody.
Tina Lutz once worked for Calvin Klein in New York and Issey Miyake in Paris, but these days has her own line of handbags called Lutz Morris. She was inspired by a beautifully made, gold-framed cigar box her husband gave her, which she used to store pens. After moving back to her native Germany, she tracked down the company that made it and decided to use the frame as the hallmark of her new line. “This collection,” she says, “is for the woman who doesn’t want everything – just a few of the right things.” The leather comes from just outside Düsseldorf; the chain straps are hand-soldered in the Black Forest. Each bag is based around the same thin, gold frame and has little compartments to hold essentials. Some designs feature snakeskin or crocodile patterns, while her latest has an almost Mondrian-like print. There are boxy shoulder bags, belt bags and crossbody designs. For every bag sold, $10 is given to Every Mother Counts, a charity dedicated to making pregnancy and childbirth safe for mothers everywhere.
Similarly structured designs come from Danielle Corona, who cut her teeth working in accessories at Valentino before launching Hunting Season in 2006. The range, all made in her own factory in Colombia, consists of exquisitely timeless handbags that combine simple design with the very finest materials. Corona has designed elegant top-handle, drawstring and trunk-shaped bags, which are available in two-tone woven plátano and leather, lizard and plush velvet.
Innis was conceived by London-based designers Innis and Alexandra Foulkes, both of whom previously worked for cult accessories brand J&M Davidson. They too champion a simple aesthetic. Their collection of seven styles is beautifully made by hand at an atelier in Italy. What stand out are the snake-printed leathers, striking two-tone designs and glorious hues – from dusty pink to vibrant orange. There’s the elegant Tutti Tote bag, available in large, medium, and small and a range of shoulder, crossbody and top-handle styles, all lined with soft nappa leather. Their USP is that they are hard to come by, mostly sold at twice-yearly salons privés in London (the next will be in November) or by appointment from the brand’s Bayswater studio.
Designer Serra Türker used to work for Tocca in New York, but these days has her own line of accessories, Misela, which focuses on handbags. She’s something of a byword in her native Turkey, where her shops in Pera and Bodrum have become cult destinations for the fashionable set. She’s also opened a shop on London’s Mount Street. Not known for her the minimalist aesthetic; she goes for quilted leather bags in muted hues with contrasting-coloured top handles and drawstring lace bags in magenta, beige and blue with long tassels.
All these designers have thought long and hard about their new designs. Each has delivered up something that is personal, different, and that, above all, you are unlikely to find swinging on the arms of anyone else.