Catwalk fashion and practicality are often unhappy bedfellows. Take handbags: for several seasons they’ve been getting smaller – a natural reaction to vast, hardware-strewn totes that, overfilled, became health hazards, the cause of many a backache or tense shoulder. Now the sac de jour is a little cross-body pouch, or this spring’s small, 1970s-revival saddlebag. So far so fashion, but not much help to the woman whose working life requires an iPad, some A4 files and a pair of flats in her bag, but who also wants to remain style-savvy. The designer riposte was to suggest that women carry two bags, often strapping a little replica micro-bag to the larger one – a great way to show off the breadth of a brand’s range but a fiddle too far in real life.
All of which explains why one of the single most desirable items at the spring shows was not a dress or a jacket but a bag. Jonathan Anderson’s appointment as creative director of Loewe was greeted with elation and perhaps some apprehension – was his undeniable “edge” too much for the historic Spanish leather brand? His answer to the critics is a revolutionary new design that is simultaneously of the moment and timeless, thoroughly “fashion” yet practical, and shows his talent for thinking, well, outside the bag.
The Puzzle (£12,950) is an elongated cube with slanting asymmetric seams; worked in supersoft skin (suede, leather or crocodile), it collapses flat onto a firm, rectangular base. “I set out to find a new way of building a bag, fundamentally questioning its structure,” says Anderson. “It was about deconstructing a conventional bag to create a tridimensional one that’s practical and modern. I wanted to see how far we could go and to use the softness that’s characteristic of Loewe to make something really innovative.” Travel-friendly, it packs flat in a suitcase, but fill it up, haul it onto your shoulder with the detachable strap and you have a very practical workbag that still has the slouchy, understated sports-luxe look currently so popular. For lighter loads the seams concertina to transform the Puzzle into a smaller bag, carried by the shorter, comfortably padded top handle. The colours, including russet, sand, navy and chocolate, work the topical 1970s vibe.
The Puzzle may be the vanguard of a new movement in “convertible” bags, but other brands are thinking along similar lines. Marni’s contribution is typically quirky. At first sight the Fold (£960) looks like a deep, soft, colour-blocked duffel bag with a drawstring fastening and zip‑teeth decoration. But the zip isn’t purely ornamental: it allows the lower part of the bag to be pushed up inside itself so that the black panel becomes the base of a shorter drawstring bag, with a smooth wooden handle and a thin detachable strap for cross-body wear. The secret lies in the flexible, very light leather. It’s visually arresting too, says Marni special project director Consuelo Castiglioni. “It’s an interesting shape when ‘closed’ and very capacious when unzipped and open, so it’s perfect for women’s dynamic lives.”
Zips are also a feature of the new 2.0 by Longchamp, one of the original architects of the foldable bag with its famous 1993 Pliage; made from nylon, its ability to pack flat was its raison d’être. The two-tone 2.0 (£435) is a sophisticated successor with a spiral zip (designed for Longchamp by Thomas Heatherwick in 2004) that shrinks the bag down to fit under the arm. It is aimed at what creative director Sophie Delafontaine describes as “the multitasking working woman” and is, she says, “the latest innovation in Longchamp’s rich history of designing adaptable, expanding bags”.
At Nancy Gonzalez, the Colombian exotic-skins accessories brand, there are two multitasking bags worth singling out. “Our foldover clutch [£1,600] works for evening or – unfolded with a strap – as a cross-body day bag,” says creative director Santiago Gonzalez, “while the extendable tote [about £2,850] is structured when folded in and informal and utilitarian when opened out.” Skin quality is paramount to the folding, adds Gonzalez. “We razor the back of the skin until it’s soft as fabric, a technique carried out by highly trained artisans.”
The sueded bullskin on Asprey’s Harbour bag (£2,800) is so velvety it folds perfectly into an opulent clutch, its two top handles caught in a clasp. “A bag that can be worn in several ways appeals to many women,” says its designer Katie Hillier. “It transforms an outfit from day to evening to create an entirely different look.” Florian’s Marilyn bag (£350) in soft textured leather also folds perfectly, but its solid base gives it body when extended to its full size. And Issey Miyake’s multifaceted Lucent Prism tote (£295) is made from highly technical triangular panels (on a mesh lining for extra flexibility). Folding along the panels changes the shape and size of the bag in multiple different ways.
A trapezoid bag with fold-out ends for extra space has been popular with working women for several years, with Céline’s Luggage the go-to model. This season’s flapover version (from £1,750) follows the same silhouette but also tucks neatly under the arm. A simple tote is another strong option, though traditional “floppy” ones don’t cut it. Today’s modern incarnations are not unstructured but are, once again, deconstructed, this time by material. New techniques for treating and lining skins allow for much lighter finishes and increased flexibility, so even large bags squash down elegantly when not full, then spring back into shape.
Jérôme Dreyfuss’s knack of making the leather looked lived in has given his designs cult status, and the Carlos tote (£805) is both expansive and tactile. Meanwhile Belgian brand Delvaux’s Givry With Me Polo bag (£2,000), with its slouchy, pillowy form, is “soft and capacious yet elegant and feminine”, says product director Christina Zeller, who, like Gonzalez, emphasises the importance of sourcing the right skins and shaving them finely to create such softness.
At Anya Hindmarch, skins have been shaved and backed with fine suede for suppleness and strength; the name of its Ebury Maxi Featherweight (£895) says it all. Prada’s Double bag (£1,630) is so deconstructed the suede inside is the reverse of the saffiano leather outside, with near weightless results, while Theory’s soft suede bag (£500) has an ultra-light, bonded lining. Classic British brands are also adopting these new techniques; Modalu’s new Heirloom tote (£395) is crafted in fine Italian leather with a bonded suede lining, its interesting colour combinations (yellow with cobalt blue or grey with turquoise) a world away from traditional British bridle leather.
This is a trend where lack of choice is not a problem – and neither is choosing which items you carry to work. With these bags you can have it all.