I first spotted them about two years ago – vivid little bags, bright as hummingbirds, dangling from the shoulders or wrists of Milan fashion’s finest. Each was decorated in a complex, precise inlay of different skins in shades that should not have worked together yet did, and added zest to any plain outfit – or even, in the hands of the truly confident, to a toning print. Soon I was noticing Paula Cademartori’s distinctive bags not just on the usual red-carpet suspects, but being whipped out of big, plain tote bags by chic Italian businesswomen lunching in Bice, to rest decoratively on the table.
Cademartori was in the vanguard of the latest movement in bag-dom: the portable treasure box. This is a matter of high craft and exquisite decoration, a suitably precious container in which to carry your most important, honed-down essentials. Brazilian-born, Italian-trained Cademartori, whose brand took off after she was a finalist in Italian Vogue’s Who is on Next? competition in 2011, spotted a gap in the market for bags between the workaday tote and the tiny evening bag. “Everyone needs a practical bag for their laptop, diary, sneakers and water bottle, but bags like my Dun Dun Big Bang [£1,335] or Andromeda Hay [£1,035, pictured bottom] give pleasure,” she says. “You take them on a lunch date or for drinks after work, or at the weekend when you need less stuff.”
Many are happy to buy into this pleasure principle, and treasure boxes – in some cases literal ones – are proliferating. Bulgari may be primarily a jewellery brand, but it has produced beautifully made handbags for some years and has now transferred the idea of subtle semiprecious stones from evening bags to small but more versatile bags, with elements such as enamelled “serpenti” handles or malachite eyes on enamelled snakehead clasps (£1,830, pictured below far right) made in the jewellery workshops. Newcomer Stefania Pramma makes a feature of semiprecious stones on the clasps of her flawless, understated leather bags. Other styles are indeed boxes, revealing the trunkmaker’s art in miniature form at Louis Vuitton, Moynat and Aspinal of London. Several brands join the bandwagon with decorative versions of iconic shapes, such as Chanel’s Boy bag (example pictured on previous page, £4,238) or Dior’s Lady Dior (example pictured top right, £2,300) – creating the most excitement around small, exquisite bags since the Fendi Baguette became the original It bag in 1997. That style is still going strong, and currently reflects the modernist mood of the brand, with Plexiglas studs and printed squares (£2,160, pictured on previous page). Fendi has a mini version of the Peekaboo (£1,930) too, also with Plexiglas studs, which is designed to look as if it is falling open, to show off a contrasting lining. While the Baguette originally had the field to itself, now the options for every taste are enormous.
Such choice is the latest manifestation of the yen for individuality and great craftsmanship. Some designers, such as Pramma, offer customisation on trims. “There is a gold-plated dog-motif clasp with semiprecious-stone eyes [£3,217] or a ‘tiara’ effect with semiprecious stones [£3,347],” says Laura Larbalestier, buying director at Browns, where the first full collection from the Italian-born, New York-based designer is proving a hit. “As well as those in store [from £1,969], customers can order their own mix. It’s a beautiful, understated, logo-free bag, and if you can make it your own, so much the better.” Similarly, Anya Hindmarch’s envelope clutch can be customised with a hand‑embossed message (if a gift) or your favourite quotation in your own or the giver’s handwriting. This is now available on the fine leather lining of the bag in alligator (£5,000).
There are parallels between such flourishable, highly crafted small bags and men’s prestigious watches. Ramesh Nair, creative director at Moynat, finds they are treasured and shown off, “not like a large, plain bag that sits on the floor. A small, crafted bag gets carried snugly all the time, to be admired. It’s about prizing top-quality work and fine detail.” The idea of a small object that says a lot about you is the driving force behind new niche brands that focus on uncompromising quality and craft. Pramma’s decades in the industry – working on jewellery in Milan, bags for New York designers Judith Leiber and Barry Kieselstein-Cord, and accessories for contemporary American brands – gave her the experience and contacts to set up her own business with a clear vision.
“People see big bags as practical; small bags are primarily beautiful objects that you keep in your hand – an elegant and nurturing gesture – and I wanted a mix of fine craft and jewellery, which is my own story,” she says. “They are slow luxury – they take time to create, with a minimum of seaming and curved shapes that make choosing and cutting skins harder, and jewellery elements crafted traditionally. The collection evolves, so these are objects to cherish. Distribution is limited and the bags have only just gone online – I want people to handle them and take time choosing the one for them.”
Despite a more expansive approach, Cademartori’s attitude to craft is also exacting. “I started by working on the idea of inlaid coloured patterns, which had to be perfectly cut,” she says. “I did it myself, learning as I went along. My manufacturer said it was too complicated, so I ‘borrowed’ his cutting machine out of hours, and that was the style that sold. He still refused to make them, so I did the production. Now we make a template and they are laser-cut here in Milan, but I still make the first one, in the office.”
Leather marquetry has also become part of the signature of Moynat, a niche revival company backed by LVMH’s Bernard Arnault. “Leather is hand-cut like a jigsaw, slightly on the bias to hold it in tension,” says Nair. “We have three people who can do it – there are four designs [such as the Train clutch, £470], which use up to 10 colours. Each bag varies, as we use offcuts, so the colour scheme changes.” There is also a small rectangular bag with a wrist strap that looks like a tiny trunk (Mini Vanity Case, £2,200, pictured on previous page), but is, he says, “entirely made of layers of leather, which is extremely difficult – one slip and it’s ruined.”
Delage is also a revived brand, named after the French car marque that “made lighter cars women could enjoy driving”, says Delage’s UK and Ireland managing director Sim Kocak, who recently opened a London store. “When the name became available, women’s bags seemed an obvious progression.” Cleverly crafted, the bags (from £370 in leather) are made in Portugal and hand-finished in France, the shapes are reminiscent of original Delage radiator grills, linings are in trademarked Delage red and bags feature the padded, stitched “flutes” of vintage leather car seats – hard to do on the small scale of the python Jeanne (£750, pictured above).
Louis Vuitton has long claimed ownership of the brass-cornered trunk, and designer Nicolas Ghesquière’s archive research turned up trunks such as those made for banker Albert Kahn in the early 20th century and featuring three small crosses as a signature, which inspired the dinky Petite Malle, made identically to the largest trunk on a base of poplar wood and lined with quilted lambskin stitched in a trellis pattern. Set to be new classics, small numbers of different designs are released each season, including graphic symbols (£3,150, pictured on previous page) and leopard spots (£2,890) embossed and handpainted on calfskin. Aspinal of London is also an expert trunkmaker and has its own mini trunk bag. Colourful tartan leather versions (example pictured on previous page, £525) from its new collaboration with cool fashion brand Etre Cécile are witty and desirable.
Other luxury brands also shape their contributions to the trend around their own craft heritage. As haute couture houses, Chanel and Dior are past masters at decoration, seen in their ornate limited-edition mini versions of iconic bags. Chanel’s petite versions of both the Boy and 2.55 bags are embroidered (from £5,375), woven (from £2,042) and ruched (from £4,570), while Dior’s reworked Lady Diors (from £2,300) are embroidered, beaded and appliquéd. Dolce & Gabbana has liberally embellished its Dolce bag (£4,150, pictured on opening page), while its Mamma bags (£1,650) are, says Natalie Kingham, buying director at Matchesfashion.com, “minuscule trunk bags featuring embroidery and prints based on children’s drawings. They feel unique and precious – our customers are drawn to miniature, collectable bags because they are versatile, whimsical and work for different occasions.”
At Roger Vivier, with its heritage of decorative shoes, ambassador Inès de la Fressange suggested a range of styles inspired by her travels around the world, resulting in her first creations for the brand, lyrical evocations in embroidery and appliqué on the classic small Miss Viv. The tan suede, embroidered Santa Folk (from £2,250), the delicate satin Barock Blanc (from £2,950) and the blue velvet Pondi Paris (£1,950) are especially covetable. Meanwhile, Prada’s heritage lies in crafted leather bags, and this is where it returns for the tricky-to-make Inside bag (from £1,490), which looks like two bags and comes in daringly contrasted colours and skins, including crocodile and ostrich.
So treasure boxes are all about the craft, but is there not a teensy bit of oneupmanship? Pramma points out that these bags are often as expensive as larger equivalents, more so if embellished. Moynat’s Nair says the trend is driven partly by demand from Asia, where smaller bags suit smaller physiques and expert handcraft is prized by the cognoscenti, and partly by the fact that modern phones have rendered much bag-carried paraphernalia obsolete. Browns’ Larbalestier is more forthright. “These are indirect status symbols, not like a big bag you carry every day,” she says. “They are special – people tend to have several to go with different outfits. Their joyful, feminine beauty is part of it, but if you’re carrying a white, jewel-set Pramma you’re probably not travelling by bus.”