Friday, March 26, 2010

Bag ladies

From Wednesday's Irish Independent (slightly embarrassing title and pic of me but never mind...)

Your house is burning and you can take only one material possession with you. Will it be photographs of loved ones? Granny's recipe book with handwritten notes in the margins? Or will it be, as Jennifer Aniston has just proclaimed, your handbag?

The man who thinks that it is a cold, unsentimental choice -- for what is a bag but a vessel for the detritus of life -- doesn't understand what handbags mean to women. To some women, let's hasten to add. A friend of mine once went out with a girl who enjoyed insisting that she had never owned a handbag. "She was a nightmare," he remembers, "It was forever, 'Would you hold this?'"

Contrary to what that girl thought, a lobotomy isn't a prerequisite for owning a handbag. I admit that I've had the same battered mushroom-beige River Island number for about four years, and it ain't pretty. But its interior fits a notepad and dictaphone comfortably, it has an easily accessible pocket for my mobile and a zipped one for my purse.

My relationship with handbags is not the stuff of Vogue but I know I need one. I also admit that I understand the allure of a real, grown-up bag. The other significant bag in my closet is a black Marc Jacobs limited edition evening bag for Louis Vuitton.

You weren't expecting that, were you? Neither was I -- I won it in a charity raffle some years back and it only comes out to play on special occasions. But on those rare evenings that I tool up with my LV bag, I feel -- well -- more put together.

This is where the line is crossed between owning a bag for functionality -- or for fun. The utilitarian aspect of toting a bag around is accepted. Men have been carrying briefcases for an age (and some, I suspect, only contain the day's paper and a banana sandwich). It's no longer a crime to be seen slinging a rucksack or messenger bag over the shoulder.

As women are no longer confined between the kitchen, nursery and bedroom, we too need a repository for carrying our paraphernalia with us. Debenhams announced in January that women now carry an average of 3.3lbs of 'stuff' around with them in their bags.

Where we lose men is in the statistics surrounding women's handbag-buying. Depending on which survey you read, women can own up to 100 bags in their lifetime, and spend up to €4,000 acquiring them. Debbie Percy, a HR consultant and life coach who runs, says: "Men just don't get it. It's hard to find a comparison for them. Men love their cars, say, but they don't have seven of them."

Perhaps they would if they could afford them. In truth, most women can't afford the bags they most aspire to either -- so-called 'It' bags -- but it doesn't stop the desire for them. After about 15 years of 'It' bags, from the Fendi Baguette in the late '90s to Chloe Paddington and beyond, the downturn was supposed to put a kibosh on waiting lists for the 'must-have' items.

So how to explain that Mulberry -- purveyors of the current object of desire, the Alexa bag -- is experiencing a 100pc pre-order demand? Or that Hermes Birkins, one of the first 'famous' handbags, still has a lengthy waiting list?

In China, where status symbols are the new currency, Birkins are changing hands for more than €100,000 because there are people there willing to pay the giant import duties imposed by the Communist rulers on Western goods.

Clever marketing to women is part of the story. Note how many of these bags have women's names from the Hermes Kelly (after movie star Grace) and Birkin (after singer Jane) up to the current star of Mulberry, named for style icon du jour Alexa Chung. To have the bag is to have, vicariously, a slice of their style.

'Kate Moss's association with Longchamps is doing wonders for them," says Debbie Percy, "and I'm watching Burberry to see if one of their bags breaks through next, because of Emma Watson's campaign for them. But the bags that reach 'It' status tend to have something more than a celebrity association. They are beautiful, edgy and stylish."

If one man understands women and their handbags, it's Edmond Chesneau. The Frenchman has been selling designs to Irish women for 30 years.

"Yes, I think a bag becomes their best friend, and that it shows a little of their personality," says Chesneau, "but, also, if you think about the bestsellers, they are always beautiful."

One of his own bestselling designs -- the Faubourg, retailing at €375 ( -- is 15 years old.

In Brown Thomas, repository of 'must-have' bags, an employee tells me they had customers "out the door" last Friday, waiting to get the Tory Burch tote, retailing at €45.

Guys trying to understand the passion for handbags should look at this tote because it draws together everything women want from a bag right now.

It is nicely designed -- a classic leopard-print and dark leather trim, spiced up by a hot-pink lining. It's got the feel-good factor of raising funds for charity (Fashion Targets Breast Cancer), it's got limited-edition cachet, it's endorsed by supermodel Noot Seear -- and it's keenly priced.

We don't ask for much, do we?

Life coach Debbie Percy, who looks at women's handbags as a personality analysis aid (see, has found some curious artefacts:

* A full bottle of wine. "I've had that in there for a week," said the lady.
* A very large beach towel, for no apparent reason.
* A flick knife -- in the handbag of an elderly lady.
* Apple cores, half-sucked mints and once -- a half-eaten chicken drumstick. "For some women, their bags are simply a dumping ground for all the family," says Debbie.
* Children's bracelets and hairclips, toys, and hospital identity tags. "Strangely enough, women don't carry around many photographs, if at all. They tend to carry instead objects that have a sentimental attachment for them."
* Personal notebooks. Says Debbie: "You would be surprised how many people seem to be mid-flow of writing a book."

"My bag is my best friend"
Karen Koster presenter, TV3's Xposé: "I have a one-bag-fits-all policy because with this job you could be anywhere at any time.

I carry around two make-up bags and a jewellery pouch, my phone, my diary and I'm a weapon if I'm not fed every three hours, so I'll have rice cakes, an apple, a banana and a bottle of water.

"I feel completely naked without it. If I'm out with my boyfriend and I don't have the big bag, I'll say, 'Here, I'll carry that bag of shopping'.

"I have about 15 bags in all -- some for evenings -- but I really use the same bag every day. It's a black patent one that I bought for $60 from a shop called Kitson when I was in LA covering the Oscars. Bargain! It's completely waterproof, wipe-down, really sturdy. I had a Jimmy Choo floppy tote once and I couldn't find anything in it.

"The most expensive bag I've had was actually a Chanel knock-off that my boyfriend brought me back from Dubai. It was a couple of hundred euro but it was a really well-crafted black bag.

"I think my first bag was a leather satchel from Dunnes. There we were, 14, hanging around, stuffing our bras and stuffing our handbags because we'd nothing to put in either of them."

"My three-year-old just loves her handbag!"
Anne Ryan, mum and entrepreneur: "I love handbags and I should be carrying a different one every day to show off my range ( but actually I'm a bit of a one-bag woman.

I carry a lime green silk one, embroidered with butterflies.

"When we were adopting our daughter Rosie from Vietnam, I came across these gorgeous bags that I now sell. We have an ethical code for how they are produced because obviously we don't want to exploit people in the country where our little girl is from.

"In school we used to have a green purse on a string for keeping money in. Rosie is three and a half now and she's really into handbags, but children's ones, with Dora or Fifi on them.

"I am fairly organised. I carry a purse, a lipstick, a handbag hook that allows you to hang the bag from a table or in a bar. And I have a neat little measuring tape so I can go around sneakily measuring other people's bags for inspiration!"

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