Stacey Samedi didn’t own many handbags, but she was a fan of Telfar, so last year, she decided to treat herself to a Telfar bag. After two months on the waiting list, her bag arrived, and she immediately painted dragons around the logo. The art was done to match her Nike sneakers, which she had also personalized. Posing in her customized accessories, she snapped some shots and shared them on Twitter. The post blew up.
One day and 11,300 retweets later, Stacey auctioned her bag on eBay for $800 USD (its retail price was $202 USD). "Somebody told me I could have sold it for $2,000 USD if I wanted to because it is artwork — it’s hand-painted. So, I’m waiting for the next time one of my designs gets a lot of traction," she says.
According to Terrell Lomax Russell, who also started painting on Telfar bags last year, the smooth, vegan leather surfaces on Telfar totes make them the ideal blank slate: "Because of the way the leather is, it’s just like a canvas." He had been painting on both bags and canvases for years, but Telfar’s popularity caught his attention. He bought four bags, painted them, and shared them online. "I decided to gamble on myself," he says. "The first post did really good, the second did very [well], the third one did even better, and with the fourth one, I knew it was going to do well regardless."
"Customization is definitely a growing trend and will become more of a movement this year," says luxury fashion stylist Miranda Holder. She’s noticed that her clients are increasingly looking to have their luxury bags painted on. "Luxury items are becoming more accessible, and they’re lacking that exclusivity factor that used to be a large part of buying something high-end," she says. "It’s that uniqueness that makes a handbag covetable. If you can customize your handbag, it becomes timeless."
Social media seems to have sparked a backlash against "sameness," notes Sara Maggioni, head of womenswear at trend forecaster WGSN. "If we think about the past few years, with millennials growing up and the filtered, curated aesthetic of Instagram, there has been a bit of a backlash bubbling up, led by Gen Z, and we are seeing people wanting something different," she explains.
Painting on luxury bags seems to have gained traction during lockdown, too. Laurén Bienvenue, an artist who used to customize leather jackets, noticed over lockdown that far more people were looking to have their designer handbags painted. For her, it was mainly vintage Louis Vuitton. "I think during COVID, people started cleaning out their closets and going through their stuff," she says. "So many women have asked me to revive bags that they’ve had for, like, 20 years. There are those who want a new look for that classic, monogram bag, or people who have just really used and abused their bags and they need to cover up what's happened."
This subversive approach can be traced back to the 1970s. Pioneered by Vivienne Westwood, music's punk scene inspired people to leave their mark on their look, via bleached denim, studded leather, and graffitied T-shirts. In the '90s, Alexander McQueen took the runway show to new heights with the live customization of Shalom Harlow's gown, while 2001 saw Stephen Sprouse scrawl all over Louis Vuitton bags. Far from being precious about their products, luxury houses have encouraged this DIY spirit over the last few years. Gucci has given consumers the option to decorate their own jackets and trainers, allowing people to choose their favorite printed inner linings and, in true maximalist spirit, a range of appliqué options for the outer leather. Balenciaga opened the Balenciaga Copyshop, where customers can pick from an archive of graphics and decide how to place them on T-shirts, while Off-White hosted customization pop-ups in Tokyo.
Luxury brands have long offered consumers the option to personalize their products but it was an add-on — a paid-for extra reserved for a privileged few. Now, though, thanks to social media democratizing luxury fashion, the chance to influence the design of your favorite item has become readily available to anyone with a social media account and a flair for creativity.
“With self-customization online, things are a little different [from] how they were in the past because when you’re making decisions online, you’re not working with the designer — you’re adapting the designer’s work," says Dr. Martin Schreier, who wrote a 2020 paper on customization in luxury brands. "There’s a trade-off between saving the essence of the designer and making your own mark on the product." Schreier has also noticed a shift in the way Gen Z views designer labels: "Nowadays, younger generations aren’t looking up to designers in the same way. This generation thinks, I'm confident, I can judge taste and I know what I like, I can co-create."
Perhaps this is why tastemakers aren’t afraid to add bold, imaginative designs to their luxury handbags. Terrell has noticed that his younger customers tend to allow him more creative freedom when painting on their bags. "Older people like more monograms or maybe a little initial or a stripe, but the younger the customer is, the wilder the design is. I could do anything from anime bags or flower bags to something with feathers and everything on it," he says.
We can assume that Telfar is happy to see these elaborate designs on their bags: The official Telfar Instagram account has liked both Stacey and Terrell’s posts featuring their customized Telfars. It’s not surprising that the Brooklyn-based, Black-owned brand has endorsed their artwork; after all, it set out to redefine the meaning of luxury with its inclusive tagline, "Not for you — for everyone." Telfar's goal is to democratize fashion by providing luxury handbags to anyone who wants them at an affordable price. It’s a philosophy that chimes with the shift away from gate-keeping heritage houses.
People may not hero-worship luxury brands like they used to, but Telfar is widely adored for what it represents. It’s a brand that has made space for — and given a platform to — creatives, the LGBTQI+ community, and people of colour. "I was able to contribute to this online culture," Stacey says, explaining that there was something special about putting her own artwork on a Telfar piece. "My bag went viral, so it felt like I made a print on it."
The time and space provided by lockdown have helped people breathe new life into old accessories. But more than that, people are putting their own twist on the designs they loved enough to buy, participating in fashion in a communal and collaborative way.