There are 12 pink plastic drawers in Maria Dimi’s New Jersey home and each one is filled with items to put inside her handbag. Neat little labels help the 23-year-old remember what’s inside each drawer: AirPod cases, keychains, antibac, perfume, sweets, miscellaneous stuff like tissues, lip balm and glasses wipes.
It’s never been easier for the preschool teacher and restaurant hostess to swap one handbag for another. It’s never been more enjoyable, either, thanks to this – her handbag packing station. Like the time Dimi stuffed a cherry-print handbag with cherry lip products and a cherry wallet. "It makes packing your bag a little more fun," she says. "It’s so much easier when everything you need is in one spot."
"My toxic trait is not being able to buy just one keychain or just one hand sanitiser, but I literally have to get an entire collection," the TikToker said in a February video where she revealed the contents of her tower to almost 7 million viewers (over 15 brightly coloured mini sanitisers sit in a neat row in her top drawer).
When she filmed that TikTok, @brooktheshopaholic had nine drawers. Now she has 18. There’s one for phone cases, one for lint rollers, one for lotions, one for lip products and one for hand sanitiser holders (subdivided into "silicone", "blingy" and "themed").
Many of us migrate the same half-empty gum packet and crusted-over hand sanitiser every time we swap our bag. Yet @brooktheshopaholic has ignited a new fad. The hashtag #pursetower has 3.3 million views on TikTok, while #pursestation has 3.5 million more. Tall, thin units are sprouting up in the corners of bedrooms across the globe – but why, exactly? And why now?
It all started, counterintuitively, as a war on stuff. In January 2019, Netflix debuted Tidying Up With Marie Kondo, an adaptation of the Japanese organisation guru’s bestselling 2010 book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Kondo’s KonMari method famously involves ridding yourself of possessions that don’t "spark joy" but it also involves ensuring that everything in your home has a designated spot. The series therefore sparked something else: soaring sales of storage products.
"I remember reading her first book and I thought it was really interesting that she was sort of eschewing the whole storage industry," says design researcher Lisa O’Neil. "She said you don’t need to go out and buy stuff, you can use an empty shoebox." But in November 2019 Kondo launched her own homeware store, which featured numerous storage baskets, boxes and bins. In 2020 she reached a deal with The Container Store to release a line of 100 products including a £25 ceramic and bamboo "egg bin", a £166 laundry hamper and a £12 "berry colander".
"There’s an entire storage industry built around metaconsumption," says O’Neil, whose design master’s thesis was entitled "Declutter or Die: How the Home Organization Industry Designs the Metaconsumer". O’Neil explains that "metaconsumption is consuming things for your things. It’s really all about getting consumers to buy more things to deal with the things they already have."
The stay-at-home orders of the pandemic kicked metaconsumption into overdrive. According to market research firm The Freedonia Group, 38% of Americans bought home organisation products between the winters of 2019 and 2020; in 2021 The Container Store exceeded $1 billion in sales for the first time. Meanwhile, popular culture continues to tout the magic of storage. The self-explanatory show Get Organised with The Home Edit has run on Netflix for the last two years, while Khloé Kardashian’s meticulously organised pantry repeatedly makes headlines and the hashtag #organization has accumulated 4.8 billion TikTok views.
O’Neil notes that storage areas like closets used to be strictly utilitarian until the internet changed everything. "People are now performing for social media," she says, "so your closet has to be showroom-worthy and your laundry room has to be as nice as your kitchen."
Purse towers or handbag packing stations are a clear iteration of this but they’re also arguably an evolution of the 2010s "What’s in my bag?" YouTube trend. "I truly think we are all so nosey and I love it," says Dimi. "People like myself love to see what others keep in their purse towers to either get ideas or just to see what others have." Dimi says her purse tower and bag-packing videos have helped her earn 17,500 followers on TikTok – before these videos, she struggled to find her "niche".
What’s interesting about the purse tower trend is that it wasn’t thought up by suits around a conference table or even by a household name in the tidying space (Kondo advocated for emptying your handbag every night in The Life-Changing Magic but again said a shoebox would suffice to store the stuff).
Purse towers were consumer-generated and storage companies haven’t yet caught up (search "purse tower" in Google Shopping and you’ll get no relevant results, while Google Images thinks you want a landmark-shaped handbag).
This consumer-driven evolution, however, risks encouraging meta-metaconsumption: not just consuming things for your things but consuming things for the things you’ve consumed for your things. Instead of just filling her purse tower with objects she already had, Dimi has gone shopping to stock it up. "I have fallen into the trap before of buying things I saw other people had just because I knew it would be a great addition to my purse tower," she says. She now tries to ensure that she only keeps things she needs in her drawers.
Dimi says she’s "not much of a consumerist" in other aspects of her life – she only has three pairs of shoes and wears the same shirts and leggings over and over again – so she doesn’t mind splashing out on her purses and purse tower. Others, however, might fall into a spending trap. After all, does anyone really need 15 different hand sanitisers?
Equally, many people online tout the mental health benefits of home organisation. "That was something that certainly came out in the research I did for my thesis, that living with chaos and living with clutter is just inherently stressful," says O’Neil. Dimi says she’s happy she’s found her niche: "I’m having so much fun sharing and watching videos in this community."
Purse towers and the handbag packing stations they create are the culmination of numerous trends which fetishise being organised. They are surprising at first glance but the more you think about it, they’re not very surprising at all. It’s hard to predict what’s next but O’Neil says that "every major movement in art or design has been in some ways a reaction to what came before it." While she notes that popular culture might not function in the exact same way, "Every celebrity, and every celebrity wannabe – which is basically everybody – is trying to look for something new." At some point, she argues, "I think true minimalism and dialling this back significantly might become the new new."