Remember handbags? You’d be forgiven for thinking that this year's pandemic had made our perennial plus-ones well and truly redundant but, in actuality, the handbag has never felt more pertinent. In real terms, practicality has reigned supreme: a trusty canvas tote is likely the most used accessory in your wardrobe in 2020, well suited to weekly food shops and government-sanctioned walks, and built to fit all your essential pandemic paraphernalia – goodbye lipstick and perfume, small promises of spontaneity and excitement; hello passion-killing hand sanitiser, hand cream, face masks and tissues. Yet in a year where our most treasured and storied handbags were stowed away, gathering dust in some dark corner, bags enjoyed a mighty resurgence both in sales and cultural capital.
A new report by Business of Fashion and McKinsey & Company marks 2020 as the worst year on record for the fashion industry, forecasting a colossal 90% economic profit decline this year and a 15-30% sales decline compared to 2019. Over the summer, however, one of luxury fashion’s biggest players, LVMH, boasted a 12% growth in its handbag division. In the face of a pandemic-ravaged economy and the prospect of a double-dip recession, and with UK unemployment likely to reach 2.6 million by the middle of 2021, such spending might seem unfathomable. But if you're privileged enough to have the money, a handbag, more than any other fashion item, is a smart sartorial investment – an asset which, over time, accumulates financial capital and clout.
The resale market – which not only grew 25 times faster than the wider retail market in 2019 but is projected to more than double to $64 billion by 2025 – has seen a boom in demand for secondhand handbags, fuelled by throwback ‘90s and ‘00s Instagram accounts that feed the flame of fashion nostalgia. Global fashion search platform Lyst announced that searches for vintage bags were at an all-time high in 2020, increasing 46% year-on-year, with secondhand Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Prada and Hermès leading the way. When brands, capitalising on the millennial and Gen Z love of vintage, reissue iconic It bags – Fendi’s 2018 baguette relaunch has driven up demand for the original by a huge 40% month-on-month, while Mulberry celebrated its 50th anniversary in November with the relaunch of its 10-year-old cult Alexa satchel – investing in a buzzworthy style doesn’t seem so risky.
Ironically, just as we stopped wearing handbags, the more thrilling they became. From Birkins to Bayswaters, the It bag has historically been defined by big-name luxury fashion houses but, this year, indie brands are increasingly kicking down the door of tired tradition. Luxury has always been synonymous with exclusivity but 2020’s most vital conversations, born out of the Black Lives Matter movement and the pandemic’s exposure of the deep cracks in the industry, have dismantled the authority of fashion’s self-appointed gatekeepers. While Cardi B stood defiant in the face of racist and classist trolls accusing her and other successful hip-hop artists of devaluing heritage labels like Hermès, cult brands like the Brooklyn-based Telfar proved that authenticity, community and accessibility are at the heart of the new luxury. As logomania waned – seeming so flashy and inappropriate on the social media of those oblivious to the new global mood – the most-wanted handbags were modelled on the everyday shopping tote. Telfar and the Milan-based Medea have built mini empires via social media with sell-out single-style tote bags, earning more organic influencer and celebrity credits in the process than most traditional fashion houses could only dream of.
Welcome, then, to Bags of Style, a week in which we'll prove a bag is far more than an accessory. At once functional, utilitarian and essential, and luxurious, status-defining and symbolic, join us as we explore the dazzling and diverse history of handbags. We’ll be asking how class, race and gender intersect with luxury fashion, and hearing from plus-size women who, ignored by the ready-to-wear sector, found a complex solace in handbags instead. We’ll be paying homage to the handbags we couldn’t wear on dance floors, day trips or dates this year and look back at the plus-ones that defined every stage of life, from wedding guest clutches to our first paycheque purchase. We’ll be championing our favourite new bag brands, asking whether the pandemic signalled the end of the teeny tiny micro bag and reviewing the V&A’s much-anticipated exhibition, Bags: Inside Out. The blockbuster show has been rescheduled several times thanks to national lockdowns but, ironically, it feels more relevant than ever at the end of a year in which handbags have been so sorely missed.