Sandbagged by Handbags

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When I was growing up, the subject of women’s handbags was usually couched as some form of a joke. Usually the one-liner had something to do with how voluminous they were and how their owners were always dumping out the contents to find lipstick or a driver’s license or who-knows-what that was ultimately never located.

Chanel Handbag
Chanel’s “Denim Hobo Bag”

Apparently things are different now. I won’t say I’ve been thinking about this seriously for the past couple of weeks, but I have been thinking about it more than ordinarily. All the while trying not to laugh. That’s difficult, of course, because the old gags still cloud and crowd my thinking.

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The reason for my interest traces back to a recent Chanel ad in the print version of The New York Times. Most days (every day? only weekdays?) Chanel runs an ad in the upper-left-hand corner.

On one particular day, Chanel was pushing a “Denim Hobo Bag.” As the name suggests, the bag is made of denim (quilted), rimmed in short fringe and has a chain handle. It retails for $4,400.

What stopped me in my tracks — good thing I wasn’t scanning the ad while crossing heavy traffic — was that Chanel believes customers will spend $4,400 to look (and feel?) like a hobo. What kept me stopped was the realization that Chanel knows that, for their customers, $4,400 is a drop in the bucket. For celebrities and well-off folk, taking this bag out of the store for a stroll would be the same as your average administrative assistant purchasing a designer lipstick.

Rich people paying a lot of money to look poor isn’t a new — can I say “wrinkle”? For at least a few decades now, distressed designer jeans have flooded the market. Women — and men — have shelled out good money for someone else do the wear-and-tear over time they’re too lazy to do themselves.

Nevertheless, I had to see this item for myself, so I visited Chanel on East 57th Street. There I was assisted by a perfectly agreeable salesman who not only showed me the hobo bag but also a smaller version that sells for — wait for it — $4,500. Less, you see, really is more.

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Both bags had esthetic appeal, but is it esthetics or the notion of “handbag slumming” that excites potential buyers? I wondered how an actual bindlestiff would respond. I wondered how long this fashion comment on upper-class superiority would continue.

As for the $4,400 (or $4,500), I can’t say that figure was new to me. After all, I’ve seen the Chanel ads in The New York Times many times before, which feature handbags more often than not. (Recently, a “Boy Chanel” tweed bag was hawked for $4,600.) I’d also noticed ads for other designer handbags elsewhere on pages 2 and 3.

Grace Kelly clutches her Hermès Kelly Bag.
Grace Kelly clutches her
Hermès “Kelly Bag.”

So over the next few days, I began to ponder an explanation for the evolving Era of the Handbag. Did it begin its dominance in the 1950s with the Grace Kelly bag — initially the Hermès Kelly bag? Constructed of goatskin by a single craftsman working 18 hours, that luxury number’s price was (and is) based on labor. Then again, craftsmanship is likely part of the price for all current handbags of this merchandising stratum.

But I wanted to know why owning a Chanel bag or, say, one of Ralph Lauren’s Ricky bags, is important to the woman who possesses it. (The “Alligator Ricky Drawstring Bag” sells for $21,500.)

If you assume the typical man or woman on the street wouldn’t know these bags from one purchased from J.C. Penney or Kmart, I suppose the obvious answer is the bags are nothing less or more than status symbols — Thorstein Veblen’s conspicuous consumption theory and so on. If it’s true that women dress for women, then rich woman must choose their accessories for other rich women to notice.

Who else really cares? And, more to the point, why do these well-heeled, well-handbagged women care? It is implied is that too many women are inwardly unsure of themselves, and therefore they need accouterments to give them confidence — or something passing for confidence through the next midday klatch. (Might Stephen Sondheim amend the lyric “clutching a copy of Life just to keep in touch” from “The Ladies Who Lunch” to be “clutching an Armani clutch just to keep in touch”?) Incidentally, it’s well known that Grace Kelly employed the bag named after her in order to hide her pregnancy.

The afternoon I shopped Chanel, I’d already ambled down the east side of Fifth Avenue from 54th Street and passed several designer’s stores, every one featuring handbags in their windows. I even went into Gucci after spotting a particularly colorful one. A thoroughly charming saleswoman pointed at a shelf holding another one and said it was a limited edition in the Bamboo Shopper line. The handle was bent bamboo (after having been heated) and the floral print was by Kris Knight. The one I’d noticed first was $1,850. It was small. A larger size was $2,150. Bargains, anyone?

How long will the handbag craze last? A recent report in The New York Times business section (where Chanel doesn’t usually run ads) began:

The logo-emblazoned handbags of Michael Kors are seemingly everywhere these days — and that is a growing cause of concern for the affordable luxury brand.

The article went on, noting:

customers may be starting to tire of the Kors brand. Kors has been heavily discounting its offerings, marking down its bags as much as 50 percent online during the holidays.

Before I close the clasp on this column, I know the handbag thing isn’t limited to women. I realize we have the word “murse.” I promise to get to that metrosexual development in the future.