The extraordinary handbags that are both fashion and art
Bags are unique as fashion accessories. They are not required to enclose a part of the body, which has allowed freedom and inventiveness over the centuries, resulting in creations which are not mere fashion items, but works of art. This phenomenon has reached its logical conclusion in recent years, as brands collaborate with fine artists such as Tracey Emin and Marc Quinn to produce bags that would not look out of place in a gallery, which is indeed where they can be seen in the V&A’s new exhibition. But it is not only their aesthetic appeal that can be compared to art. Classic creations by brands like Hermès, Chanel and Dior are increasingly being appreciated for their investment potential.
“We don’t really wear bags, we carry them, so they have this degree of independence. They can be designed in very unusual ways, which is how they can easily become a dog, a frog or a little conker,” Lucia Savi, curator of the V&A’s exhibition, tells BBC Culture. “There is a surface which can be decorated or painted on. It’s almost like a blank canvas to work with.”
In the 17th Century, small bags known as sweet purses were exquisitely crafted in unusual shapes such as frogs, while the fashionable technique of filigree was used to create elegant purses which were often exchanged as gifts between aristocrats. The ‘reticule’ – which emerged in the 19th Century and is considered the forerunner of the modern handbag – had a flat surface, so offered the perfect opportunity for artistic expression. “There is a surface to be decorated so women would decorate them with patterns and flowers,” says Savi.
The witty and innovative designs from the 19th Century, which included bags in the shape of flower baskets, scallop shells and pineapples, influenced the trend for the incongruous objects which appeared in bag design in the 1930s. Designers such as Anne-Marie of Paris created wonderfully eccentric bags in the shape of telephones, champagne coolers and even radios.
These in turn had an impact on the jewel-like creations of Hungarian-US designer Judith Leiber, whose sought-after evening bags come in the shape of everything from bunches of asparagus to lipstick, and the British designer Lulu Guinness, whose flower-basket bags from the 1990s can be seen as a three-dimensional interpretation of floral reticule designs.
The appeal of the bag’s creative potential to artists is evident as far back as the 1930s. Hilde Wagner-Ascher, an artist and designer connected to the Vienna-based collective the Wiener Werkstätte, used the clutch as a blank canvas for her graphic designs. “She used a very common and fashionable shape but the decoration of it and the pattern of it are really representative of her involvement with the Wiener Werkstätte – the design movement that grew out of the Vienna Secession – and that type of aesthetic,” says Savi.
In recent decades this trend has accelerated as brands collaborate with artists to reinvigorate their classic designs. Louis Vuitton in particular has worked with artists, beginning with Stephen Sprouse and his neon graffiti bags, under then artistic director Marc Jacobs in 2001. Since then, the brand has worked with everyone from Takashi Murakami to Yayoi Kusama.
“They’re like artist pieces, limited-edition pieces where artists try and experiment in a different medium,” says Savi.
These experiments have included Bethan Laura Wood’s series of interchangeable handles for Valextra’s Iside and Passepartout bags, and Marc Quinn’s designs for the Lady Dior bag. Wood’s quirky aesthetic, inspired by Eduardo Paolozzi and realised in shades of Neapolitan ice-cream and sludgy 70s interiors, transforms the somewhat austere bags into modern poppy icons.
Quinn, who was invited to re-interpret Dior’s classic design to commemorate the opening of their New Bond Street Store in 2016, took his Fossil Record – the Age of Aluminium print series as inspiration. Embossing orchids in various states of bloom on to metallised lambskin, he created objects of breathtaking beauty.
Savi is particularly taken with the International Woman suitcases that Tracey Emin designed to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Longchamp’s Le Pliage bags in 2004. “That is a piece where you really see an artist working as if on a piece of art,” she says. Made in an edition of 200, each piece carries a unique rosette designed by Emin and is inscribed with a different location which reminds the artist of a moment of love.
“There’s definitely a very strong relationship between fashion and art right now,” says Rachel Koffsky, head of handbag and accessory sales at Christie’s. “It’s bringing art collectors into the world of fashion and fashion collectors into the world of art.”
But it seems that what serious bag collectors are drawn to, season after season, is the classics – the Lady Dior bag, the Chanel Flap bag, the Hermès Kelly and, of course, the Birkin.
“The Birkin is considered the most desirable bag in the world because of the iconic design and the way that it’s created by hand in the atelier. It really is the highest degree of craftsmanship,” says Koffsky.
A Himalaya Birkin, sold at Christie’s in Hong Kong in 2017, broke the world record for the most expensive bag ever sold at auction when it went for an astonishing £293,000. “This particular piece is adorned with 18-carat white gold and diamond hardware. It was really more than just a bag. It was also a piece of jewellery. It’s like a wearable work of art,” says Koffsky.
It is clearly an astronomical amount to spend on a handbag but, it appears, money well spent. “After the recession in 2008 customer spending was way down. However some bags, like the Hermès Birkin, continued to hold their value so collectors began to invest this amount of money,” explains Koffsky. “Collectors’ taste has changed and now they’re looking at handbags as something that’s an asset rather than just a fashion item.” Indeed, according to a recent report by Art Market Research, Birkins have increased in value even more than Banksys.
Desire for these classic designs is being fuelled “by a sense that the fashion world is looking to the past to inform the designs of the present,” says Koffsky. Dior’s Saddlebag, which first debuted in 1999, has been brought back under Maria Grazia Chiuri, and Alessandro Michele at Gucci is heavily inspired by the Gucci archive. “The handbag that your mum had in the 1970s, all of a sudden you see it on the runway and the price for that vintage piece skyrockets,” says Koffsky.
But despite their value these bags are not going to be gathering dust in a vault somewhere. “Some collectors will buy really special bags and display them like art in walk-in closets with carousels,” says Koffsky. But, she adds, “the majority of collectors I work with, if not all, buy handbags because of love and passion and they make smart investment decisions based on what they love and what they’re going to use”.
Of course, for most us, the thought of owning a Chanel Flap Bag or a Dior Saddlebag, let alone a Hermès Birkin, is as out of the question as owning one of Tracey Emin’s sewn appliqué pieces or a print by Marc Quinn. It seems we will have to content ourselves with viewing them in a gallery like works of art. Which, indeed, they are.