Originally published in
February 2007
Some cost more than a month’s rent, others weigh as much as a small child. Ridiculous as they have become, there is no stopping the cult of the It Bag
"I don’t feel the need to buy a new bag every season but when I see a gorgeous one then I have to have it no matter what it costs" Lulu Kennedy

We have Coco Chanel to thank for the invention of the It-bag. In February 1955 the ever-practical designer decided she needed a shoulder bag that would free up her hands. The 2.55 was her delightfully quilted solution. Fifty years later Karl Lagerfeld re-introduced the style for Autumn/Winter 2005, confirming its iconic status even in today’s unprecedented fashion frenzy for the definitive bag of the season.

Alongside a classic monogrammed Louis Vuitton or a woven Bottega Veneta, possessing one of these exclusive purses is fashion gold. But the Hermès Birkin remains the true holy grail. There’s a waiting list to get on the waiting list for one despite a price tag that starts at $10,000.  Legend has it gamine actress Jane Birkin boarded a plane in 1984, tatty straw bag under her arm, sat next to Hermès president Jean-Louis Dumas and moaned that she couldn’t find a sizable yet stylish bag. He offered to make one for her and the Birkin was born. Since then its prohibitive price and understated design has established it as a serious status symbol. Elle Macpherson and Gwyneth Paltrow are proud owners, Martha Stewart bought one to flaunt during her trial and a whole episode of Sex & the City revolves around Samantha’s pursuit of this elitist tote.

These legendary It-bags came into being long before the term It-bag was even coined of course. Its entry into common parlance in the 90s was a reaction to the boom in the luxury accessories market and the emergence of younger designer brands such as Marc Jacobs, Chloé and Luella. Ten years ago most women would think twice before parting with a month’s rent for a handbag. Now if a bag ticks all the trend boxes and is paraded by the right It-girl, somehow we’ll justify the expense. Both Jacobs and Luella have borrowed the Hermès tradition of dedicating bags to glamorous muses with the Stam and Giselle respectively, which now sit pretty next to the Hermès Kelly (named after Grace Kelly, who was pictured on the cover of Life magazine in 1956 shielding her baby bump with one) in the cult bag hall of fame. And as our fixation with celebrity culture grows so does our lust for statement bags. Nicole Ritche has become a walking advertisement for the Balenciaga Lariat, owning it in five different colours. Sophie Dahl, the Hilton sisters and Heidi Klum all love their YSL Muse. Victoria Beckham could almost fit into her favourite Prada shopper. And Kate Moss has launched a thousand It-bags, of late favouring the Mulberry Emmy.

According to Mintel figures, bags are the fastest growing sector in the luxury fashion market raking in $25billion in 2005, up from $18bn in 2001. Most fashion houses rely on accessories to buoy up clothing sales, which goes some way to explaining why in recent seasons bags have become so physically huge (Prada sent scantily clad models down the catwalk with wheeled suitcases for Spring/Summer 06) and covered with trinkets and baubles. The new double zipped Chloé Paddington not only weighs as much as a toddler, the padlock could double up as a self-defence weapon. Meanwhile the ubiquitous Fendi B is awash with gold chains, oversized fastenings and exotic finishes.

The more ostentatious bags become, the more brands can charge too. Supply and demand dictates that prices continue to increase because we’re willing to tell ourselves that we’re worth it. After all, a great handbag is practical, goes with almost any outfit, lasts for years and we don’t have to diet to look good with one. One glance at sites such as purseblog.com, bagsnobs.com and thebadlady.tv reveals that no bag obsession is too shallow or price too high.

The same cannot be said of clothing. The high street can now deliver catwalk looks at bargain prices but it’s much harder to match the quality of designer bags. Linzi Boyd, owner of fashion PR company Surgery, explains: “In this day and age people are steering away from designer clothes and looking more to the high street so where people will spend that bit extra is on accessories. Something from Chloé or Mulberry will always be hanging off someone's arm.”

Lulu Kennedy, director of young designers initiative Fashion East, agrees. “I can’t stand cheap bags. I prefer to buy beautiful ones and use them for ages. I don’t feel the need to buy a new bag every season but when I see a gorgeous one then I have to have it no matter what it costs.” Lulu owns a Mulberry Roxanne, two Miu Mius and a Marc Jacobs and sees no end in sight for the It-bag. “Prices are pretty mad but the trend hasn’t peaked and I don’t think it will. Girls love bags.”

But when a cult bag becomes so recognizable that it’s hard to distinguish the real deal from a knock off or it’s been adopted by a footballer’s wife (Alex Curran was the first WAG to get her hands on the Chloé Python much to the other World Cup widows’ chagrin) then it can lose its indefinable appeal. Ashe Peacock, founder of London boutique Antipodium, is sick of handbag wars. “It-bags have all begun to look the same and I just don’t like them aesthetically. Everyone is a mini Kate Moss dragging these huge bags around,” she tuts. So would she turn down a Birkin? “Yes I would. The only person I know with one is a rich mum who uses it to keep nappies in. It was a present from her husband instead of an eternity ring.”

But even if there’s no diamond on your finger, at least you can enjoy the inner sparkle of having a cult bag in your hand.

A Bag For All Seasons

Prada - Pocone

This simple black nylon rucksack with the all-important logo on the outside made the perfect minimalist statement in the dress down 90s.

Fendi - Baguette

Created in 1997, the Baguette was designed to be worn up under the arm, just like a Parisian woman would carry her morning bread. It’s now available in 600 versions.

Christian Dior - Saddle

As a response to rich women’s love of all things equestrian, in 2000 they got to wear a saddle on their own backs too. Giddy up.

Louis Vuitton - Murakami

In 2002 Marc Jacobs teamed up with Japanese artist Takasi Murakami to embellish the traditional LV bag with cherries, flowers and anime characters, further fuelling Vuitton’s position as the most counterfeited brand in history.

Balenciaga – Lariat

First launched in 2001, the Lariat has since become a victim of it’s own success having reached celebrity and dodgy knock off saturation point.

Alexander McQueen – Novak

McQueen’s first venture into bags bucked the slouchy trend with its structured, refined elegance. Inspired by Kim Novak in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, the Novak became an instant classic in 2005.

Marc Jacobs – Stam

Named after model Jessica Stam, this bag was a best seller in 2006 despite claims that it was too Chanel by half.

Miu Miu – Coffer

With its ruched body, braided handle and gold hardware, the Coffer it’s achingly now.

Stella McCartney – Ladybird

The Ladybird is made from vinyl, ethically produced and sold at McCartney’s wind-powered flagship store. Feel good fashion.

Mulberry - Hobo

For S/S 07 Mulberry has created an accessories range with Giles Deacon. The Hobo is the crowning glory. Studs, buckles, tassels – it’s got the lot, including a very limited availability.