The Classics – the A to Z of iconic handbags

The B’s

Balenciaga – I remember the first time I visited an emporium of designer handbags, in an established and iconic department store being introduced to all these wonderful designers and when I came across the Balenciaga section I was taken aback with the understated but edgy designs. The shelves weren’t bouncing with lots of different colours but there were plenty filled with different sizes of the City bag (pictured here is the small size). I know some might say that the Lariat bag was spotted in more hands, however, the City bag delivers on a shape that fits lots in, has the soft leather and biker chic tassel, zips and studs. This is a bag that can dress up or dress down a look. Top marks!

The classic designer handbags

Bottega Veneta brings us a signature leather weave called intrecciato. When you see beautifully woven napa leather in a bag, there’s very little need for an introduction, it’s iconic.  Think luxurious bags, Italian leather craftsmanship and when it comes to weaving leather, there really isn’t anyone that comes close. Yes, the label produces bags that aren’t made from exactly cut strands of leather, however, when it comes to icons, BV offers up lots of options; the Cabat tote bag as a starter. But for me, few brands do clutch bags as well as Bottega Veneta and the Pouch bag, in mini size rocks a stylish day or evening. Spotted here in vibrant green at Copenhagen Fashion Week.

Bottega Veneta intrecciato pouch bag

From C to D

The French leather craftmanship of Céline started mid 1940s but in shoes, not bags. Fast forward to the late 1990s and accessories were high on the agenda as the Head of Design for accessories collaborated with Michael Kors. This successful partnership lasted for about five years. Then came the Celine bags we easily recognise today under the stewardship of Phoebe Philo (previously at Chloé) who first brought us a well proportioned square tote bag with wings, The Luggage bag. Then came the wide with wings bag, The Trapeze and many crossbody bags including the simplicity of the Trio; three zipped pouches sewn together. Now Celine is without the accent on the first ‘e’ in the brand name and the creative direction is coming from Hedi Slimane. Whilst the Trapeze bag is my favourite in the softer leather, the most iconic bag so far from Celine is arguably The Luggage.

The Luggage bag from Celine

Chanel is synonymous with handbags, however, Coco Chanel who started designing in 1915, only turned her attention to bags post 2nd World War. It wasn’t until she reached her 70 years of age, that one of the most iconic bags was created. And in 1955, the controversial shoulder bag was produced, the 2.55 bag (the .55 noting its year of launch). The chain strap, quilting and flap have remained as key features over the years. The Mademoiselle lock was replaced by the interlocking C logo as the way to secure the flap. And the Chanel bag archive was a rich source for Karl Lagerfeld who relaunched the 2.55 bag in 2005. This bag is often noted as more than a luxury handbag but also an investment.

Iconic Chanel with 2.55 bag

Christian Dior is a French fashion house with many influential creatives at the helm but Christian Dior himself introduced the business of fashion to many design houses; licensing the brand to a range of luxury accessories from jewellery, perfume to cosmetics. When you think of Dior across the decades since it first opened in 1946, the brand epitomises femininity. Whilst I love the saddle bag, the ‘Chouchou’ bag, created in the mid 1990’s was renamed a year later as the Lady Dior, after being gifted to Princess Diana by the then First Lady of France, at an exhibition opening night. The distinctive features are its structure, signature ‘cannage’ stitching and charms hanging from the handle – four letters spelling DIOR and is coveted by many leading ladies.

Lady Dior bag

The F word

In fashion F is for Fendi. Started in Rome, Italy, allegedly it was the brand’s accessories that caught the eye of the president of the American department store Bloomingdales which saw the designer become known stateside. The double F logo became the hardware for opening buckles and a monogram print on many of the bags. Whilst the brand named a bag after the French leading actress, Catherine Deneuve, Fendi’s baguette bag is one that was a hit at its launch and then again 20 years later in the 21st century. The short shoulder strap meant the bag tucked nicely under the arm, not bouncing off the hip. This season the bag is back covered in feathers or embroidery. Great at the weekend and for a night out.

Fendi baguette bag

The Gs

From France, the House of Givenchy burst on to the Paris fashion scene in the early 1950s bringing us ready to wear and separates collections. Hubert de Givenchy had Cristóbal Balenciaga as a mentor and gained a reputation not just for breaking rules but gave us clean lines which Audrey Hepburn and her little black dress helped accelerate around the world. For bags, it was much later in this brand’s history for an icon to appear. Enter the Antigona tote bag in 2010 with the brand name placed in a triangle. This bag was a rework of an original Givenchy bag, the Boston. To note, this icon does not stand still, it keeps reinventing itself; just last year, the 10th anniversary, the Antigona became available in a more supple version, the Antigona Soft. This bag comes in different sizes, depending on whether you need it for a day or weekender and now with more or less structure in its shape.

Givenchy Antigona tote bag

The distinctive marks of Gucci; the horsebit or snaffle, the interlocking G, its red and blue or red and green striped patterns have been through many trademark battles. And it was the over saturation of Gucci in the early 1990s through fake copies that started to devalue the brand’s luxury status. However, the revered times of the 1950s when the likes of Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn carried a Gucci back, returned to this House of design and has been going strong since the start of this century. There are many bags one could opt for; the Jackie, the ever popular Marmont with the double G mark but for me it is the Dionysus because it brings the old and new of Gucci designs and assets together in one bag – grab one with the bamboo top handle as well and you’ve got a classic!

Gucci Dionysus top handle bag

Capital H

Hermès is another handbag institution whose roots lie in equestrian equipment. Dating back to the 19th century this brand has heritage. But it was the 1950s when its handbags received recognition across the world, thanks to Grace Kelly who received the fashion spotlight during her engagement to Prince Rainier of Monaco. Her Hermès bag was renamed the Kelly when the pair wed. However, the Kelly bag has competition from another bag from the same designer. Another trapezoidal leather bag, designed as the ideal weekend companion, the Birkin has been sought after, not just as a new bag, but even second hand or preloved. Named after the actress Jane Birkin who allegedly was seated next to the chairman of Hermès on a flight in the 1980s who shared her thoughts on the perfect weekend bag. When Christie’s auction house has an auction on handbags, guaranteed a Birkin will always be present in the list of lots. The Kelly and Birkin are both icons in their own right. Which one would you choose? Maybe it’s down to the handles; the Kelly with a shoulder strap and single top handle and the Birkin with its two tote bag handles.

Just J

Marc Jacobs is all American; born and studied fashion design in New York but his experience reaches far and wide, creatively trusted with the Louis Vuitton brand back in the late 1990s. His own brand always brings a sense of freshness that might reinvent some familiar bag shapes from bowling bag to a box bag. Often quoted as being a fun and youthful brand, you can rely on Marc Jacobs to bring us brights or pastels in a bag that is ideal for a day out, the crossbody classic, the Snapshot. This camera bag is refreshed from season to season and love the two zipped compartments. Adorned with the double J logo, available with thin leather or thick woven shoulder strap. The Snapshot has a structured finish and recently a matte more subtle option can be found in the Softshot bag.

Kaia Gerber with Marc Jacobs snapsot bag

J to L

Judith Leiber from Hungary moved to New York and began her handbag career in the early 1960s and sold the business just before the millennium. Some might view her as a newcomer to the designer handbag hall of fame, in comparison to some of the heritage designer brands from Europe, however, Judith produced a vast collection of handbags. She became most famous for her evening bags and grew a celebrity following for the bags covered in rhinestone. It’s reported the jewel encrusted bag came about to cover up an accident; a bag in transit from Italy became stained and the gems were added to the final design in the US, to hide the incident. Any museum exhibition on handbags will feature a Judith Leiber objet d’art, from the classic Slim Slide clutch to Fabergé egg bag with a cup cake, a boom box or your favourite drink to choose from. The Rainbow Rainbow clutch keeps on giving with a 10% donation back to community. And the bags in the shape of cash have been spotted many times in the hands of many celebrities.

Judith Leiber stack of cash clutch bag

Loewe is another European brand with 19th century heritage but interestingly this design house has always been about handbags and did not start from traditional equestrian roots. Loewe’s trademark is soft leather that has attracted loyal fans from the Spanish Royal family. And whilst the brand has an iconic bag called the Amazona, the bag that keeps it front of mind is the Puzzle bag. Created in 2014 and launched in 2015, the puzzle bag was designed by Jonathan Anderson for the brand’s men’s fashion collection. Thankfully it has made it into the women’s collection too. You look at it and wonder what the origami style lines offer. Well, if folds completely flat! And just at the start of this year, 2021, the bag has been launched in nano size for when you don’t need to carry lots of items – it’s a gem of a bag that rocks both smart and casual days.

Loewe nano puzzle bag

Longchamps was founded after the 2nd world war, specialising in leather covered smoking pipes and branching out with smoking accessories; ashtrays and pipe holders, despite the galloping horse in its logo, after a nearby race course the founder used to pass by. The brand had a booth at the Orly Sud airport to sell luggage. Fast forward to the 1970s and the handbag range emerged. And the revolutionary luggage made of leather and nylon enabled lighter travel and this gave way to the iconic Le Pliage, the foldable bag another 20 years later. You can’t walk down a city street in a European city without spotting a woman with the Pliage over a forearm. The House keeps fresh through collaborations with Tracy Emin and Kate Moss. Le Pliage is available in many sizes, colours, materials that you no longer have to opt for the nylon-leather combo. And this year Le Pliage Filet which rocks the mesh fashion trend.

Longchamp Le Pliage

Mmm!

Mulberry is often quoted as quintessentially English, which tends to conjure images of the English countryside and the design mark is a mulberry tree spotted in the Somerset countryside which the founder Roger Saul used to see. This handbag design house is fairly modern in comparison to other design houses; created at the turn of the 1970s. What is interesting about the handbags from this brand is they work as your accessory against both a city and country backdrop. The inspiration keeps coming from Mulberry and the designs are kept fresh through various collaborations and creative directors who followed the founder. Fast forward to the 21st century and Mulberry has given us notable bags such as the Roxanne and the Alexa. However, it’s the Bayswater bag that established Mulberry’s crown in the handbag world and has evolved from the front flap, to a tote to a top zip opening. It’s a staple to reach for.

Mulberry Bayswater bag

P is for…

Prada. This Italian brand has been crafting luggage and handbags since early 20th century and carries the hallmarks of luxury, opening their first store in Milan’s landmark shopping destination, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele. However, it wasn’t until the granddaughter of the founder, Muiccia joined the company in the late 1970s did the brand begin to reach past the well-to-do of Milan. By the mid 1980s fashionistas wanted something more, something modern and the nylon rucksack with the Prada triangle took off. However, Prada’s iconic bags aren’t nylon but leather. It’s not the gauffre (gaufré) or ruched leather now synonymous with Miu Miu, founded by Muiccia. It is the clean lines of the Prada Galleria tote bag. This tote is a favourite in hard wearing saffiano leather which means it keeps its shape and quality for a long time – another hallmark of a classic.

Prada Galleria bag

The S

Yves Saint Laurent was a man all about fashion. He left his native Algeria after school and headed straight to Paris to work in fashion and he worked for Christian Dior. He set up his own label in the mid 1960s and he became famous for modernising fashion; elegant trousers and smoking jackets for women, pioneering the power suit, ahead of its time. He worked for another 40 years, seeing the millennium in for a few years. Along the way Yves was quoted as saying ‘fashion fades and style is eternal’ and this is certainly the case with his bags. Of the many bags available from this label, there are two that stand out, as they never need a rework or refresh; the Lou Lou bag and the Sac du Jour; interestingly the first carries the YSL mark but the Sac du Jour carries the signature Saint Laurent name, a rebrand stripped ‘Yves’ from the nomenclature, under Hedi Slimane’s direction at the fashion house. So it’s the Lou Lou bag that stands the test of time, taking its name after Yves close friend and muse, LouLou de la Falaise. The bag remains box style, front flap with the quilted chevron finish.

Yves Saint Laurent Lou Lou bag

V is for

Louis Vuitton. And this brand started in luggage, 19th century trunks and brings us over well over 100 years of luxury and craftmanship. At the end of the 20th century, for the 100th anniversary, the company invited a selection of designers to celebrate the LV monogram canvas print; the innovations were exhibited worldwide with Helmut Lang’s DJ vinyl box and Manolo Blahnik’s oval shoe trunk were my favourites. Louis Vuitton started his business using geometric designs (stripes and chequerboard) but had to create something more original (the four point star) due to the increasing number of imitators. However, the design house keeps it fresh with limited edition canvas prints. And whilst there are many different shapes of LV bags, the most iconic has to be the Speedy. It has been around since the 1930s, (previously known as the Express) but thanks need to to to Audrey Hepburn, as the Speedy is now available in more than its original three sizes (30, 35 and 40) there’s a mini size, 25, ideal for everyday use. What’s your size?

Louis Vuitton Speedy bag

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