The Handbag

...Redefining Luxury

by Georgia Shaw
'Your handbag is your home during the day' tweeted the legendary womenswear designer Diane von Furstenberg in a recent series of admissions about her love for the accessory. The handbag, an item we carry every day, has reached something of a frenzied status with waiting lists for new designs, the inauguration of iconic bags and a thriving knockoff industry.

It is the designer handbag which communicates this message most strongly, no longer defined by its use or quality but by its symbolism of wealth, status and access. The humble handbag, an item you select carefully and guard fiercely, as von Furstenberg breezily explained, is the most overt sign of your identity and personal space during daylight hours. The uncomfortable paradox is that while luxury handbags are increasingly able to communicate seasons, trends and spending habits, those responsible for designing them are often silenced.

While the image of a pained artist seeking creative inspiration is seductive, the problems associated with handbag design are largely financial and bureaucratic. Consider the expertly crafted prototypes needed for each handbag collection combined with the often expensive materials required to make them. Here we reach the most disappointing aspect in which the pitfalls of handbag design are most heavily burdened on independent designers rather than those working in-house. The sheer number of start-up costs for those wishing to build a brand around their designs is overwhelming.

Along with designing a collection, in the initial stages of building a brand a designer is often responsible for sourcing all materials, creating a highly technical line sheet to detail how the handbag will be made, determining the volume of units and contracting an external contractor to produce the product. If handbags are sold made to order, the designer must supply money upfront for production and may not be able to recoup these costs for up to 60 days. If a collection is successful, they may then be required to maintain quality control, produce look books, pay for couriers to send press samples and commission a website whilst designing the next season's collection. The complexity of building a handbag brand is relentless.

NOT JUST A LABEL, as an active supporter of emerging independent designers, has since 2008 been articulating a new form of luxury. The word, used liberally to describe flash over spending may also describe rarer designs conducive to comfort and pleasure. Look to NJAL's accessory designers for an affordable form of luxury in its rightful sense.

The curve of the cream leather panels laid over understated matt black lends itself to Spanish designer Eugenia Alejos' training as an illustrator. With her feminine flourishes, her Eindhoven backpack is subtly unisex incorporating iridescent snake skin with demure blue fastenings to create a beautifully detailed piece. Alejos' Alkmaar It bag incorporates the same unusual snake skin in the detailing of an oversized satchel perfectly proportioned as the designer details for a MacBook. Blending elements of traditional design with unconventional materials, Eugenia Alejos' A Dixit handbag collection is nothing if not stylish.

New York based designer Cenan Abas Sel's brand Cashhimi produces an array of handcrafted totes, clutches and shoulder styles from exquisite exotic skins. The designer, who has earned an international following, is quick to emphasise that all her products are made under the same roof in Turkey. This artisan approach is applied to the use of exotic skins in her design which as a material is hard to quality control. Skins, unlike leather, each have an individual texture and pattern and when combined with a standardised design creates a refreshingly different result each time. This element of unpredictability which may deter franchised brands allows Abas Sel to express the individuality of the women who buy her bags through the materials she uses. The King shoulder bag in a dark rich green python skin edged with silver chains is a perfect example of this luxury individualism while the striking hue of the Blue Downing cross the body bag is a sophisticated take on day wear.

Italian label Aus Dem has created functional totes for its Blue Washed Edition collection in tactile, luminous, pearlescent materials. The designer's capsule handbag collection was born from an interest in researching new processing techniques combined with traditional Italian leather. This successful formula was selected by Wallpaper* for its renowned Graduate Directory in partnership with NJAL which recognises the most promising emerging creative talent in fashion and design.

Whether you view of the humble handbag as a coveted status symbol or simply as a keeper of keys, eschew the atypical designer handbags for a new take on luxury incorporating rare materials and even rarer design.