Why I’ve given up the dream of a designer bag
The first time I saw a Chanel bag out in the world was when I was a teenage Starbucks barista. It was a neighbourhood spot (as much as a Starbucks can be) and I had my regulars. One was a kind brunette who’d pull generous tips out of a pristine, classic double flap. The bag had a signature chain strap, quilted body and leather the colour of the mediocre, soap-bubble cappuccinos I served her.
My eyes unfailingly locked with those double Cs, but I never felt envious. I really believed that with hard work, some diligent saving and a bit of good fortune, I too could afford a Chanel by the time I reached my 30s. My very own symbol of womanly success and sophistication. Maybe it was my 17-year-old naivete, or maybe it was that 13 years ago, designer bags were just more attainable to the average fashion dreamer.
Of course, luxury handbags have always been just that — luxuries. (Except for the one per cent, for whom they are simply purchases. I once read a story about Manhattan elites who view The Row in the same way that an average person sees Uniqlo, and I’ve never been the same.) But today, all us hopefuls looking to make the “investment” in a designer bag, be it a Fendi Peekaboo or Loewe Puzzle, are facing a sum that could buy anything from an ’09 Corolla to a few years’ worth of daily cappuccinos.
Now, a Chanel 2.55 is $9,500; when it was introduced in 1955, it cost $220 — adjusted for inflation, that would be $2,200. All right, what about second-hand? Not so fast — these bags hold their value well. At Toronto consignment boutique VSP, Chanel bag prices start at just under $2,000 for a quilted tote and go all the way up to $9,000 for a maxi double flap. We’re into used-Lexus territory now.
The top luxury brands have raised their prices consistently for years, with hikes ramping up during the pandemic. WWD reports that Louis Vuitton raised its prices at least twice from early 2021 to last month, with its petite monogram Pochette Accessoires bag rising from $630 to $1,050 in that time.
Some of these designer bag price increases can be attributed to changing production costs, an attempt to even out prices across continents and currencies, and presumably a desire to recoup pandemic losses. But it’s hard not to wonder if luxury brands are also increasingly looking to court a different kind of consumer. Idealistic baristas need not apply.
At least with accessories, luxury houses are steadily moving away from selling aspirational goods to the upper-middle-class and toward outfitting the most moneyed customers across the globe. And it’s not like they’re hurting for clients. To keep up with demand, Hermès will open three new leather factories in France in the next two years, establish its first leather-working school and hire hundreds of craftspeople to add to its 4,300-strong workforce of Birkin-smiths.
That’s a big part of what you pay for: unmatched craftsmanship and the finest materials, along with the allure of the brand name. And while a Zara tweed miniskirt “inspired” by the runway works just as well as the real article, a Zara flap bag just wouldn’t satisfy in the same way.
Still, it’s a bit like watching house prices skyrocket to absurd levels and realizing you might need to make peace with renting forever. Amid elevated inflation levels, everything is starting to feel like a luxury — going out to dinner, filling a tank of gas, having a baby. Handbags, no matter the price, are still inherently practical objects meant to help you carry what you need for the day. I’m drawing the line at spending half of my RRSP on a piece of logo-stamped leather and metal, no matter how beguiling it is.
I’ve also come to terms with the simple truth that a designer item, be it a bag, a pair of shoes or a coat, doesn’t signal true style — at least not to me. I have never seen a woman carrying an expensive purse and thought, “Wow, she’s so stylish.” My primary thought goes something like, “Wow, she’s so rich.” I’m loathe to throw truly ridiculous figures at a purchase just so another person can form false assumptions about my net worth. Is that admirable? Maybe. Maybe it’s what I tell myself to soothe a yearning ego.
I don’t see anything morally wrong with wanting beautiful, aspirational things — we’re wired for it, and brands have done an excellent job at hiring beautiful, aspirational people to sell us on the dream. And truthfully, I haven’t stopped wanting. But my attention has turned toward alternative It-bags, like vintage styles that fly under the radar (at least, until the brands reissue them anew, at 1,000 per cent markup). I like to spend my downtime scouring second-hand shops for gems from Y2K, like a sweet little Prada with bohemian whipstitching in a joyous marigold hue. I don’t mind some wear and tear, be it a love-worn patch of suede or scratches from a past owner’s nails. A designer logo, naturally, doesn’t hurt. My Tom Ford–era Gucci bag, scored for $99 at an antique store, fills me with pride about as much as a material possession can.
I didn’t get a Chanel bag when I hit 30; that’s life. But I did get something else: the luxury of not worrying about what some teenager — or anyone — thinks of the bag I carry.