As the Omicron surge of COVID-19 kept so many of us stuck inside this winter, especially as this contagious strain of the virus forced many companies to reconsider letting workers return to their offices, the last thing on our many of our minds were “what bag will I use today?”
Even when we did go out, so many of us relied simply on a reusable store bag— Target’s canvas carryalls were ubiquitous—to carry our daily necessities. For all their practicality, however, these utilitarian bags robbed us of our individuality, as what sort of bag is in our hands, crosses our body, or is slung over our shoulder says so much about an individual’s personal style.
It remains one of the most versatile fashion accessories there is. Bags are easily changed, practical, and come in sizes and functions to suit almost any day, as well as a way to convey status or fashion sense.
And there’s been a cultural change, too, at least in terms of gender. In recent years as more and more men carry bags, it’s less likely to hear someone criticized for carrying a “man bag” or a “murse.” It’s ironic because bags morphed from merely useful to fashion statement for both men and women in the Middle Ages only to become “uncool” in the 1990s, in part due to derision directed at the ubiquitous fanny pack. Only the “safely masculine” backpack was okay for guys. Fortunately today, “acceptable” options for men go way beyond a backpack. One guy who has carried a bag for years says, “People used to tell me I was trying to be ‘European. Yet, when I dressed up every day for work, I didn’t want a wallet or keys or anything else to ruin the line of my suits. It just made sense.” It’s something women have known for years.
“I see the bags I make as a true form of self-expression,” says Australian-based bag designer Aimee Kestenberg, who is noted for her appealing cross-body styles.
So now that spring has sprung, and the world is brighter again, both figuratively and literally, we will start heading back to the office (or at least go to the neighborhood café where we can work among others), go out to lunch and dinner more often with friends, or just stroll in public. Accordingly, our bag “wardrobes” will need replenishment, especially since one might use two or three different bags each day (or week), depending on our activities.
For example, it’s completely logical to carry something large enough to hold a laptop when you’re heading off to work; while a large tote is the perfect choice for a weekend stroll when you never know what you might pick up in your travels and something small and fashionable, like a crossbody bag that simply holds your wallet, phone or ID, is probably a more preferable option for a night on the town.
UTILITY, NOT FUTILITY
Whether you’re purchasing one bag or several, the biggest factor for most customers is utility. “Our customers search for stylish bags, but above all, they must provide utility and help them fill whatever needs they may have,” says Mark Kohlenberg, CEO of Moral Code.
That sentiment is echoed by Timm Fenton, Vice President of Design and Development, at Ricardo Beverly Hills. “Our customers always expect a balance of high quality, thoughtful design, and functional innovation in all of our products,” he notes.
Still, if “utility” is the overriding quality that consumers are seeking when purchasing a new bag, it’s far from the only one.
“Attractiveness always plays a huge part, as most people would only buy a bag that aesthetically appeals to them—even if it doesn’t check any of the other boxes,” says Ashley Stanton, head of handbags at mygemma.com, which specializes in pre-owned luxury goods such as Hermès bags such as Birkins and Kellys.
“I would say utility and comfort are key when we have clients shopping for specific styles like work bags,” she continues. “For our trend-seeking clients who are always on the hunt for the latest “It Bag,” we believe that innovation is paramount. Finally, when people buy pre-owned goods, they are choosing sustainability as a factor, since that’s what the luxury resale industry is all about.”
Adds Jesse Blackburn, senior product merchandiser at Nixon: “We’ve recently pioneered the use of reclaimed ocean plastics in almost every bag we make. That said, we realize that being environmentally friendly isn’t enough to win the hearts of the consumer. Each of our bags is packed with the considered design features and the subtle details people expect from our brand. And if a bag isn’t comfortable or doesn’t look great, no one wants to carry it, so those factors are just as important.”
Says Susan Kelly, owner of Milly Kate, “Our customer is choosing our tote bag for two main reasons: first, because it is attractive to her and will make her feel stylish and put-together, and second, because she wants it to be really useful, which means it’s convenient to carry and it’s easy to find her items in the bag, thanks to its pockets and roomy opening.”
Another factor that used to be important to consumers, but is quickly fading, is which gender the bag was made for. “Unisex” is definitely the word of the day, as is evidenced on the streets where more and more men and women can be seen carrying the exact same handbag or tote bag, gender norms be damned.
The trend has even extended to Hollywood where Jonah Hill was seen frequently in the popular movie “Don’t Look Up,” carrying a Hermès Birkin bag—an idea the actor told W magazine was his own (in order to prove his emulation for his onscreen mother, played by Meryl Streep).
Or just take a look at Nordstrom’s website. While their spring bags are still divided by gender, offerings by such top-name brands as Fear of God, Paco Rabanne, Beis, Longchamp and Proenza Schoueler are likely to be purchased by men and women alike, no matter how they’re being merchandised.
Many other companies, such as Stuart & Lau and Nomatica, are also aware that buying patterns have changed and are encouraging this dynamic. Serkan Anders, VP of US Marketing for Briggs & Riley, notes that “our products are absolutely gender neutral. We find our customers tend to seek products and collections that resonate with their personal style, not just their gender.” Adds June Meng, Director of Marketing for TJIN: “We have customers from both genders for our shoes and bags. You’ll even find some of those “real looks” on our Instagram and TikTok channels.”
Going even one step further is Adelante, which is known for its hand-made products from Guatemala. “All of our products are deliberately unisex, from bags to shoes,” says Peter Sacco, the company’s president. Adelante is a company focused on customer inclusivity, and our made-to-order products allow for both aesthetic and size customization to accommodate either gender in any purchase.”
Perhaps the final word on this subject belongs to up-and-coming designer Hogoè Kpessou, “My overall goal is to provide items for everyone. I think it’s great to be a woman-led brand in the luxury industry and to be able to encourage diversity amongst my customers in wearing my items. That is a major goal of mine.”
The bottom line: If a bag looks good on you, fulfills you daily needs, and makes you feel better in any way possible, then it’s the right bag for you!