Bags of appeal: Fashion North visits the Inside Out handbags exhibition at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum

London’s Knightsbridge, home of the Victoria and Albert museum, is no stranger to luxury. Just a few minutes from Harrods and a short walk to Sloane Square, the area is littered with the top designer brands all boasting impressive and seriously expensive arm candy.

For a short time only, the V&A is showcasing the highly-anticipated Bags: Inside Out exhibition which explores the style, function, design, and craftsmanship of the cult accessory, from Birkin Bags to Louis Vuitton artistic collaborations the exhibition is filled with some of the most iconic arm candy from 19th century to present day.

Fashion North spoke to the exhibition’s curator, Stephanie Wood, who carried out the  research on the V&A’s vast collection of around 2,000 bags which date from the 16th century to today, from all different cultures and were carried not only by women but men and children too.

She said: “We wanted to go beyond some of the assumptions connected to bags, because despite their complexity throughout history, we almost exclusively associate bags with women, and we tend to focus on handbags. Whereas the exhibition showcases the many incarnations of bags as a ubiquitous object used throughout history.

“Each bag was chosen because it tells a specific story, whether that be the evolution of bag design as a result of developments in travel internationally, the influence of the military on contemporary sport bags, or the symbolic role that handbags can play as status symbols.”

Celebrity endorsements play a huge role in the popularity of designer accessories, by debuting the bag on the red carpet and during public appearances it is a vital element in introducing the accessory to millions across the world. Style icons have played a huge role throughout the decades. In 1950s and 60s, Grace Kelly and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis had their favourite handbag renamed in their honour – the Hermés Kelly and Gucci’s Jackie bag, both of which are still in demand handbags.

The power of celebrities exploded in the late 1990s and 2000s with the ‘It bag’ phenomenon which saw certain handbags becoming ultimate symbols in fashion, most famously the Dior Saddle bag which was debuted on the runway in John Galliano’s Spring/Summer 2000 collection but became the most talked about accessory as it made its way onto the arms of Sarah Jessica Parker’s Sex and the City character Carrie Bradshaw.

Curator Stephanie explained that the Fendi Baguette featured in the exhibition is the actual bag worn by Sarah Jessica Parker in Sex and the City.

She told Fashion North:  “It was heralded as the first global ‘It bag’, reportedly selling around 600,000 times between 1997 and 2007. Its status was elevated by the 1997 episode when Carrie Bradshaw famously corrected the thief stealing her purple sequinned Fendi bag by saying, ‘It’s a Baguette’.|”

In recent times, the growing power of social media has seen influencers and bloggers taking the lead in promoting designer goods to young audiences all over the world, showing the desired world of luxury bags.

Sports and streetwear have played a major role in influencing the way we dress and in recent years the popularity of sport brands has grown seeing brands like Supreme taking centre stage. The American skateboarding brand established in 1994 by James Jebbia gained icon status in 2017 when Louis Vuitton’s menswear designer Kim Jones collaborated with the streetwear brand blending high-fashion with streetwear which had never been seen before. The sell-out collection led to many of its kind including Dior collaborating with Nike in 2020 but also led to Louis Vuitton recognising the importance of the streetwear culture when it made Virgil Abloh the artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear collection in March 2018 after the success of his own label Off-White.

Designers across the world are known for their iconic silhouette handbags, including Celine’s Phantone tote bag designed by Phoebe Philo in 2014 became popular worldwide as it was seen on the arms of celebrities and bloggers making it desired by so many. Fendi’s Peekaboo, Prada’s Galleria, Saint Laurent’s Lou bag are still available to buy today which have led them to become key staples in the designers’ collections, where each season a new colour or fabric is designed to increase the bags appeal.

Many designers use their accessory designs to convey a message, whether drawing inspiration from political events or climate change, our accessories play an important role in helping spread awareness to important topics around the world. From Jeremy Deller  ‘Speak to the earth and it will show you’ carrier bag designed in 2003 as a portable advertisement with the idea of the bag being a symbol connecting the owner to others who recognise its message. Whether encouraging shoppers to reuse plastic bags or showing anti-slavery working, our accessories can have a positive impact to the world around us.

Louis Vuitton is no stranger to artist collaborations which was first seen in 2001 when Louis Vuitton’s then Artistic Director Marc Jacobs collaborated with American designer Stephen Sprouse to reimagine the fashion house’s LV monogram. Using Sprouse’s distinctive style incorporating pop and street culture he created a screen-printed graffiti design that ‘defaces’ the iconic monogram. The Monogram Graffiti was the first of many successful collaborations between Louis Vuitton and contemporary designers.

From the success of the Stephen Sprouse collaboration, Louis Vuitton in 2003 commissioned Japanese artist Takashia Murakami to redesign the iconic monogram logo. The result was a limited-edition canvas bag with a brightly coloured LV monogram called ‘ Eye Love’ with the printed surface created using 62 different colours applied by using 93 separate screens. The design is still considered to be one of LV’s most famous collaboration with the handbags still being widely popular in recent times as the resurgence of 2000s styles sees these collections selling for huge amounts on the resell market including at online retailers including FarFetch and Vestiaire Collective.

Fashion is not always practical and designers are no stranger to quirky designs that fit nothing but a tiny lipstick but give maximum lasting power as being cult designer objects. Take Karl Lagerfeld’s iconic supermarket scene from Chanel’s autumn-winter Ready to Wear show in 2014 where he designed an evening bag in the shape of a milk carton which displayed many of Chanel’s classic symbols such as quilting, interlocking CC motifs and pearls. The text on the front reading ‘lait de coco’ which is French for ‘coconut milk’ and a play on Gabrielle Chanel’s nickname, Coco.

Christian Dior are also known for collaborations, such as the 2016 hookup with artist Marc Quinn for a ‘Fossil record- Lady Dior’ handbags to celebrate the 2016 opening of Dior’s New Bond Street store in London. The handbag features embossed orchid motif which is inspired by Marc Quinn’s 2015 Fossil Record – The age of Aluminium which immortalises an orchid in various states of bloom.

The exhibition shows the creative process when designing these famous bags, from the initial drawings to paper patterns and prototypes the steps the designers take can be lengthy before they create the final product. Discover more about the creation of these designer bags on the Victoria and Albert museum Youtube Channel linked here. 

Find out more and book tickets to visit the Bags: Inside out exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum

We also got an insight into what’s to come at the Victoria and Albert museum for everyone who loves all things fashion. Opening June 2022 to April 2023, Africa Fashion will celebrate the creativity and unstoppable global impact of contemporary African fashions. The exhibition will explore the vitality and innovation of a selection of past and present designers, design collectives, stylists and influencers and photographers.

Discover more about the exhibition at https://www.vam.ac.uk/exhibitions/africa-fashion

 

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