The death of the It Bag?
For the rest of this week, I'll be posting a three-part series on designer handbags. This is the first part.

I recently read Dana Thomas' excellent book Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster, and can't recommend it enough. The book doesn't exactly expose any groundbreaking information, but for me at least, it was arranged in a way that made me look at the whole picture...and seriously ponder my fashion addictions. Basically, luxury companies started in the 1800s and 1900s as small, family-owned businesses dedicated to providing the ultra-wealthy with luggage, jewelry, and, later, clothing. Starting in the 1980s, however, savvy businessmen like LVMH's Bernard Arnault began buying up these companies, forming global luxury conglomerates. And, like most large corporations, especially ones that are traded publicly, the focus gradually shifted from making high-quality products to boosting the bottom line. Enter marketing departments, charged with creating a desirable brand personality; mass-market-targeted merchandise, like business-card holders and key chains; and the ultimate in entry-level product, perfume and makeup. (Thomas touches upon this briefly, but, generally, most fashion houses either lose money or break even on clothing; it's accessories and, if applicable, fragrance and cosmetics that are the big moneymakers.) And, in most cases, production has shifted away from France and Italy; brands like Gucci and Louis Vuitton of course still have factories in Italy and France, respectively, but many of their items are now manufactured in India, Croatia, and Serbia. And while Coach is the only company that freely admits to manufacturing its bags in China, Thomas all but calls Burberry, Vuitton, and Gucci on it--since Europe's labeling laws are a little less stringent than America's, 95% of a bag can be manufactured in say, China, but if the handles are added at the last minute back home, made in Italy it is! In other words, just because a handbag costs $1,200 doesn't mean ol' Gepetto stitched it by hand in Florence.

The strange thing is that none of this information really diminished my desire for a handbag; to the contrary, I began thinking about them more and more, and I even spent one frenzied morning searching for Hermes on eBay (lesson learned: I cannot afford an Hermes bag, even in canvas). Am I brainwashed from years of reading Vogue? Or am I an unapologetic conspicuous consumer? My stock answer is that I like beautiful things--it just so happens that fashion is more affordable than, say, fine art. I also like to say that, especially to New Yorkers, your handbag is like your car in that you use it to schlepp all your stuff, but it also has the habit of defining your personal style, whether you intend it to or not. Remember that episode of Sex & the City where Samantha goes ballistic over the Birkin? You can be dressed like a total slob, but it doesn't matter as long as you're carrying a $5,000 bag.

But while the Birkin will undoubtedly always remain a classic (Hermes, Chanel, and Christian Louboutin are about the only three companies that come off looking good in Deluxe, which might have something to do with the fact that the latter two are privately held), the It Bag's days might be numbered. Beginning with the Fendi Baguette in the mid-'90s and spanning through the Vuitton Murakami, the Gucci horsebit hobo, the Balenciaga motorcycle bag, the Marc Jacobs Stam, and countless others, the must-have bag of the season has drained countless wallets, all in the name of keeping up with the Joneses. And I think everyone is getting tired. The L.A. Times' Monica Corcoran wrote an obituary for the It Bag last week on her excellent blog, All the Rage; the New York Times' Eric Wilson sounded the death knell back in November of last year. Between rampant knockoffs and counterfeits, the increasingly devalued dollar, and a looming recession, it's almost like the perfect storm.

Of course, now that we know that luxury conglomerates are just out to make money, the It Bag has to be supplanted by some other equally lucrative item. So what's next? Why, the It Shoe!

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