Isn’t it fun to be contrarian? Every now and then, I think about how the word hipster went from cool to despicable and finally obsolete. But as outdated as the term is, there is still a privately delicious flavour to being ahead of the curve, of knowing a little more than most. And yes, let’s just admit it, a slight feeling of superiority.
But anyway, isn’t that what most fashion is about? Whether consciously or not, you wear things to telegraph a message. The season’s boldest, most recognisable prints are a way to say you’re in the know; being an early adopter of new runway styles confers a kind of savvy cred, and so on.
There is, however, what I like to call a B-side to the world of fashion. It’s the flipside that receives relatively less attention, that takes a little more conscious seeking to discover. These aren’t the super popular designs that make it onto highly curated advertising campaigns. As tempting and eye-catching as those headlining designs (what the business dubs “key styles”) are, it can be even more tantalising to dig a little deeper. A closer look at a label’s offerings can often yield excellent finds that aren’t as obvious. And there’s a special satisfaction that comes from wearing and carrying things that aren’t as easily identified.
Or, in the very meme-worthy words of SoCal vlogger Alex Peirce (alias HRH Collection on Youtube): “If you get it, you get it. If you don’t, you don’t. If you know, you know. And if you don’t know, like, I honestly feel bad for you. Like, I can not explain it. I don’t have the vocabulary to sit here and explain it, like, either you get the vibe or you don’t get the vibe.”
The exasperation is hilariously palpable. But the sensibility remains: design that speaks sotto voce and into your ear, not projected for the room. It’s about individuality and exclusivity – hints of which, ironically enough for supposedly timeless qualities, are coming back in fashion. Take Bottega Veneta’s new era under Matthieu Blazy, for example. Before his first collection (stellar! Please check it out if you haven’t yet!) has even hit stores, the Belgian designer has resurrected the house’s peak stealth-wealth slogan from the ‘70s: “when your own initials are enough”.
Bottega Veneta’s latest campaign, featuring its popular Padded Cassette bags and the official reinstatement of its ’70s-era “when your own initials are enough” slogan. It’s all part of freshly-minted creative director Matthieu Blazy’s homecoming vision, of bringing the Italian leather goods house back to its core roots.
When Bottega Veneta first introduced that slogan, it added a layer of intrigue and allure to the house’s leather goods. The idea back in the ‘70s was that the intrecciato leather weaving technique (only developed and introduced in the late ‘60s) would subtly telegraph a connoisseur’s appreciation for exquisite craftsmanship. It’s not unlike Margiela’s basting stitches, which express a fashion-forward eye for Belgian deconstruction; or the white bands under the collars of Dries Van Noten jackets, a designer whose clothes exemplify fervent love for style.
The Belgian designer Martin Margiela first came up with the four basting stitches as a temporary way of attaching labels to his clothes. The original intent was for the labels to be cut off, to remove any designer or brand name associations with the clothes. Ironically enough, the four stitches have become one of the most recognisable in-the-know markers in fashion, and even today hold some solid cachet.
But the latter two examples are about clothes. Clothing speaks a subtle, nuanced language that takes more time to nail. Accessories, however, have a directness all of their own. And bags are perhaps the most immediately noticeable. Which makes them a great place to start introducing this spirit of appreciating contrary, lesser-known designs. Here’s my selection of hidden gems from the biggest names around.
Behold: the Parisienne! This handsome, structured tote is one of the more low key bags that were featured on Dior’s Spring Summer 2022 runway show. It’s beautifully subtle. And if you’ve ever looked up vintage Dior handbags, you might recognise the extremely elegant influence of its past bags. Although this brick red version comes from an earlier season, the rich and sumptuous colour is well worth hunting down. Alternatively, the house has also come up with more classic versions in black and white for the current season.
Parisienne calfskin tote, $7,400, Dior
The By The Way bag is one that I cannot help but check in on whenever I am inside a Fendi boutique. My worry is that it will be discontinued – a massive shame because it’s an understated workhorse of a bag. The Boston style duffel shape is straightforward and roomy, and it’s finished with thoughtful details like a pair of top handles with strategic cutouts so they can be laid flat. To top it all off, it’s constructed from a soft, smooth calfskin that slouches beautifully.
By The Way medium leather bag, $2,690, Fendi
There is a whole category of lesser-known bags in the Louis Vuitton collections made from Mahina calfskin, a supple and lightweight leather that’s finely perforated with little dots to create the monogram pattern. This Muria bucket style is seriously versatile, and is finished with a nice touch of contrasting leathers. A darker brown leather on the corners, drawstring, shoulder strap and braided top handle; and a lighter leather that matches the body of the bag on the attached name tag, clochette key bell and an interior divider pocket.
Muria Mahina leather bucket bag, $6,400, Louis Vuitton
I don’t need to tell you about Chanel flap bags. Even people who don’t care about fashion know about Chanel flap bags. Well then, how about a flap bag that’s a little less dainty and more structured? The simple addition of a top handle and shift in proportions (a little boxier, less rectangular; a straight-edged flap instead of a curve) changes the attitude entirely. It suggests the look of a briefcase, softened by details like the recognisable quilted lambskin and leather-laced chain.
Lambskin flap bag with top handle, $8,940, Chanel
If you look closely at the designs of the Spanish leather brand Loewe, you’ll find traces of Japanese inspiration – as on the origami-like panels of the house’s Puzzle bags. This Cushion tote has a similar vibe, with a carefully-constructed frame that features articulated leather gussets on the side, and finished with knotted leather straps. The hardy canvas versions are great-looking everyday totes, with enough space and structure to comfortably fit a laptop and more.
Small Cushion canvas and calfskin tote, $1,800, Loewe
Thanks to the Ridley Scott film House Of Gucci, there’s been a renewed interest in the look of vintage Gucci. Personally, I think that’s best personified by old photos of Jackie Kennedy toting around the bags that would be named in her honours; and a particular image of the Irish writer Samuel Beckett with a suede Gucci bag on his shoulder. What those ideals have in common is a particular half-moon shape that’s been an enduring classic of the Italian brand since the ’50s. Thankfully, something like that can still be found in the present day lineup.
Ophidia GG canvas small shoulder bag, $1,830, Gucci
The Sorbonne name of this bag says it all: it’s a nod to the collegiate chic of student’s satchels. It’s very apt for Saint Laurent, which has its Paris studios located on 24 Rue de l’Universite. The great thing about this bag is that it’s big on understated chic – it’s free of any logos or branding, save for the extremely subtle “Saint Laurent Paris” engraved on the metal buckle. And its academic look evokes a sense of left bank intellectuals bickering about books and films over coffee and wine.
Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello Sorbonne leather shoulder bag, $2,990, Saint Laurent
Celine has some terrific bags out right now, and they generally balance classic Parisian bourgeois with Hedi Slimane’s unerring eye for the look of the moment. However! A lot of their Triomphe canvas designs actually work best when they lean into an old-school, vintage aesthetic. Especially lovely: the amber brown calfskin trimmings that look like aged natural leathers.
Celine by Hedi Slimane Triomphe canvas and calfskin small bucket bag, $2,350, Celine
Prada is well-known for its cross-hatch grained saffiano leather. It’s resilient, subtly glossy and tends to be used on more structured and precisely-shaped bags like the Galleria tote. This Matinee bag, however, has a more relaxed and hair-down daytime attitude. It’s got a classic silhouette, and the zip-free construction means the front and back panels of the bag don’t look as severe. Great if you like the dressiness of saffiano leather, but want something a little more louche.
Matinee leather bag, $4,900, Prada
Since New Bottega was minted in 2018, the house has not so much followed trends as led them. This little purse from the Salon 03 collection, Daniel Lee’s last for the brand, has a nice change of aesthetic. It wholly picks up on the fervour for pochette styles from the aughts and the decade’s trend for hardware-forward design. That said, the silver-finish buckles have a clean and modern look that makes this more of an update and not just nostalgia.
Buckle nylon and leather bag, $3,470, Bottega Veneta
Bowling bags are back in force this season. This one from Burberry is a smaller version of a runway style, and features rolled leather top handles with a generous drop length. The proportion of handle length to its mini size also means that on smaller frames it’s easy to carry both on the shoulder and in the hand.
Half Cube Mini leather bag, $2,490, Burberry
This Valentino tote is actually from the men’s section – but it’s got a great crafty look that’s ideal for summer. The woven crochet design is actually a nod to a men’s sneaker style first launched in 2021, and the macrame technique requires artisanal handiwork. On sneakers, it registers as a marvel of craftsmanship and design. On this tote, it reads like a very elevated take on the trend for straw and raffia bags.
Valentino Garavani crochet tote, $3,380, Valentino