If your handbag signals so much about you – and that’s the message the brands have been pushing since the dawn of the It Bag in the early noughties – wouldn’t you want yours to say, who’s that girl or, being adult and empowered, who’s that woman? Wouldn’t you want your bag to attract attention because it’s beautiful, capable, practical and secure, with the right number of pockets? Not, perhaps, because it is recognisable from a luxury advertising campaign?
This is not to say out with all brand bags! If I owned a Celine winged tote, I’d intend to carry it for years. Yet I’m more excited when I see someone with a fabulous bag I don’t recognise. Which is how I found myself having coffee with an imperial and royal highness. I know. The lengths to which I’ll go to bring you this column.
A wealthy man I met at a dinner asked me a favour: might I possibly see a friend of his, who had launched a handbag line? Listen here for the sound of my heart sinking, for there’s nothing I loathe more than bored , rich women playing at being fashion designers and expecting you’ll write about them, even though they’ll have given the whole thing up and gone skiing in Gstaad long before any article appears.
How soon did I swallow those thoughts over breakfast with Sophie Habsburg, who yes, probably skis off-piste. Daughter of the Archduke Ferdinand Karl of Austria, Habsburg was born in exile in Paris 50-something years ago. She modelled – as was destined by such cheekbones – and married a German prince. None of which, in my black-hearted fashion cynic’s handbook, is of much use when it comes to designing in three dimensions.
Yet Habsburg’s bags, made in Italy to impeccable specifications, would attract my eye without any august ancestry. Having worked as an interior designer and also as a jewellery designer, she started off carrying her creations herself, which led to orders from mates who happened to be scattered across the royal houses of Europe. Way more interesting is that the Salander, a gorgeous shoulder-slung, suede “boho” bag, is of perfect proportion and balance, with just enough detailing and coming in a choice of four colours, from sand to scarlet. Named after Lisbeth Salander, who played with fire, kicked a hornet’s nest, etc, it’s a surprisingly kick-arse accessory for a princess. Habsburg’s accessory collection is stocked in some very smart stores and available online, where good product counts for everything and connections with court count for nothing.
While I am not to the manor born, let alone the palace, this month’s column had me drawn to royalty a second time when I bumped into the owner of a Reema bag. The Reema is a tantalising Tardis, the ellipse shape held shut by an ornate, sliding cuff. You can fit an astonishing amount of stuff into this evening clutch. Behind the label, Baraboux, is designer Princess Reema Bandar Al Saud. That I wrote about Reema two years ago and still want one speaks for its practical yet glamorous design.
With royal lineage but nonetheless a queen among bags is the Peau de Chagrin, launched by fashion industry insiders Mesh Chhibber and Sofie Cornillon. The name translates as “skin of sadness” and was inspired by Balzac’s novel of the same name, usually translated as The Magic Skin. The singular ambition of this duo, one of them French, the other of high-born Nepalese Indian heritage, is to create beautiful products that endure. Their first bag is as big as a Birkin, unadorned and somewhat Scandinavian in its clean-scrubbed beauty. Currently available in tan, there are whispers of a more robust navy or chocolate brown version. Should that happen – eureka! – 15 years since the It Bag phenomenon kicked off, I will have found my ultimate Anti-It bag.
International fashion editor Marion Hume is based in London.