The Classics – the A to Z of iconic handbags (2023)

The B’s

Balenciaga – I remember the first time I visited an emporium of designer handbags, in an established and iconic department store, being introduced to all these wonderful designers and when I came across the Balenciaga section I was taken aback with the understated but edgy designs. The shelves weren’t full of lots of different colours but they were plenty filled with different sizes of the City bag (pictured here is the small size). I know some might say that the Lariat bag was spotted in lots of celeb hands and iconic status has been achieved, however, the City bag is clever. It delivers on a distinctive shape that fits lots in, has the lovely soft leather with biker chic tassel, zips and studs. It’s got personality. This is a bag that can dress up or dress down a look. Top marks!

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Bottega Veneta brings us a signature leather weave called intrecciato. When you see beautifully woven napa leather in a bag, there’s very little need for an introduction, it’s iconic. Think luxurious bags, Italian leather craftsmanship and when it comes to weaving leather, there really isn’t anyone that comes close. Yes, the label produces bags that aren’t made from exactly cut strands of leather, however, when it comes to icons, BV offers up lots of options; the Cabat tote bag as a starter. But for me, few brands do clutch bags as well as Bottega Veneta and the Pouch bag, in mini size rocks a stylish day or evening. Spotted here in vibrant green at Copenhagen Fashion Week.

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From C to D

The French leather craftmanship of Céline started mid 1940s but in shoes, not bags. Fast forward to the late 1990s and accessories were high on the agenda as the Head of Design for accessories collaborated with Michael Kors. This successful partnership lasted for about five years. Then came the Celine bags we easily recognise today under the stewardship of Phoebe Philo (previously at Chloé) who first brought us a well proportioned square tote bag with wings, The Luggage bag. Then came the wide with wings bag, The Trapeze and many crossbody bags including the simplicity of the Trio; three zipped pouches sewn together. Now Celine is without the accent on the first ‘e’ in the brand name and the creative direction is coming from Hedi Slimane. Whilst the Trapeze bag is my favourite in the softer leather, the most iconic bag so far from Celine is arguably The Luggage.

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Chanel is synonymous with handbags and it’s not a surprise the brand is in this list. However and interestingly, Coco Chanel who started fashion designing in 1915, only turned her attention to bags post 2nd World War. It wasn’t until she reached her 70 years of age, that one of the most iconic bags was created. And in 1955, the controversial shoulder bag was produced, the 2.55 bag (the .55 noting its year of launch). The chain strap, quilting and flap have remained as key features over the years. The Mademoiselle lock was replaced by the interlocking C logo as the way to secure the flap. And the Chanel bag archive was a rich source for Karl Lagerfeld who relaunched the 2.55 bag in 2005. This bag is often noted as more than a luxury handbag but also an investment.

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And to another fashion house from Paris, Chloé, who like Chanel, didn’t launch handbags straight away, it was another 50 years before this label introduced us to their first bag range, under the stewardship of Phoebe Philo in 2001. There are a few eye catching bags from Chloé, however, the one iconic bag that embodies the soft boho chic ethos of the brand is the Paddington bag. Despite the doctor style briefcase influence to the shape, it has soft corners and that bold, distinctive top padlock. It has been said that the bag sold out before it even made it to the shelves! To avoid a waiting list for a new limited edition bag, head over to the preloved websites for a vintage original.

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Christian Dior is a French fashion house with many influential creatives at the helm but Christian Dior himself introduced the business of fashion to many design houses; licensing the brand to a range of luxury accessories from jewellery, perfume to cosmetics. When you think of Dior across the decades since it first opened in 1946, the brand epitomises femininity. Whilst I love the saddle bag, the ‘Chouchou’ bag, created in the mid 1990’s was renamed a year later as the Lady Dior, after being gifted to Princess Diana by the then First Lady of France, at an exhibition opening night. The distinctive features are its structure, signature ‘cannage’ stitching and charms hanging from the handle – four letters spelling DIOR and is coveted by many leading ladies.

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Dolce and Gabbana are somewhat youngsters when it comes to European fashion heritage. This Italian fashion house was started in the 1980s by two designers, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana. The luxurious designs have been regarded over the last 40 years as both modern and unconventional whilst always remaining feminine. And the many bags designed by this label, which have been coveted by many famous faces from royalty to music and film, give us lots of styles to choose from. Having said that, the iconic bag from D&G is the Sicily bag, named after Dolce’s place of birth. It’s made in Italy from quality leather with a shape that is interestingly more vintage than modern. This is a bag that once in the wardrobe, will be brought out again and again, it’s timeless chic.

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The F word

In fashion F is for Fendi. Started in Rome, Italy, allegedly it was the brand’s accessories that caught the eye of the president of the American department store Bloomingdales which saw the designer become known stateside. The double F logo became the hardware for opening buckles and a monogram print on many of the bags. Whilst the brand named a bag after the French leading actress, Catherine Deneuve, Fendi’s baguette bag is one that was a hit at its launch and then again 20 years later in the 21st century. The short shoulder strap meant the bag tucked nicely under the arm, not bouncing off the hip. This season the bag is back covered in feathers or embroidery. Great at the weekend and for a night out.

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The Gs

From France, the House of Givenchy burst on to the Paris fashion scene in the early 1950s bringing us ready to wear and separates collections. Hubert de Givenchy had Cristóbal Balenciaga as a mentor and gained a reputation not just for breaking rules but gave us clean lines which Audrey Hepburn and her little black dress helped accelerate around the world. For bags, it was much later in this brand’s history for an icon to appear. Enter the Antigona tote bag in 2010 with the brand name placed in a triangle. This bag was a rework of an original Givenchy bag, the Boston. To note, this icon does not stand still, it keeps reinventing itself; just last year, the 10th anniversary, the Antigona became available in a more supple version, the Antigona Soft. This bag comes in different sizes, depending on whether you need it for a day or weekender and now with more or less structure in its shape.

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The distinctive marks of Gucci; the horsebit or snaffle, the interlocking G, its red and blue or red and green striped patterns have been through many trademark battles. And it was the over saturation of Gucci in the early 1990s through fake copies that started to devalue the brand’s luxury status. However, the revered times of the 1950s when the likes of Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn carried a Gucci back, returned to this House of design and has been going strong since the start of this century. There are many bags one could opt for; the Jackie, the ever popular Marmont with the double G mark but for me it is the Dionysus because it brings the old and new of Gucci designs and assets together in one bag – grab one with the bamboo top handle as well and you’ve got a classic!

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In and amongst the heavyweight designer houses of Givenchy and Gucci, there’s still room for one more ‘G’ who has made an impact in the handbag world and brought us iconic design. Say hello to Lulu Guinness who started designing bags as late as the early 1990s. Despite the lack of heritage her designs have been included in fashion exhibitions at London’s V&A museum, and been carried by many famous music and film artists. Lulu’s connection with glamour and at times the whimsical, make her bags stand out. I love walking into a Lulu Guinness boutique and being absorbed by the fun, charm and striking atmosphere. But there is one design that despite the shorter years as a design house that is undisputedly LG and that is the lips clutch. This bag no longer has to appear in the trade mark bold red – – the lips can appear in any other colour and material and you still know its a Lulu Guinness bag.

Capital H

Hermès is another handbag institution whose roots lie in equestrian equipment. Dating back to the 19th century this brand has heritage. But it was the 1950s when its handbags received recognition across the world, thanks to Grace Kelly who received the fashion spotlight during her engagement to Prince Rainier of Monaco. Her Hermès bag was renamed the Kelly when the pair wed. However, the Kelly bag has competition from another bag from the same designer. Another trapezoidal leather bag, designed as the ideal weekend companion; the Birkin has been sought after, not just as a new bag, but even second hand or preloved. Named after the actress Jane Birkin who allegedly was seated next to the chairman of Hermès on a flight in the 1980s who shared her thoughts on the perfect weekend bag. When Christies has an auction on handbags, guaranteed a Birkin will always be present in the list of lots. The Kelly and Birkin are both icons in their own right. Which one would you choose? Maybe it’s down to the handles; the Kelly with a shoulder strap and single top handle and the Birkin with its two tote bag handles.

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  • The Classics – the A to Z of iconic handbags (13)

Just J

Marc Jacobs is all American; born and studied fashion design in New York but his experience reaches far and wide, creatively trusted with the Louis Vuitton brand back in the late 1990s. His own brand always brings a sense of freshness that might reinvent some familiar bag shapes from a bowling bag to a box bag. Often quoted as being a fun and youthful brand, you can rely on Marc Jacobs to bring us brights or pastels in a bag, ideal for a day out and its the crossbody classic, the Snapshot that has earnt a following. This camera bag is refreshed from season to season and fans love the two zipped compartments. Adorned with the double J logo, available with thin leather or thick woven shoulder strap. The Snapshot has a structured finish and recently a matte more subtle option can be found in the Softshot bag.

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J to L

Judith Leiber from Hungary moved to New York and began her handbag career in the early 1960s and sold the business just before the millennium. Some might view her as a newcomer to the designer handbag hall of fame, in comparison to some of the heritage designer brands from Europe, however, Judith produced a vast collection of handbags. She became most famous for her evening bags and grew a celebrity following for the bags covered in rhinestone. It’s reported the jewel encrusted bag came about to cover up an accident; a bag in transit from Italy became stained and the gems were added to the final design in the US, to hide the incident. Any museum exhibition on handbags will feature a Judith Leiber objet d’art, from the classic Slim Slide clutch to Fabergé egg bag with a cup cake, a boom box or your favourite drink to choose from. The Rainbow Rainbow clutch keeps on giving with a 10% donation back to community. And the bags in the shape of cash have been spotted many times in the hands of many celebrities.

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Loewe is another European brand with 19th century heritage but interestingly this design house has always been about handbags and did not start from traditional equestrian roots. Loewe’s trademark is soft leather that has attracted loyal fans from the Spanish Royal family. And whilst the brand has an iconic bag called the Amazona, the bag that keeps it front of mind is the Puzzle bag. Created in 2014 and launched in 2015, the puzzle bag was designed by Jonathan Anderson for the brand’s men’s fashion collection. Thankfully it has made it into the women’s collection too. You look at it and wonder what the origami style lines offer. Well, if folds completely flat! And just at the start of this year, 2021, the bag has been launched in nano size for when you don’t need to carry lots of items – it’s a gem of a bag that rocks both smart and casual days.

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Longchamp was founded after the 2nd world war, specialising in leather covered smoking pipes and branching out with smoking accessories; ashtrays and pipe holders, not quite in keeping with the galloping horse in its logo, which came from a nearby race course the founder used to pass by. The brand grew quickly through travel with a booth at the Orly Sud airport to sell luggage. Fast forward to the 1970s and the handbag range emerged and the revolutionary luggage made of leather and nylon enabled lighter travel. This paved the way to the iconic Le Pliage, the foldable bag another 20 years later. You can’t walk down a city street in a European city today without spotting a woman with the Pliage over a forearm. The House keeps us engaged via collaborations with the likes of Tracy Emin and Kate Moss. Le Pliage is available in many sizes, colours, and materials so that you no longer have to opt for the nylon-leather combo. And this year (2021) Le Pliage Filet rocks the mesh fashion trend in SS21.

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Alexander McQueen made a huge impact on the fashion industry right up until the end of the first decade of the 21st century when he died in February 2010. Having learnt his trade in menswear, he still made his impression on women’s fashion too, not just with his own label but also winning awards whilst spending five years at Givenchy in Paris. The one thing that Alexander McQueen brought was full on design and his handbags weren’t overlooked. His trademark gothic embellishments continue today through his co-designer Sarah Burton. And the standout bags from the brand are the iconic knuckle clutch bags. There are many style of clutches but the box bag with the four ring knuckle duster handle with the brand’s signature skull.

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Mulberry is often quoted as quintessentially English, which tends to conjure images of the English countryside. In keeping then is the design mark; a mulberry tree spotted in the Somerset countryside by the founder Roger Saul. This handbag design house is fairly modern in comparison to most of the other design houses giving us iconic bags. This house was created at the turn of the 1970s. What is interesting about the handbags from this brand is they work as an accessory against both a city and country backdrop or wardrobe. The inspiration keeps coming from Mulberry and the designs are kept fresh through various collaborations and creative directors. Fast forward to the 21st century and Mulberry has given us notable bags such as the Roxanne and the Alexa. However, it’s the Bayswater bag that established Mulberry’s crown in the handbag world and has evolved from the front flap, to a tote to a top zip opening. It’s a staple to reach for.

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P is for…

Prada. This Italian brand has been crafting luggage and handbags since the early 20th century and carries the hallmarks of luxury, opening their first store in Milan’s landmark shopping destination, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele. However, it wasn’t until the granddaughter of the founder, Muiccia joined the company in the late 1970s did the brand begin to reach a wider audience, past the well-to-do of Milan. By the mid 1980s fashionistas wanted something more, something modern and the nylon rucksack with the Prada triangle took off. However, Prada’s iconic bags aren’t nylon but leather. It’s not the gauffre (gaufré) or ruched leather now synonymous with Miu Miu, founded by Muiccia. It is the clean lines of the Prada Galleria tote bag. This tote is a favourite in hard wearing saffiano leather which means it keeps its shape and quality for a long time – another hallmark of a classic.

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The S

Yves Saint Laurent was a man all about fashion. He left his native Algeria after school and headed straight to Paris to work in fashion and he worked for Christian Dior. He set up his own label in the mid 1960s and he became famous for modernising fashion; elegant trousers and smoking jackets for women, pioneering the power suit, ahead of its time. He worked for another 40 years, seeing the millennium in and for a few years after. Along the way Yves was quoted as saying ‘fashion fades and style is eternal’ and this is certainly the case with his bags. Of the many bags available from this label, there are two that stand out because they never need a rework or refresh; the Lou Lou bag and the Sac du Jour; interestingly the first carries the YSL mark but the Sac du Jour carries the signature Saint Laurent name, a rebrand stripped ‘Yves’ from the nomenclature, under Hedi Slimane’s direction at the fashion house. So it’s the Lou Lou bag that stands the test of time, taking its name from Yves’ close friend and muse, LouLou de la Falaise. The bag remains box style, front flap with the quilted chevron finish.

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V is for

Versace. And Versace equalled glamour as well as rock and roll. The brand born by Gianni Versace has had many famous female fans; from the music world, Madonna to Hollywood film stars including Sharon Stone. The brand is represented by the mythical Medusa in logo form, suited to the style and icons he liked to design for. Gianni created for his friend, the Princess of Wales who carried one of the brand’s bags to Gianni’s funeral in 1997. The bag now known as the Lady Diana bag was made specially for her featuring a top handle, lock and key to secure the top flat in crocodile patent leather with gold Medusa medallions. The Versace house continues under Gianni’s sister Donatella, who continues the bag tradition, with lots of metal, with surface details like embossing and the use of exotic skins.

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Louis Vuitton started in luggage, in fact 19th century trunks and today the brand still brings us over well over 100 years of luxury and craftmanship. At the end of the 20th century, for the 100th anniversary, the company invited a selection of designers to celebrate the LV monogram canvas print; the innovations were exhibited worldwide with Helmut Lang’s DJ vinyl box and Manolo Blahnik’s oval shoe trunk were my favourites. Louis Vuitton started his business using geometric designs (stripes and chequerboard) but had to create something more original (the four point star) due to the increasing number of imitators. However, the design house keeps it fresh with limited edition canvas prints. And whilst there are many different shapes of LV bags, the most iconic has to be the Speedy. It has been around since the 1930s, (previously known as the Express) but thanks need to go to Audrey Hepburn, as the Speedy is now available in more than its original three sizes (30, 35 and 40) there’s a mini size, 25 (at her request), ideal for everyday use. What’s your size?

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