(Trends)

The Rise, Fall, And Rise Again Of The It Bag

Why ‘newstalgia’ is a term to put on your radar.

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A look at the rise and fall and rise again of It bags.

For the last 20 years, the phrase “It bag” brought to mind a specific type of handbag, namely one that came from a European luxury brand, cost upwards of four figures, and required a special relationship with a sales associate to acquire. The concept has been dissected, declared dead multiple times, only to be revived year after year, with the proclamation that this time, for real, “the It bag is back.”

But what defines an It bag, especially in 2021? A Telfar tote? Maybe it’s the Bottega Veneta woven Jodie hobo that’s all over the Instagram photos of many influencers. Perhaps it’s a classic, like an Hermès Birkin or Chanel flap bag. Or, could it be a revival of a trendy early ‘00s style like the Balenciaga Moto or Marc Jacobs Stam? The answer, paradoxically, is all of the above.

“We consider an ‘It bag’ to be having a moment or a spike in popularity. Celebrities, influencers, and [other tastemakers] gravitate to them,” says Charles Gorra, founder and CEO of Rebag, the luxury handbag reseller. By that definition, it’s easy to see why there’s confusion over what qualifies as one these days. Depending on which corner of social media you occupy, what you see “everyone” carrying differs wildly.

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Back in the early ‘00s, status handbags were determined by fashion magazines and celebrity tabloids like US Weekly. Celebrity style reigned supreme, as did pop culture moments like SATC. During this era, handbags were known by their names: Fendi Baguette, Balenciaga Moto, Marc Jacobs Stam, Dior Saddle, Louis Vuitton Pochette, to name some of the more popular ones. Flashy and covered in logos, prints, or sequins, they were instantly recognizable and blared their luxury status from a mile away. They sparked a desire by consumers to learn more about them, whether on The Fashion Spot, a forum for the fashion-obsessed, or by going to blogs like Bag Snob or Purse Blog.

Counterintuitively, Bag Snob was actually anti-hype. “Certain bags were obviously far more sought-after than others and served as content fodder during my first couple years of Bag Snob,” says Tina Chen Craig, who founded the blog in 2005. “But if anything, we were definitively anti-It bag. Rather than incite more buzz over ‘the bag of the moment,’ we focused on teaching people how to collect intelligently and make informed purchases.”

Céline Spring/Summer 2011Celine

That desire to be more mindful became more pressing following 2008: the economy plunged, Occupy Wall Street came into existence, and over-the-top displays of wealth fell out of favor. Logomania fell by the wayside and the pendulum swung to minimal styles.

Blame the shift, too, on Phoebe Philo. After creating hit handbags like the Paddington (which featured a massive padlock enclosure) during her tenure at Chloé, she became the new creative director at Céline in 2008. Her minimal styles like the Luggage Tote and Box bag became the new status symbols. Featuring slick, solid colors and gold hardware, they signified a quiet luxury that was deemed socially appropriate in a post-crash economy.

But it wasn’t really until Mansur Gavriel that the idea of the expensive It bag really turned on its head. Founded by Rachel Mansur and Floriana Gavriel in 2013, the duo created neutral totes and bucket bags that featured bright linings in shades like lipstick red or cobalt blue. Priced at under $500, they offered the same minimal appeal as Céline bags, at a fraction of the price.

Mansur Gavriel

“We made what we wanted and that was not available in the market at the time: minimal, functional, art-inspired, high quality, with beautiful colors and materials at a price that didn’t feel outlandish. Customers responded to all of these principles,” the founders said in an email statement.

Customers not only responded, but the fashion crowd did as well with articles from the likes of Fashionista and Racked, detailing how to get your hands on one. Business of Fashion declared it “the first It bag post-2008 recession.” Mansur Gavriel bags were also the last to inspire this type of frenzy for years to come until Jacquemus rolled out his tiny Le Chiquito bag in 2018, a top-handle crossbody tote that fit not much more than a cellphone. For the fashion world, the pendulum swung again, from roomy totes and bucket bags to these exceedingly small bags that were anything but practical. But soon, practicality became a necessity again — against the backdrop of the last year and a half, shopping habits became more thoughtful.

“Following a difficult period where sales of handbags saw a sharp decline, the bag category is currently experiencing a reinvention, taking into consideration the importance of long-term appeal and practicality,” says Jane Collins, footwear and accessories senior editor at WGSN, a trend forecasting agency.

Luxury brands like Hermès and Chanel experienced a decline in sales during the peak of stay at home orders, when lockdowns were in effect, only to bounce back as they lifted. Bags from these brands tend to defy the It bag label in some ways as they remain perennially popular and have only increased in value over time. Shoppers consider styles like the Chanel 2.55 or the Hermès Birkin as sound investments, versus trendier options that tend to be worth less once they’re no longer popular. In a time of uncertainty, a bag that holds its resale value is an easier purchase to justify.

For certain handbag brands, the last 18 months represented a different shift in consumer shopping habits. In May 2020, the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor led to the revival of the Black Lives Matter social justice movement.

The wave of protests served as a wake-up call for many shoppers. If you were posting in support of Black Lives Matter on social media, was it lip service? How did you actually support the Black community? Shoppers were compelled to look at their habits and diversify their spending to support BIPOC designers.

It also represented a shift in shopper psychology. In order to authentically support BIPOC designers for moral reasons, consumers took a hard look at the other labels that filled their closets. Fast fashion, with its questionable ethical standards and problematic impact on the climate, suddenly felt less desirable in favor of sustainable practices like upcycling and shopping vintage or thrifting.

During the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, Brandon Blackwood released his End Systemic Racism tote. He made 500 and they sold out in two hours. In March of 2021, he discontinued the bag. “I don’t consider my ESR tote an ‘It bag.’ It was a statement necessary with what was going on in the world. Though it was popular, I would never allow it to be seen as just a hot commodity. It bags are born through trends, systemic racism is not and will never be a trend,” he says.

That’s not to say he’s against the term. “As far as It bags go, I consider our Kendrick trunk to be one. It’s our top seller, and loved by so many different people with all different aesthetics — it’s for everyone,” he says.

The same point of view is echoed by designer Telfar Clemens, who has “Not For You – For Everyone,” displayed prominently on his brand Telfar’s website. Arguably creating one of the most desired handbags of the moment, the Black-owned brand also saw a surge in 2020, with Lyst declaring Teflar’s signature bag the hottest item of the year. Dubbed the “Bushwick Birkin,” a nod to its desirability among the creative Brooklyn crowd, fans set multiple alarms in order to get their hands on a drop. The resale market is so brisk that the brand had to enact a bag security program to ensure that customers were paying retail and not marked-up pricing.

Both Blackwood and Telfar offer their bags for well under $500, a price tag that’s accessible to their customers. Other brands have cultivated devoted followings by offering their styles at well below the cost of the average traditional luxury handbag by the likes of Chanel or Louis Vuitton, both of which have steadily been increasing their prices.

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For Elza Wandler, whose brand Wandler sells bags at around $1,000, a combination of factors contribute to success. “The ideal bag has a great balance of quality, design, style, color, and practicality. It’s what I aim for, I want my customers to have a luxurious feeling and sense of distinctiveness when you carry them,” she says.

Paulina Liffner von Sydow, founder and creative director of Little Liffner, echoes the desire to create distinct bags at an approachable price point. Her designs — which range from under $200 to under $1,000 — are created to be the anti-It bag. “The concept feels closely linked with conspicuous consumption and the handbag as a status symbol, values that I don’t think our woman is driven by. I like to think that I’ve created a few strong silhouettes and these bags will stay in our customers' wardrobes for many seasons to come, not as the flavor of the day,” she says.

Blackwood agrees, “I made my bags affordable because I wanted to. I wanted people that looked like me and came from backgrounds like mine to own something quality, fashion-forward, and practical. The generation that carried expensive bags as a status symbol are older and have other priorities in life. Millennials and Gen Z are not impressed with a $5,000 bag they see on their favorite celebrity.”

But while millennials and Gen Z may not use an expensive luxury bag as a social signifier, these more affordable brands function in the same capacity. It bags establish an “in” group, and those who own one are members of this community. If you see a person carrying a Telfar bag, and you’re holding one too, chances are you have similar interests and worldviews. The same can be said if you’re carrying a Wandler or Little Liffner.

Of course, fashion is by nature cyclical and those early aughts bags are back. Liana Satenstein, senior fashion writer at Vogue, is a huge proponent of their return. “[Over the last year], I spent a lot of time in the archives, especially the ‘00s. Growing up during that time, I didn’t have the money to buy the bags that I would see on The Fashion Spot. Now that I can actually afford them, it brings those bouts of nostalgia into reality,” she says. High on her list are the Balenciaga motorcycle bag, which she deems back, as well as the Marc Jacobs Stam and the YSL Mombasa.

Satenstein is not alone in her love for those bags. “According to Rebag’s 2021 Clair Report, which investigates trends in luxury resale, the It bags of the early aughts are definitely having a revival at the moment. One of our most queried styles is the medium Balenciaga City Classic Studs Bag, which was one of the most popular styles of that era,” says Gorra.

“I was a fan of the Balenciaga bag and I totally see the appeal for the younger generation,” echoes Craig, although she also doesn’t count out new designer styles to break into It bag territory. “My friend BryanBoy and I are obsessing over the Hourglass bag from Gucci x Balenciaga. We’ve been texting until late in the night trying to figure out how we can get our hands on one, since we both forgot to pre-order.”

If the current state of It bags is driven by a customer who is equally concerned about social justice, sustainability in the form of thrifting or buying designer resale, and affordable price points, what does the future hold?

According to Collins, fashion will meet function, noting, “A growing number of styles will have clip-on accessories for work-leisure styling so you’ll see mini bags or pockets accompanying larger totes.” Given that many people will eventually return to an office, at least for part of the week, this is unsurprising.

But despite what designers say, Collins believes that the It bag will return with maximal and minimal ideals. “We’re coining maxi-minimal, which means we’ll see minimalist designs updated with maximalist details like hardware, embellishment, shape, color, and branding,” she says. That Fendi-meets-Versace swap or that Gucci remixed with Balenciaga? It’s indicative of the wave of mashups that combine classic, more reserved brands with more outlandish labels.

And don’t expect to see the nostalgia for the ‘90s and ‘00s go anywhere, Collins adds. “Millennials and Gen Z drive demand for reinvented classics from both decades. Expect to see ‘Newstalgia’ shapes including baguette, barrel, banana, and half-moon designs that offer familiarity and reassurance during a period of change.” The security of coming back to the trends of childhood is being met with a reinvigorated joy for dressing up.

Welcome to the era of Newstalgia.