Last summer, when I was charged with the onerous task of buying Theresa May’s leaving present from her Cabinet colleagues, I knew straight away what to get her. A handbag.
It’s the one item you can’t really go wrong with. The sort of thing every woman, whether she be rich or poor, young or old, always appreciates. Something that combines style with practicality and, dare I say, pleasure. Choosing Mrs May’s bag was quite tricky. It had to be luxurious, but not too lavish, classic but not dull. And it also had to be British. The budget didn’t quite stretch to Mulberry, so in the end I went to my favourite shop in the world, Liberty, and bought her one of their own designs. Worst comes to the worst, I figured, she could aways take it back and get a credit note.
Sarah Vine and four British handbag designers revealed the items they keep in their totes and their favourite bags as a new exhibition opens (file image)
May’s only ever female predecessor, Margaret Thatcher was, of course, famously associated not just with handbags but also with the term ‘handbagging’, a wearily sexist term used by disgruntled ministers to describe incurring her displeasure. Sadly the V&A doesn’t actually own one of Thatcher’s handbags; the one seen in its exhibition — which opens next week — is on loan. It’s just one of the many iconic receptacles on display in what promises to be an irresistible show.
Handbags are a lifelong passion of mine, maybe even an obsession. That moment when you pull out an evening clutch and discover a long forgotten concert ticket or party invitation; dusting down an old friend after years at the back of the cupboard. There is something satisfying about having your whole world right there in your hands, in a small, safe space.
My current favourite is a nylon Prada from the Nineties, somewhat threadbare, that my best friend was giving to charity. I took it home, sponged it down (it had something indescribable, almost certainly child-related, in the inside pocket) and filled in the threadbare bits with a black Sharpie. Now it’s (almost) as good as new.
There’s also the hippy one I bought in Ibiza, the vintage Anya I got for a long-ago birthday, the Etro I found in a second-hand shop in Turin — on and on the list goes. Many are not special or expensive, but it’s not about money. They are my friends, my own bags for life.
Here, four top handbag designers reveal theirs…
I LIKE TO ADD A TOUCH OF HUMOUR
They say an actor never truly gets into the role until he is wearing the shoes for the part, and I think it’s the same with a bag. A beautiful handbag changes the way you project yourself. The first time I experienced this was at 16 when my mother gave me one of her old Gucci handbags.
It was navy pigskin with a red stripe and I loved the detailed stitching. More than anything I remember it made me feel rather polished.
Anya Hindmarch (pictured) who is a mother-of-five, explained handbags are for ensuring that you have everything you need when you leave the house
As the V&A exhibition shows, with its 300 objects spanning five centuries, our fascination is longstanding. Why do we love the handbag so much? For me it comes down to two things.
First, handbags are there to ensure you have everything you need when you leave the house. I’m fascinated by organisation and, as a mother of five, I think there’s a maternal aspect to this. You need to have everything with you — from dummies to plasters — to ensure you can look after those around you.
Second, there’s joy in the craftsmanship. Just as men might like a car with a beautifully stitched leather steering wheel, women appreciate the artistry of a really good bag.
The bag that changed my life is a leather drawstring duffle I discovered during my gap year in Florence when I was 18.
I’d never seen anything like it in the UK and I thought my friends would like it, so I took some home. Inspired by Thatcher’s get-up-and-go spirit of the time, I was soon producing my own. Bags can be frivolous and fun, but they can also act as a moving billboard. In 2007, I designed the ‘I’m not a plastic bag’ canvas bag which was sold in Sainsburys for £5 as an alternative to disposable plastic bags.
Statement: Anya’s I Am A Plastic Bag
I’m delighted it features in the V&A exhibition as a moment in history when collectively we started to realise the damage we were doing to our planet.
We launched a new version of the bag in February bearing the amended slogan ‘I am a plastic bag’. It’s made from recycled plastic bottles and it took two years to create a material that felt luxurious and like a cotton canvas. I’m using it as my mobile office at the moment.
Sometimes it’s just about creating a really beautiful thing that you’ll want to keep for ever. Fashion doesn’t save lives but it can empower you.
There is often an element of humour to my designs — that British irony that stops us from taking ourselves too seriously.
Take the bags with smiley faces or those where we’ve embellished accessories with the hand-beaded graphics of popular brands. The Turkish Delight and Walkers crisps versions both feature in the exhibition. They are like little tongue-in-cheek works of art.
As for the bags I’m really excited about in the show? My favourites include Winston Churchill’s red despatch box and Thatcher’s black handbag. I once bought one of her bags at auction.
The exhibit I keep staring at, however, is the 19th-century cut steel chatelaine — a beautiful bit of functional jewellery with all the bits you need hanging from a belt, including scissors, thimble and magnifying glass.
WHAT’S IN MY BAG TODAY? Lots of labelled pouches — one for PPE, another for headphones and chargers, another for stationery and one for first aid (lip balm and Nurofen).
MY PRADA MADE ME FEEL SO SPECIAL
Emma Hill, former creative director at Mulberry and co-founder of Hill & Friends
Emma Hill (pictured) revealed her first designer bag was a nylon Prada that she had saved for months to buy in Milan
My first designer bag was an iconic Nineties black nylon Prada with a strap so short it made the bag sit right up in your armpit. I was in my early 20s and saved for months to buy it for around £200 from the flagship store in Milan.
It was my first proper designer purchase upon moving to New York and it made me feel so special on every one of the crazy nights I had there!
I have two favourites in the V&A exhibition — the Hermes Kelly, which is simply the most perfect design, and my Mulberry Alexa. The Kelly is a classic because of its form-meets-function style, with the ability to switch between uptown and downtown, by leaving the twist lock open or closed.
The first bag that had an impact on me was the brown leather purse sewn into my Brownie belt when I was seven.
I remember putting the uniform on box fresh and absolutely loving that little purse. My army canvas satchel from Millets, that I used for school, was another favourite.
Favourite: Mulberry Alexa
I embellished it with graffiti, embroidery and drawings. I went on to study fashion but my first job was as an accessories designer for Burberry.
I’ve worked for many different brands including Mulberry, Calvin Klein and Marc Jacobs. I launched my own label, Hill & Friends, in 2015. These days, I tend to carry three bags.
At the moment, I’m using our brand-new Marlow tote in navy, with tonal suede side panels. Inside that, I keep the bag we first launched, my Happy Chain bag, with our signature smiley lock on the front. Also inside my Marlow is our Alphabet Zip Pouch, with metal bubble initials that say ‘HILL’, where I keep all the essentials from keys to credit cards.
WHAT’S IN MY BAG TODAY? Everything! A packet of squashed oat biscuits, painkillers, a facemask, a bottle of hand gel and credit cards shoved in pockets. There are also sweet wrappers courtesy of my 14-year-old son.
THE FLORIST BAG CHANGED MY LIFE
Lulu Guinness (pictured) said she remembers the joy of being allowed a red patent Gucci shoulder bag from her mother’s cupboard
My life changed in 1993 when I designed the Florist Basket, below. It was a black, silk satin handbag shaped like a vase with red velvet roses on top. It caught everyone’s imagination, especially in America where they called it ‘whimsical’, as it was unlike anything else out there.
The red roses were hard to source: I had a hair accessory with one on that I liked so I did the detective work (without the internet in those days) and eventually found them in New York. The day the V&A bought the bag was the proudest moment in my life.
Lulu Guinness said the Florist Basket (pictured) changed her life
Awareness of my brand suddenly went international and that acclaim gave me the confidence to pursue my career in fashion. The success of that bag taught me to dare to be different.
Handbags, at the time, were an uncrowded part of the fashion industry. But I’d always had a passion for bags.
I remember the joy at being allowed a red patent Gucci shoulder bag with a silver clasp from my mother’s cupboard. I put stickers all over it to make it a one-off. I also bought one on London’s Portobello Road. Evening bags were my great love so it began, as some of the best careers do, with dressing up and looking glamorous.
WHAT’S IN MY BAG TODAY? In my Goliath Bingo Bag I have lipstick, keys, masks, pens, hand sanitiser, mirror compact, glasses and sunglasses. Then any shopping — bread, milk — it really is that big.
BAGS BECOME PART OF EVERY WOMAN
Mariya Dykalo, creative director, Aspinal of London
Mariya Dykalo (pictured) celebrated her first year in England by purchasing her first designer bag, a Jimmy Choo Tahula Hill bag for around £1,200
I have a huge archive of all the bags I’ve designed over the years as well as my favourite vintage pieces. Bags are not just a unique statement of a woman’s status, they become part of her as well.
My favourite Aspinal bag is the lion trunk made from transparent recycled acrylic with a miniature brass lion doorknocker. It is inspired by the traditional English brass lion head door knockers and lion statues of London.
I came to England from the Ukraine in 2004 and to celebrate my first year here I treated myself to my first designer bag, a Jimmy Choo Tahula Hill bag which cost me around £1,200. It was the first bag I fell in love with and it was an inspiration when I started as an assistant designer at Aspinal the following year. I was so pleased when the Duchess of Cambridge was spotted with two versions of one of my designs: the Aspinal Midi Mayfair in both black croc and lilac.
These days I carry two bags — our latest Origami Tote, which is very easy and can be folded and used like a clutch. I keep this inside my large Marylebone bag.
My favourite bag in the V&A exhibition is the despatch box owned by Churchill. It looks like an old trunk with a simple brass handle and I love the fact that the design is still used by today’s Chancellor. It’s the kind of timeless classic any designer would hope to create.
WHAT’S IN MY BAG TODAY? A smaller clutch, plus my make-up bag, two phones, my laptop, magazines and work documents, sometimes a pair of spare shoes, a healthy shake, sunglasses, bottle of water and a pencil case. You can see why I like really big bags!
FROM A GOLDEN EGG TO THE CHANEL CLASSIC, SIX V&A HIGHLIGHTS
The Birkin bag: Born when Hermès chief Jean- Louis Dumas sat next to actress Jane Birkin on a flight to London in 1984. She complained no bag matched her needs as a young mother. Dumas sketched one out and this was the very first — heavily used by Jane — of many.
Dior Saddle bag: Designed in 1999 by John Galliano, the saddle shape made this an instantly recognisable classic among celebrities and it was snapped up by Beyonce, Katie Holmes and Paris Hilton.
Fendi Baguette: Designed in 1997, the first global ‘It bag’, this was made to sit under the arm in the same way the French might carry home a baguette. Around 600,000 were sold in the first ten years.
The Cartier: After women started carrying cosmetics around in the Twenties, jewellery houses began creating elaborate cases for them. This 1958 Cartier gold and diamond version was inspired by jewelled Faberge eggs.
Chanel 2.55: Named after its release date, February 1955, this was the first women’s bag to come with a shoulder strap, and was considered a sign of rebellion and freedom. New versions cost more than £5,000.
Calavera skull clutch: Known for her novelty designs and sense of fun, London accessories designer Charlotte Olympia’s ‘Calavera’ skull clutch bag from 2015 is tongue-in-cheek chic. A calavera is a decorative skull used in the Mexican celebration of the Day of the Dead.
Bags: Inside Out is at the Victoria & Albert Museum from Saturday, December 12. Tickets from £12, vam.ac.uk.
Interviews: FELICIA BROMFIELD