Why I gave up the dream of a designer bag

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The first time I saw a Chanel bag in the world was when I was a teenage barista at Starbucks. It was a neighborhood place (as much as a Starbucks can be) and I had my regulars. One was a sweet brunette who pulled generous spikes from a classic, immaculate double flap. The bag had a signature chain strap, quilted body, and leather the color of the mediocre soap bubble cappuccinos I served her.

My eyes inevitably locked on those double Cs, but I never felt the urge. I truly believed that with hard work, diligent savings and a bit of luck, I too could afford a Chanel when I reached my 30s. My own symbol of feminine achievement and sophistication. Maybe it was my 17 year old naivety, or maybe it was 13 years ago, designer bags were simply more accessible to the average fashion dreamer.

Of course, luxury handbags have always been just that – luxury goods. (Except for the one percenter, for whom it’s just shopping. I once read a story about Manhattan’s elites who see The Row the same way an average person sees Uniqlo, and I don’t have never been the same.) But today, all hopefuls looking to make the “investment” in a designer bag, be it a Fendi Peekaboo or Loewe Puzzle, are faced with a sum that could buy no one. anything from an ’09 Corolla to a few years of everyday cappuccinos.

Now a Chanel 2.55 costs $9,500; when introduced in 1955 it cost $220 – adjusted for inflation it would be $2,200. Alright, what about second hand? Not so fast – these bags hold their value well. At Toronto’s VSP consignment store, prices for Chanel bags start at just under $2,000 for a quilted tote and go all the way up to $9,000 for a double-flap maxi. We are now in used Lexus territory.

The biggest luxury brands have raised prices steadily for years, with increases intensifying during the pandemic. WWD reports that Louis Vuitton raised prices at least twice from the start of 2021 to last month, with its small Pochette Accessories monogram bag going from $630 to $1,050 during that time.

Some of these designer bag price increases can be attributed to changing production costs, an attempt to standardize prices across continents and currencies, and presumably a desire to recoup pandemic-related losses. But it’s hard not to wonder if luxury brands are also increasingly seeking to seduce another type of consumer. Idealistic baristas don’t need to apply.

At least with accessories, luxury houses are gradually moving away from selling aspirational products to the upper middle class to outfitting the world’s wealthiest customers. And it’s not like they hurt for the customers. To meet demand, Hermès will open three new leather goods shops in France over the next two years, create its first leather goods school and hire hundreds of artisans to complement its 4,300 Birkin blacksmiths.

It’s a big part of what you pay for: unparalleled craftsmanship and the best materials, plus brand appeal. And while a runway “inspired” Zara tweed miniskirt works just as well as the real thing, a Zara flap bag just wouldn’t satisfy in the same way.

Still, it’s kind of like watching house prices skyrocket to absurd levels and realizing you might need to make peace with renting forever. Amid high levels of inflation, everything is starting to feel like a luxury – going out to dinner, refueling, having a baby. Handbags, regardless of price, are always inherently practical items meant to help you carry what you need for the day. I quit spending half my RRSP on a piece of leather and metal with the logo on it, no matter how alluring.

I also accepted the simple truth that a designer item, be it a bag, a pair of shoes or a coat, does not signal true style – at least not for me. I’ve never seen a woman carrying an expensive handbag and thinking, “Wow, she’s so stylish.” My main thought goes something like, “Wow, she’s so rich.” I hate tossing around really ridiculous numbers when making a purchase just so someone else can make false assumptions about my net worth. Is it wonderful? May be. Maybe that’s what I tell myself to appease a burning ego.

I don’t see anything morally wrong with wanting beautiful, ambitious things — we’re wired for it, and brands have done a great job of hiring beautiful, ambitious people to sell us the dream. And honestly, I haven’t stopped wanting. But my attention turned to alternative it-bags, like vintage styles that go unnoticed (at least, until brands reissue them at 1,000% markup). I like to spend my free time browsing thrift stores for Y2K gems, like an adorable little Prada with bohemian whipstitch in a cheerful shade of marigold. I don’t care about wear and tear, whether it’s a piece of love-worn suede or scratches from a previous owner’s nails. A designer logo, of course, doesn’t hurt. My Tom Ford-era Gucci bag, sold for $99 at an antique store, fills me with as much pride as material possessions can.

I didn’t have a Chanel bag when I turned 30; that’s life. But I had something else: the luxury of not caring what a teenager – or anyone – thinks of the bag I’m carrying.

Liz Guber contributes to The Kit, writing about style and culture

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