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Image: Harper’s Bazaar.

I always wanted one. For me the Birkin bag was the ultimate luxury item, and I knew I would never get bored of it. I convinced myself that I really needed one and thought I would eventually pass it on to my daughter.

Suzanne Koller, Austrian born stylist and fashion director of M Le Magazine du Monde.

This is a quote from an article in Harper’s Bazaar, March 2021.

In 1984 fashion model and singer Jane Birkin was on a flight from Paris to London when her basket bag flopped over, spilling its contents on the floor. The gentleman sitting next to Ms. Birkin, Jean-Louis Dumas, at the time the executive chairman of Hermès, noticed and he and his seatmate had a chat about the difficulties of finding a handbag large enough to carry all that the busy model and mother needed on any given day. Mr. Dumas immediately started sketching and voila, the Birkin bag was born.

Hermès asked if they could name the bag after Ms. Birkin and she agreed. Apparently she receives an annual royalty for the use of her name and she donates that money to charity.

Made of sturdy leather, the Birkin is a constructed carryall bag in rectangular shape with a flap. Its simplicity and versatility is its signature.

It takes Hermès craftspeople 15 to 20 hours to make each Birkin bag and every bag is made by one person. Add the design process (the design has slightly altered over the years), cutting and dyeing the leather, and we’re talking two years from prototype to finished product. Some Birkins are custom made with particular leathers and hardware. It takes time but quality always does. And the Birkin gives back, in that it will stand the test of time in style and wear. It’s an investment piece meant not to sit in the closet but to use every day. Some people use it as their gym bag, others throw groceries into their Birkin.

The Berkin can cost upwards of $15,000 and there’s a waiting list. If you’re not a celebrity, it’s a long wait. But that’s all part of the Birkin mojo.

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My mother once told me that her best friend from her younger days went through a phase of using paper shopping bags as handbags. Not just any old paper bag! No, one from I. Magnin or Saks Fifth Avenue. How intriguing. She could afford to shop at high end department stores, but she couldn’t afford a purse?

I love the irony and I wonder if that was her intention.

Mom thought that perhaps her BF couldn’t afford the expensive purse she wanted. But having good taste, she wasn’t going to settle for less, so, to be quirky or humorous she used the paper bags she got for buying a lipstick or stockings at the the best department stores in Downtown, San Francisco.

Fast forward to now and paper shopping bags are all the rage for reuse. I see it frequently – sturdy bags used for the gym, carting around kids stuff, used as totes to take to work or on a day out. I use some of my bag collection to carry packages to the post office and they’re perfect for packing a lunch.

These days in California and elsewhere (but not NY) customers have to pay for a bag and that’s a good thing for the environment and a good opportunity to reuse some of the shopping bags we already have. Maybe even carry a really nice one as your handbag. Why not?

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I’ve never been a handbag person or spent a lot on bags, but I bought my first Comme bag in New York 10 years ago. It just spoke to me. I liked all the zippers and the handle on it, and that you could dress it up or down. I also liked the size of it: It wasn’t too big, but it had nice deep compartments. I don’t know how girls do it when they get all dressed up for the Emmys and they have these tiny, little bags.

Amy Sedaris – American actress.

This quote is from Harper’s Bazaar, February 2021.

Ms. Sedaris is speaking of the Comme des Garcons Aoyama handbag. She goes on to say that she carried that first handbag until it wore out and then she replaced it with the same style also in black. Later she bought one in white and another one in pink. Now that is brand loyalty.

It is a simple classic handbag and it reminds me of styles from the 1960s. (My mother would have liked it.) As Ms. Sedaris says it’s large enough but not overwhelming and it has a certain understated cool factor. She comments that it “makes me feel like a grown-up.”

I usually like a handle bag, but these days with the pandemic and masks and distancing I’m using crossbody bags. I like my hands free and everything I need at an easy reach. Handle bags can be awkward.

As for small handbags at dress-up events? Well, during the pandemic it’s a non-issue but what I do is … make use of my escort’s pockets.

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That’s me sporting a white patent leather handbag and that’s my mother and my grandmother Louise, two women who sparked my interest in fashion.

A couple of years ago I started a new holiday ODFL tradition: The Twelve Days of Christmas. Starting on Christmas Day through January 5th, I posted a different holiday card. Last year for Twelve Days I posted a different subway advertisement, inspired by a visit to the NYC Transport Museum.

This year the theme is … wait for it … Vintage Handbags.

My interest (obsession) in handbags goes way back to childhood, as soon as I was old enough to covet my mother’s handbags. By age four I was collecting my own and to this day I remember every one. In particular, a fuchsia patent leather structured handbag that my Grandmother Mary bought for me at the Emporium. I remember spotting it on a table lined with navy blue, black, and tan bags. The fuchsia bag stood out and that was the one for me!

To my young self, handbags represented grown up ladies and independence. They were portable spaces holding important things like car keys, front door keys, money, lipstick, gum!

Handbags have been coming my way ever since. I have a collection of antique and vintage bags, many of which I inherited from both of my grandmothers. Starting Christmas Day I will share some of my favorites.

Please tune in starting December 25th for The Twelve Days of Vintage Handbags.

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My stolen handbag was found dumped under a freeway overpass. A Good Samaritan found it and  my car insurance card left inside helped her find me. (On the bright side at least it wasn’t one of my better looking handbags.)

A year ago this month on a sunny afternoon in an attractive Oakland neighborhood, I was walking back to my car after a medical appointment at Kaiser. I turned the corner with thoughts of dinner that night, when a man I was passing on a narrow sidewalk swiftly grabbed my arm, showed me a gun and demanded my handbag.

He didn’t physically harm me but he did get my bag, hopped back into the waiting car (stolen as it turns out) and sped off with my phone, wallet, car keys … In just a flash I had no way to get home, no way to contact anyone. My car sat just a few blocks away but I couldn’t unlock it. It’s something, let me tell you, standing in the middle of a big city feeling completely stripped. It is that sudden and unexpected sense of helplessness I felt at the time and so many emotions since then that have inspired me to mark the one year anniversary with a post about what I have learned from getting mugged.

Lost:

For weeks afterwards, out of nowhere I’d flash on something and think, “I must have lost that in the mugging.” Not just drivers license, credit cards, and keys but a surprising number of items that were of value only to me. One of the nothings that was everything was a slip of paper with a poem my stepfather had written 30 years ago about our family cat. I had recently discovered it tucked inside a book and I was intending to show it to my mother. I obsessed on the stupidity of that little piece of paper to have lasted all these years and now it was gone, sitting in a gutter somewhere along with other personal possessions like my notebook, a leather cosmetic bag from Italy, and a lovely handwoven scarf that was a gift. I felt exposed and irrationally responsible for these lost things.

I came to realize that I was carrying far too much in my handbag:

We all do it, I think. Stuff things into our handbag not really giving it a second thought but soon the handbag becomes a receptacle for too much, most of which is just taking up space. Now I carry only what I need for the day. Things like postage stamps, gift cards, library card and Clipper Card stay home unless I need them that day. In in my wallet is one credit card, AAA card, and drivers license – that’s it! Anything personal and sentimental like letters, photos, notebook are also left at home.

Something else I thought about was the way I carried my things:

On that day I was sporting a shoulder bag – an easy grab for a thief. Currently when I’m out and about I use a cross-body bag, which isn’t as easy a mark. Bad guys look for quick opportunities to steal and a cross-body bag takes too long. The guy who mugged me was sitting in his stolen car waiting for someone to come along at just the right moment when no one else was around on an otherwise busy street. He must have cased the area and knew he only had seconds. The fact that I was carrying a shoulder bag made it faster and easier to grab and go.

Hide the good stuff:

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Early “hidden bag” design. (Still working on it.)

For quite some time after the mugging I was not myself but rather, a paranoid wreck who seriously believed that every time I ventured out I would get targeted again. The only place I felt safe was at my job and at home. But I made myself get back out into the world. Something that helped me do it was a little pouch around my neck in which I kept my cell phone, keys, and cash. It gave me confidence, thinking that if I got mugged again the thief might get the big bag but I’d have the important things hidden away. I still use a pouch when I’m headed to certain places and I’m currently designing a slim stylish bag that can be worn underneath clothing.

Getting mugged was a shocking experience and it took some time to get past it but I am grateful that I wasn’t hurt. I tip my hat to the Oakland Police Department who responded right away and kept up the investigation, trying to catch this guy. I also had quite a lot of personal support for which I’m also grateful.

I hope OverDressed for Life readers will consider my tips. I know most of us think (I did) this cannot happen to me. But it’s a crazy world and it can happen to anyone, sadly, in pretty much any neighborhood at any time.

Please feel free to pass this post along and hey, stay safe out there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Tote Bag a Week

Tote from the V&A in London.

I don’t recall my mother ever carrying a tote bag, except perhaps to the beach. I, on the other hand, carry one just about every day. In fact, on the rare occasion I’m not toting a tote, I feel something is missing.

Hectic lifestyles call for carting around a lot of stuff. I have my daily tote, which contains: lunch, I.Pod, notebook, book, mags, scarf, and a change of shoes. But I also have an array of totes for specific needs. I thought it would be fun to share with readers some of my more interesting totes, where I got them, and how I use them.

Pictured left is a cotton cloth bag I picked up at the Victoria & Albert Museum. It was the first of what has become a collection of totes from museums. This one was from the exhibit – The Golden Age of Couture: Paris & London, 1947-1957.

I use this lightweight tote while traveling. It slips nicely into my suitcase and works well carrying my camera, travel book and any bits and pieces I acquire during the day. It’s also a handy alternative to my purse when I go down to the hotel reception for breakfast or pop out for a cup of coffee. I have not seen another like it and it’s a good conversation starter. (It’s interesting how often people comment on it.)

Tune in next week for another Tote of the Week.

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My favorite Classic Coach - The Bleeker Bag in tan. Circa 1996.

Speaking of handbags, I read that Coach is reviving five of their old school styles from the 1970s. Limited edition Coach bags designed by Bonnie Cashin will be available exclusively on Net-a-Porter.com starting June 15th.

Coach is a very different brand these days, but it was once known for understated elegance. It started in New York in 1941 as a line of leather accessories for men. In the early 1960s, Coach hired American designer Bonnie Cashin. She created a timeless look in women’s handbags: no logos, no excessive hardware, only the signature turnlock and leather ID tag. Cashin’s designs were the principal Coach look up until the late 1990s.

Coach Classics available on Net-a-Porter.com. Photo courtesy of Net-a-Porter.com.

I favor Coach Classics for the unique style – part preppy, part arty. Like a cashmere cardie or a gold signet ring, a Coach Classic speaks volumes, but quietly.

There are four old school Coach handbags in my collection. I have a friend who has been sporting her Duffel Coach for over 20 years and it’s still going strong – even better, she says. My mom has a Classic Coach and my sis-in-law, too.  

Are you a Coach Classic gal? What’s your favorite style? Do tell.

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My stylish mom.

Time to get back into Mom’s Closet. Click on the Mom’s Closet tab above and read the latest installment – Mom Made the Top Ten on Huffington Post.

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