The rise and rise (and rise) of the men's 'it' bag
Paris Fashion Week, in January, was significant for a lot of reasons, the biggest being that it was the last jolly in the PC (pre-corona) era. It was, in hindsight, a final hurrah before the industry re-set that's seen the likes of Gucci and Saint Laurent swear off the show calendar entirely, and the industry as a whole promise a simpler, more sustainable approach once giddy fashion journalists are allowed to kiss each other on the cheek again.
But also of note were the ubiquitous bags in which said giddy fashion journalists carried their invites, and smartphones, and generously-priced French cigarettes. While us chaps on the circuit have long been used to seeing female colleagues unveil a succession of ever-more glamorous handbags as they traipse between the shows in London, Milan and Paris, this was the first time that almost every man also carried some form of designer bag, be it Jacquemus's neck-strung 'Le Gadjo', or a Prada crossbody, or, the most popular option, a Dior saddle bag in varying shades of Dior-ness. They were everywhere.
Of course, if any demographic was to champion the designer bag for men, it'd be giddy fashion journalists. It's our job to get ahead of the curve (no, not that curve). Still, despite being a paid-up member of fashion's chattering classes, I was long reluctant to indulge. I like pockets. As far as I could see, if something didn't fit in them, it had no place on a day racing around Paris for show season. Until, all of a sudden, I was furnished with a loaner by the kind bods at Dior. It sat over my now empty-pocketed coat, scrawled with graffiti, and I fell in love. I'd crossed the aisle.
I'm not the only one. Though bags have long been the banker for any self-respecting womenswear label, menswear's starting to play catch-up. In 2018, the BBC noted a 5.5 per cent increase in the market for men's bags, hitting a combined value of £1.45 billion. In that same year, global market research outfit Mintel found that purchases had grown by almost a quarter, with 15 per cent of 16-34 year olds converting. That's a lot of bags. And a lot those guys who were investing were the sort who, a few years previously, would have thrown their cash at luxury watches or a pair of statement sneakers.
That makes perfect sense, as menswear unshackles itself from the old tropes of dressing by testosterone. Though we're not quite on the waiting list for an Hermès Birkin, the lines are blurring. After all, Kim Jones's take on the saddle bag was inspired by Dior's seminal handbag. So what's the difference between a men's bag and a women's bag? As with the distinction between a gold watch and a gold bracelet, we shield our masculinity with a layer of functionality. "At a base level it’s a practical item. Most men now carry one when they leave the house," says Benn Carr, buyer at luxury retailer Matches Fashion. "That worked well and meant it was worn by a broad variety of men. Combine that with the 'status' of a brand, and it can carry the same popularity that a designer sneaker can."
The march to men's bag omnipresence has been a quiet one, though. "It's been a very gradual process. Around a decade ago, there was a definite shift and move away from men either using a briefcase or rucksack depending on their needs, with the emergence of the smarter 'shopper' bag," says Carr. So nice leather totes and all that business. "It then became more obvious alongside the rise of streetwear and hype product. I'd say the first it felt like an 'it' choice for men was the cross body or bum bags which, from a business point of view, proved incredibly successful commercially."
And incredibly versatile. For the last two years, crossbody bags have been co-opted and rejigged by almost every brand under the sun, and aimed at every different strata. Festivals were soon alight with topless young men stowing their essentials (among other things) in a diagonally fastened bum bag. They microbag proved helpful to the kind of Hackney creatives who cycle far too quickly by canals. And even some of my friends – brilliant men that very much sit in the nice-but-safe zone of menswear – buckled up on holiday in brands like Sealand and Snow Peak. Not the most obvious of labels, sure, but if the rise of the It bag has opened new doors for guys on the kernel of menswear, that's undoubtedly a positive.
Of course, we've always carried bags. That's not new. But this new collab between practicality and pure design replaced something far more conservative, and far more clearly purpose-built. Briefcases were for the office. Laptop bags were for work trips. Rucksacks were for school. But brands have taken to upending these, too. Saint Laurent briefcases are charged with Anthony Vaccarello's signature moneyed, chain-smoking sexiness, courtesy of tasseled swing tags and padlocks. Rucksacks too have been elevated thanks to Tom Ford and Louis Vuitton. It bags aren't just artefacts of the big hype brand phenomenon. Like the Birkin, or Gucci's Dionysus, they belong to luxury's subtler echelons.
There's much to choose from, and all of this is self-expression. It's proof that this weirdification of our clothes is actually happening, that the encouragement of New Things is being embraced by all strains of guys. We're taking trends from womenswear, and making it our own, and thus the It bag for men was brought into being. And remember: this is no lazy 'manbag' portmanteau. Our bags are pushing forward, but doing their own thing, converting once reticent masses to their blend of aesthetic and literal practicality, and their brand cachet. Turns out this sort of thing really is my bag after all. Now, who's going to sort me a Le Gadjo?