It’s a serious business, buying a new handbag. Well, not quite as serious as some of the terrifyingly serious and possibly apocalyptic stuff going on right now but, hey, this is a fashion column, so let’s stay on topic. So, yes, it’s important to Get It Right when it comes to your bag. I’m talking about your workhorse, stalwart day bag here, not some flibberty-gibbet, fancy-pants evening clutch. I’m talking about your constant companion every single day for years on end. The one thing you own that’s forever in your eyeline; the accessory that must be cool – but not so much that it dates or you tire of it. The receptacle in which you cart around half of your life; an intensely personal possession that’s a microcosm of our world and identity. Isn’t it interesting how violated we feel, if someone rummages through it? Woe betide the small child who pokes their nose into their mother’s bag.
Whether you’re spending £50 or £5,000, a bag is probably the most considered fashion purchase you’ll make. I’m the proud new lady owner of a Sophie Hulme Albion tan leather cross-body beauty from youngbritishdesigners.com. I stalked it for ages in the sales, pondering the best colour, working out whether my kitchen sink – well, my make-up bag – would fit into it, endlessly umming and aahing, before finally pouncing. It has replaced a much-loved but broken-zipped grey Whistles backpack, which gave me three years of loyal service and garnered hundreds of compliments, so the newbie has a lot to live up to. So far, so good. Its relatively small size has forced me to pare down my possessions to the essentials – I never reapply foundation during the day, so why lug it around? I adore its ladylike boxiness, subverted by one of Hulme’s trademark kooky brass charms. It’s a face with googly eyes, which raises a smile from everyone who clocks it. While I’m driving, my children fight over who gets to babysit it, like courtiers holding the crown jewels on a velvet cushion. It was the right decision.
So how, exactly, to buy a bag? I phoned some friends…
Try it on properly
Navaz Batliwalla, fashion writer and author of The New Garçonne, advises trying a potential new bag on as you would a piece of clothing, and working out how you’d wear it and if it goes with your wardrobe – rather than just picking it up for a cursory glance: “You need to check the handles or straps are the right length – you don’t want to ruin the line of your coat or bunch up your sleeves,” she says.
“Steer yourself away from black and push yourself towards colour,” urges Navaz. “My longest-serving bag is a Milli Millu cobalt blue one. It’s a useful ice breaker when I have meetings with new people – I’m always asked about it. And, while it’s an unusual colour, it still goes with everything.” Designer Savannah Miller is a tan fan. “It’s the perfect colour for a bag because it’s trans-seasonal. It looks lovely in both winter, with a black coat, and summer, with a white sundress,” she says.
“A good bag will migrate easily from one situation to another, so think about what you do and where you go on a daily and weekly basis,” says creative director for Karen Millen and Joseph, Cat Callender. She's a fan of a low-key Hadley Pro Billingham photographer’s bag. “So, for example, beware of something that looks too ‘office’ – it will feel ridiculous on the weekend. And most modern women want their hands free, so look at cross-body styles. Personally, I feel like a dolly bird when I’m holding a clutch, or like my mum in the 70s if I have a shoulder bag.” Savannah Miller takes a similarly practical tack: “I have three small kids and live in the muddy countryside, so my bag has to be the kind of leather you can wipe clean, rather than anything too delicate and squidgy,” she says. “I need something that doesn’t look trashed however many times it gets flung in the car or the dog sits on it.”
Before buying, it’s vital to check a bag’s weight: “There’s been a focus on hardware on bags recently and that can create too much weight. If it feels heavy when you pick it up in the shop and it’s empty, imagine what it’ll do to your back when you’re lugging all your stuff around in it,” says Cat.
Define your hunting ground
High-street bags just get better and better, meaning it’s perfectly possible to nab a beautifully designed one in buttery leather for less than £200 these days. My handbag happy place is & Other Stories – a huge range of styles, with the kind of attention to detail you usually get with designer brands. And M&S bags are much improved, ditto the newly rejuvenated Mango’s. Then there’s Whistles, who are especially good at grown-up backpacks, while Cos’s bijou range majors on pared-down designs in offbeat shades. If you’re after something designer, but keen to keep costs down, it’s worth regularly checking The Outnet for up to 60 per cent off the likes of Anya Hindmarch, or try youngbritishdesigners.com for upcoming, quirky, relatively affordable brands – I’m keeping an eye on new London brand Gvyn, who specialise in sleek shapes with minimal hardware.
As for me, I thought I’d reached Peak Handbag Nerd when, before committing to my new bag, I found myself spending an evening taking a tape measure to my laptop, Kindle and umbrella to calculate whether they’d fit into it. (Results – and I know you’re fascinated – yes to the latter two, but the laptop would need its own separate secondary bag.) But, then, I met up with my friend Amy and I realised I still had a lot to learn. Over lunch, she mentioned her own new bag-research project. After months of deliberation, she’d whittled it down to two contenders, with a final decision imminent. She then whipped out her phone to show me two carefully collated Pinterest boards – one for each bag. Now that’s dedication.