Clasp Struggle

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Designer Handbags

The achingly thin blond woman waiting to cross Park Avenue is wearing slides on her feet, a tortoise-shell band in her hair, a pair of khakis, and a white T-shirt. Everything about her speaks of neatness and decorum, except for the thing dangling from her wrist, a mud-colored satchel that has been defaced with thick letters, as if it fell victim to a child bent on ruining mommy's purse.

But it hasn't. In fact, it's the hot bag of the season, from the house of Louis Vuitton, which hired downtown fashion designer Stephen Sprouse to deliberately trash its LV-covered totes. It's a deep irony that a company hell-bent on preserving its exclusivity would hire Sprouse, a dissolute guy who's been in and out of business a million times and is not above hanging out at the Astor Place cube sipping from a brown paper bag, to pep up its accessories. And Sprouse, given the chance, did what every East Village kid wants to do when he sees a rich lady with a Vuitton bag: get out a can of spray paint.

Sprouse's satchels are a hit not only because they were shamelessly hyped by fashion magazines, but because they give Vuitton what its been craving: street cred, or as much street cred as an $800 bag can have.

Illustration by Barbara McGregor

The Sprouse bag is major, but it isn't the only star of the season: There are denim carry-alls that look like they just escaped from the paddock at Dior, Zsa Zsa-worthy bejeweled Fendi baguettes, cartoonish Kate Spade beach bags covered with giant polka dots, staid Burberry plaid totes, and the always reliable nylon Pradas with their little metal triangles. They gather on the floor next to the waxed legs under the tables at Bergdorf Goodman's tearoom, whispering, "Our owner may be dressed in ordinary pants and undistinguished Ts, but we're the proof that she's got style! She's rich! She knows!"

At a time when practically everyone from toddler to octogenarian is dressed alike in T-shirts and pants, the designer bag has assumed the burden that used to be assigned to whole outfits: the job of telling onlookers what social class you belong to. With past signifiers of status on the wane—big jewelry is gauche, fur is démodé—the clues to someone's financial situation can be hard to discern.

But not if you know. If you know that a baby-blue Hermes Kelly bag costs $5000 and has to be ordered a year in advance, you'll be pretty impressed when you see one draped over the seat on the Hampton Jitney. If you know that the wait for the Sprouse Vuitton was six months ("The list is closed!" gloated salespeople at the Vuitton shop to hapless latecomers), you'll look twice when you finally spot a woman carrying one. To those who understand their language, the exactly calibrated ladder of designer purses (the barely acceptable $300-ish Kate Spade near the bottom, the vaunted Hermes up at the top) sings a melody full of subtlety and emotion.

The vast majority of women, of course, couldn't care less about this bag business. To them, a handbag is a handbag, not a signifier of wealth and power. (For some, in fact, a pocketbook is a distinctly unpleasant reminder of their status as second-class citizens, and they've jettisoned the whole category in favor of briefcases or knapsacks.) But the good news is that for those who care, it has never been easier to get in the game.

All along Madison Avenue, outside Bloomingdale's and Barneys, and up and down Canal Street, gorgeous replicas of designer bags crowd tables and market stalls, at a tenth of their original prices. The truth is, the real things may be distinctive, but they aren't particularly hard to copy. Despite their high prices, these bags are frequently made of the cheapest materials known to man: nylon, fabric, plastic. It takes a sharp eye to tell the difference between the originals and these spirited interlopers.

And really, how many people care about how perfect the stitching on a handle is, anyway? It's our birthright as Americans to embrace the fake along with the real, the grifter along with the saint, Bonnie Parker along with Dorothy Day. In a country where family names, posh accents, and attending the right schools count for little, all you need is a dollar and a powerful dream: the ability to convince people, sometimes with a little help from something like an ersatz designer handbag, that you're rolling in it.

The mystery is why designers spend so much time and energy and money fighting the knockoffs. They ought to be thrilled that their handbag made it into the pantheon of status signifiers. After all, isn't the real problem when no one wants a copy of your bag? How happy would Kate Spade be if her polka dots didn't excite any interest below 57th Street? How hard is a house like Bottega Veneta or Lancel praying for a hit? If their bag does finally show up on Canal Street, shouldn't they throw a party instead of a lawsuit?

Ah, but, the defenders of privilege say, fakes hurt legitimate designers! It might console these worrywarts to imagine for a moment just what the profit margin must be on a vinyl tote or a shapeless nylon sack that sells for over $500. The people at Vuitton or Dior or Gucci should be overjoyed that someone, anyone, for whatever reason, is willing to spring for their bags. ("This must be the grossest scam ever perpetrated on the buying public," an editor at a fashion magazine was heard to murmur, half in admiration, in the nylon room of the vast Prada store in Rome.)

So if the copies are so good, why does anyone bother with the real thing? Is it just because they have money to burn, and it's a lot nicer to shop at Chanel than rough it on Canal? Well, partly. But it's also the case that the real bag from the real house links the shopper, at least in her own mind, to the glories of the company's past, when these items were in fact the exclusive province of the very rich. The smallest Louis Vuitton card case traces its lineage back to the pile of monogrammed trunks piled up on the pier at Cannes and bearing Zelda Fitzgerald's luggage tags. The lowliest Gucci key ring shares a family history with Jackie Kennedy's double-G shoulder bags. It can provide a twisted thrill to save up the money and sail into Prada, with its icy pistachio-colored walls and hushed lighting, and get that bag for yourself. And who's to say you're a fool? Are you any more of a fool than someone who's longing for a flat-screen TV, or a late model SUV, or a $3000 Cartier watch made of stainless steel that has the same $1 quartz movement as watches sold on the street?

It's your rightful inheritance as an American to play with class and status, to reinvent yourself a million times. Zelda's husband was dead wrong when he said that there are no second acts in American lives. It's nothing but second, and third, and fourth acts, a lot of them played with handbags of dubious provenance dangling from the actors' wrists. Every time someone buys a designer bag—real or fake—she's waiting for the curtain to come up.

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