Anyone who got caught up in the it-bag craze of the early 2000s remembers it well: when Chloé Paddingtons, Fendi Spys and Dior Saddle Bags suddenly eclipsed heels and luxury denim as the As fashion’s key status symbols, handbags have gone from simple accessories to iconic ones. emblems of the cool, when you could get your hands on them, that is. Brooklyn-based designer Brandon Blackwood, then at Bard College, traveled Balenciaga’s whipstitch-laden Le Dix while taking neuroscience classes and interning at the fashion magazine Nylon.
“I came from a strict Jamaican family in New York where you became a doctor or a lawyer,” says Blackwood, now 30, “but I was drawn to accessories — and bags were always the only thing you could have, even if you didn’t have a ton of money, you would save for it.
Coming of age just as outrageous pieces like the Paddington were replaced by the stealthy richness of minimalist totes like those created by Phoebe Philo during her tenure at Celine, Blackwood witnessed the first transformation of the It bag – and became an instrument of its second wave, with designers like Telfar Clemens, Raul Lopez of Luar, Desiree Kleinen of Ree Projects and Aurora James of Brother Vellies. Issues such as social justice, sustainability and a desire to support local communities are now guiding principles for a new generation of young black diaspora designers seizing their moment and capturing industry attention by creating eye-catching and evocative handbags.
The success of the Shopping Bag covered with the logo of Telfar Clemens, the viral hit of 2020, started a movement. Playfully dubbed the “Bushwick Birkin” and smartly priced at just under $300 in a range of limited-edition sizes and materials via online drops, it created a hit model when it debuts on the Clemens Fall 2014 Podium: For Emerging Talent to Compete Against Established Talent. names, they needed variety, a competitive price and a message. The simple tote with an embossed logo CT was familiar; what set it apart was Clemens’ idea that access to large rooms should not be limited by boundaries set by gender, race, or class.
Today, designers are taking these ideas one step further, using their brands to convey messages about inclusion and sustainability. “One of the reasons I wanted to work in fashion was its powerful platform,” says Amsterdam-based Kleinen, who founded her handmade bag line, Ree Projects, in 2016. “Whether you have a small or a big business, you have to build consciously. For the Karl Lagerfeld and Faith Connexion alum, that meant using a strict production policy to reduce the company’s carbon footprint. “We source locally in Italy and only work than with zero-impact leathers,” says Kleinen.
Of course, there’s more than one way to be mission-driven. Blackwood, which launched its eponymous line in 2015, hit the big leagues with the ESR, a small square top handle emblazoned with the phrase end systemic racism in gold hardware. Designed just as the Black Lives Matter movement was gaining momentum, the ESR bag served as the designer’s mission statement. “How do we support our employees? ” he asks. “Millennials and Gen Z consumers aren’t interested in a billboard ad.” The handbag went viral in the summer of 2020, especially after Kim Kardashian shared snapshots of her pastel version, selling out on Blackwood’s e-commerce site and prompting orders from major retailers. “Now you see this community springing up around us,” he says.
Whether building a strong social community or utilizing the talents of local artisans, today’s designers create a sense of connectedness that is key to the creative process. “I love that we’re in the community,” says James, whose Brother Vellies line has been made by Kenyan artisans since its inception. “Yes, we are creating the brand narrative, but there is also the idea of an unbreakable bond that is reinforced by using these natural materials and refining what connects us as individuals.”
A shoe girl at heart, James started thinking about a range of bags after being pushed by Diane von Furstenberg. “I was at the CFDA/vogue Fashion Fund in 2015, and Diane said to me, ‘You have to make a handbag,’” says James. “She didn’t ask; she told me, but the more I thought about it, the more interesting it became. I had never thought of myself as a bag person and found nothing that resonated with me. What James didn’t know worked in her favor, because she didn’t feel stuck by familiar shapes or old ideas. Indeed, pieces like the Lijadu – a shoulder bag enhanced by the addition of carved wooden links – look quite original.