In Defense Of Worn Out & Used Handbags

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A decade ago, Mary-Kate Olsen shocked the internet when she did the unthinkable: The actress-turned-designer was photographed sporting an Hermès Kelly handbag that appeared to be so worn out its lush navy color had started to fade. Since then, she’s worn it multiple times, including her 2010 appearance at the CFDA Awards

What puzzled onlookers about Olsen’s “no fucks given” behavior is that, for the longest time, there existed almost some unspoken rule that luxury handbags were meant to be guarded with the promise of holding their value and pristine look for decades to come. But Olsen presented an alternative: What if we actually didn’t care to keep handbags in pristine condition? Sure, it makes sense that most people are precious with their fashion goods, especially if, unlike many celebrities and influencers, they’re not gifted. Luxury is expensive, after all. But, the question proposes a different way to look at handbags — from contemporary to luxury — that allows us to hold on to them for longer and let them undergo their natural wear and tear.  

In recent years, as secondhand luxury shopping continues to boom, so have the options readily available for people to buy designer handbags in less than favorable conditions, but ultimately, good prices. According to The RealReal’s 2023 Consignment Report, items in “fair” conditions — the lowest quality level available on the secondhand platform — have actually risen in demand, with many considering them “gateway bags” into the world of designer goods. 

“My life motto is buy good clothes, wear them often,” says Cortne Bonilla, a fashion editor at Editorialist. And this mindset translates to handbags as well. She regularly finds bargains on vintage designer handbags, from Bottega Veneta to Yves Saint Laurent, saying that this “adds balance to my wardrobe, old with the new, new with the vintage, and adds a personal element that’s specific to me and my vintage scores.”

New York-based fashion collector and merchandiser Arianna Aviram has a similar mindset. “I have found a lot of really good deals of bags in fair condition,” she says. One of her earliest vintage purchases was actually a Prada nylon backpack that had “a ton of wear and was priced accordingly.” Back then, she says, it was the only way she could afford it as a college student. “I still wear this bag today and I love that I create my own history with it as well,” Aviram says. 

Since then, Aviram has been buying vintage designer clothing and accessories, running into beat up items that she considers “a part of owning someone else’s history.” “It’s very likely in the future you will create your own marks and scuffs, and potentially sell it, so someone else will be receiving part of your history,” she says. 

Others have actually followed in Mary-Kate’s footsteps — literally. “I once bought a completely destroyed Louis Vuitton bag for maybe $100 — all of the leather was cracked, the bottom was close to splitting, it was a nightmare,” a New York-based journalist, who chose to remain anonymous, tells Refinery29. “It also had a ‘Mary-Kate’s beat up Kelly’ vibe to it, which is what I wanted.” Over time, she’s found that going for “fair” condition items, especially handbags, is a good way to buy into designer goods after their hype has passed. “‘It bags of yesteryear [that] you really loved can be really reasonable, and if you still love it all those years later that’s a good indicator that you’ll still love it and use it regularly,” she says. 

Luxury secondhand platforms, including The RealReal, Rebag, and Vestiaire, have become a staple of today’s shopping landscape, with more people prioritizing used goods over new items, as well as using these marketplaces as an entryway into the world of luxury. Shoppers can filter down their prospective buys by searches for their preferred condition of the item. For example, Rebag’s levels go from “fair” to “pristine,” with each product having a condition breakdown that describes any scuffs, marks, odor, or other damage. 

For people who buy into the “fair” condition category, it’s worth noting that the description should be taken with a pinch of salt, and can often be an over- or undervaluation. Bonilla, for example, says that items marked as “fair” can actually be in excellent condition adding that she bought two vintage Bottega Veneta bags marked as “fair” that actually look “perfect.” And even if they look worn, Aviram says nothing is off limits. “As for things that are really a hard no, it’s more along the lines if the bag cannot be used or is completely falling apart,” says Aviram. 

Then, there’s the sustainability aspect, which coincides with conversations around quality and durability for many shoppers. While it’s a good approach to want to wear a new handbag to the ground, the New York-based journalist says that, “I’ve found that the older bags are just made better. They hold up.” Even though mending scratches or tightening hardware may be an additional expense, she says: “I’d rather, if I really need to, spend maybe an extra $50 or $100 to get something fixed because I know it’ll be durable for a while.”

Mary-Kate’s bag is also a reminder that handbags are meant to be, well, worn. As an everyday staple literally made to carry all our essentials, wear and tear is a consequence of movement and time. You have to wonder where the Olsen twin stored the handbag; if it was privy to wear and tear one time on vacation, or if the faded color is the result of the many times she’s had to brush off stains from the leather. And that’s because we care about the stories that have happened with our items, especially handbags. For example, back in 2020, I bought a Mansur Gavriel bucket bag that came with a disclosure that the leather would actually wear out over time. Over the years, as I repeatedly opened and closed the handbag, the leather would mold itself to my movements, essentially telling the story of how I live. 

This is exactly how Aviram thinks of her used handbags. “They tell a story about the person who previously owned it, and for me, that’s an extremely important part of the cyclical nature of vintage pieces,” she says. For her, worn up handbags actually help her express her personal style. “My personal style is not pristine in the slightest so I find that adding an element of wear on bags contributes to the way that I personally dress,” she says. “I really focus on juxtapositions, usually of shapes and textures so having a bag that has a scuff mark and shows that it’s not just sitting gathering dust is important to me.” 

So the next time you sit down to have dinner, put your bag on the ground. Really, it’s okay. 

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