My first luxury handbag was a pre-owned Balenciaga City. It was an eBay find that turned out to be so violently used it practically disintegrated upon unboxing. Needless to say, it was my biggest shopping fail—one that not only set me back $800 but also concluded with me literally throwing a Balenciaga in the garbage.
Such are the stakes of today’s handbag market, in which four-figure price tags have become the new normal. Even J. Crew sells sacs in the thousand-plus range, making it all the more overwhelming for first-time shoppers to know what the hell they’re doing. Should they play it safe with a tried-and-true icon? Or make like a fashion editor and embrace the minimalistic new wave? Is buying vintage a legit option? Could bespoke be the ultimate one-up? To help, I asked industry experts, retail analysts and serious collectors for insider tips on how to break into the game without getting played.
The Icons: Chanel 2.55, Louis Vuitton Speedy, Dior Lady Dior, Hermès Birkin
First up are the all-time classics that have stood the test of time—some, like the 2.55 and the Speedy, have been classing up elbows since the ’20s and ’30s. “These designs have staying power over the trends,” says Alexis Honce, a Toronto-based stylist who has helped many clients with their first designer purchase. Consider these the ultimate investment bags: a Chanel 2.55 starts at $6,125; a Lady Dior, at $3,600. (And if you have your heart set on a Hermès Birkin, you’re looking at a cool $10,000 plus.) The thing that makes these babies so covetable—and valuable—is their status, which comes from a combination of quality and exclusivity. High-end bags are meticulously crafted by skilled artisans at every stage of construction, from cutting and dyeing skins to hand-stitching and installing metal accents. Many luxury houses also offer lifetime warranties and free repair services, which contribute to the longevity of their products. The crème de la crème, of course, is Hermès. “Every detail is accounted for,” says Jennifer Carter, CEO and president of Hermès Canada. “We only use the highest-quality leather, linen thread and hardware available.”
Top-tier brands also produce a limited supply of certain styles, which increase in value every year. (To wit: a Chanel 2.55 that retailed at $4,400 USD in 2013 was $4,900 in 2014.) “The rarer the item, the greater the appreciation factor,” says New York City–based retail analyst Hitha Herzog. “So, essentially, you can invest in a handbag the way you would a good piece of antique furniture.”
The New Guard: Céline Luggage Tote, Loewe Puzzle Bag, Prada Inside Bag
If you’ve scrolled through Instagram lately, you’ve probably noticed there’s a new crop of designer totes in town. Unlike the hyperbranded and endlessly knocked-off iterations of the early 2000s (who can forget Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian on the beach with their enormous silver and gold LV Almas?), today’s must-haves share a streamlined simplicity and few visible logos. “In 2008, shoppers who weren’t impacted by the market crash felt a sense of shame. They hid their flashy high-end bags in other bags,” Herzog says. “The luxury market understood that and moved toward more understated pieces.” Givenchy, Saint Laurent, Céline and Prada are behind many of the minimal, whisper-quiet carryalls of the moment, which sell for slightly less than the classics: Prada’s Inside Bag, which debuted at the fall ’15 show, starts at $2,840; this year’s hit, Loewe’s Puzzle Bag, starts at $2,655.
Twenty-three-year-old Vanessa Cesario, who showcases her sleek Givenchy Antigona duffle ($2,400) on her style blog, The Brunette Salad, describes these latest must-haves as “undercover” status symbols. “There’s no obvious branding, so you have to be in the know to realize it’s high-end,” she says.
Pared-back design shifts the focus from bling and details to shape and construction, so pay attention when shopping around. New-guard styles might not have the appreciation or resale value of the classics, but their unfussy look makes them versatile, with a better cost-per-wear than louder models.
The Vintage Find: All of the above, pre-owned
High-end consignment shops often have a selection of covetable styles for less than retail prices—and are typically a safer bet than buying from an unknown online seller. “We concentrate on bags that are either very current or timeless and classic,” says Britt Rawlinson, owner of V-S-P Consignment in Toronto. Many of her consignors regularly resell their barely worn designer goods to make room in their closets (and budgets) for new purchases—which means they’re priced to move. “We offer anywhere from 30 to 70 percent off retail, depending on the brand and condition,” says Rawlinson. Recent sales include a perfect-condition Fendi 2Jours ($3,200 retail) for $1,700 and a Prada Saffiano double-zip tote ($3,300 retail) for $1,998.
Consignment can also be a gold mine of special editions and discontinued runs. “This one’s quite rare,” says Rawlinson, pointing to a beaded leopard-print Louis Vuitton clutch from spring ’09. “It was produced in very limited quantities and was extremely difficult to get in Canada. We have a couple of clients who are serious collectors, and when they saw it, they were blown away.” Priced at $1,798 ($3,200 retail), it’s a steal when compared with classics like the 2.55 or the Birkin, which are in a league of their own. “They appreciate in value anywhere from six to 10 percent every year. Literally nothing changes about them,” says Rawlinson. “We have a client list to email if a Birkin comes in, and a lot of times it doesn’t reach the floor.”
Knock-offs are an obvious risk with pre-owned; Rawlinson authenticates every item before it hits the shelves. “We’re continuously out there, shopping retail, looking at bags first-hand and reviewing current retail prices,” she says. “You have to know everything about a specific style, from the colour of the hardware to how the chain interlocks to the stitch count. We examine every little millimetre—we have to be 100 percent sure.”
The One-of-a-Kind: Boss Bespoke, Edie Parker Bespoke
As with food and furniture, the must-have handbag of the future will likely be artisanal. “The more bespoke, the more one-of-a-kind, the higher the demand,” says Herzog. “There’s a trend toward small supply and handcrafted design, as well as traceable heritage.” Monogramming, once a VIP perk, has become par for the course at Bottega Veneta, Valentino and Fendi, all of whom offer complimentary initial stamping on certain models. Or, if you want to take your customization skills to the next level, Boss recently launched its own bespoke service, which lets shoppers choose colour, size and hardware for no additional cost (prices start at $1,495).
If you’re considering made-to-order, it’s important to think about how your choices will affect wearability and value down the line. It may be tempting to flex your personalization powers now (remixed prints, crazy brights, rose gold errything), but will you still want to wear it in 20 years—or, thinking ahead to resale, will anyone else? “Sometimes we encounter customization that can’t be altered or removed, which can lower the consigned value,” says Rawlinson. “Even if it’s a classic design in excellent condition, a loud colour or an unusual skin can make it difficult to sell.”
That said, if you’re going to drop four figures on a bag—whether classic, new school, vintage or bespoke—market value and resale will always come second to good old-fashioned lust factor. The most important strategy, says Cesario, is to invest in something you truly adore. “You’re going to be wearing it almost every day,” she says. “It should make you feel amazing every time you sling it over your shoulder.”
Click the gallery below to see The Icons, The New Guard and The One-of-a-Kind