Like most things currently en-vogue in fashion, Margiela did it first. Not that many seem to have noticed.
Already, the $1,100 shopping bag that Balenciaga released the other week has sold out. Designed to look like a bag you’d receive when purchasing a small item at one of the brand’s flagship stores, but executed in premium calfskin, the release followed a familiar formula for the brand’s creative director Demna Gvasalia. Once again, it illustrated his uncanny knack for repurposing old ideas and selling them as something fresh and exciting. (In 2009, Chanel released the near-identical ‘31, Rue Cambon’ bag, a leather version of the bag available from the flagship store at that address.) But also, it underlined the designer’s longstanding obsession with irony.
On Wednesday we were once again treated to Gvasalia’s penchant for turning the banal into the covetable, as he sent models down the runway carrying luxury versions of the kind of reusable shopping bags you’d find in supermarkets. This came off the back of Balenciaga’s now infamous IKEA-esque tote bag, $2,145, earlier this year, as well as the Thai laundry inspired bags from the Georgian designer's first season at the helm of the Parisian fashion house. Like in much of his work, there has been an inherent irony in all of these products, as seemingly everyday products are filtered through the lens of a luxury fashion house. This idea, however, is not a novel one – in fact, fashion has a long history of this particular brand of proletariat-chic.
Here, we look at some of the most revered and reviled runway interpretations of your granny’s shopping bag.
Margiela Did It First
In 1998, Martin Margiela presented his Spring Summer collection, not on models but on coat hangers. “When not worn these pieces are totally flat,” read the stage backdrop, as men in the house’s signature white coats displayed items one by one. The collection included what was ostensibly a plastic carrier bag, which had been created in cotton. It wasn’t the first time that Margiela had taken inspiration from grocery shopping – nine years prior, at the Belgian’s first show in Paris, he sent tops down the runway created entirely from plastic bags from the French supermarket Franprix.
Over the years, Margiela continued to toy with the idea of everyday objects and bags as something altogether more special. The house created an envelope bag, a bag shaped to look like a jewelry box, one which took its form from a document bag (Givenchy has since released its own version), and clutch that resembled a silver packet. The latter would be re-released as part of Maison Martin Margiela’s 2012 collaboration with H&M, and perhaps served as inspiration for English designer Anya Hindmarch, who released a series of ‘crisp packet’ clutches in 2014. (Ok, not technically a bag, but let’s not split hairs here).
Jil Sander’s Packed Lunch Proposal
Outside of the house that Martin built, Rick Owens once stated that he always designs internal pockets on his jackets big enough to fit a passport, a book and a sandwich. In 2012, Raf Simons, in his final menswear show for Jil Sander, proposed an equally fashionable way of carrying your lunch, debuting a brown paper bag which retailed for $630. Made from coated paper which was then sewn together, and with only the subtlest of branding, it chimed perfectly with Jil Sander’s minimalist aesthetic. (The year prior, the label had also released an acetate orange shopping bag – Simons has long maintained Margiela is one of his biggest inspirations). Somewhat predictably, a slew of non-fashion publications soon picked up on it and had a field day, lending several column inches to faux outrage about the cost of this paper bag. Perhaps somewhere a young Demna Gvasalia – who famously elicited a similar response by selling a t-shirt emblazoned with the DHL logo for $220 – was taking notes.
Vuitton Meets Chinese Laundrette
Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton also proposed his own version of an everyday carrier back in 2006, when he debuted bags with a distinctive check pattern on them. Made from leather rather than plastic, and with a bold Vuitton motif emblazoned on them, they were, in fact, high-fashion versions of Chinese laundry bags. Writing for The Independent, Susie Rushton remarked that: “If the thinking behind this handbag owes something to Marcel Duchamp, that will titillate not only a certain type of oh-so-knowing consumer of luxury goods, but also accords with the cultural programme being rolled out by executives at LVMH Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy.”
Jacobs, whose cheeky irreverence has always been part of his charm, was in many ways a precursor to the irony-laden world of fashion that we see today, where Derek Zoolander can appear in Valentino shows and collaborations with Juicy Couture can appear on the runway as part of the official Parisian couture calendar. In recent years, products aimed at that “oh-so-knowing” audience have become increasingly prevalent.
Comme & Chanel Go Shopping
In the past few years, we have also seen COMME Des GARCONS release a paper shopping bag coated in PVC — a surprisingly sturdy bag for life. Meanwhile, Karl Lagerfeld took the idea to its most extreme point, foregoing the shopping bags altogether and turning the runway of the AW14 Chanel fashion show into a shoppable supermarket, complete with Warhol-style tins of tuna and Camembert cheese.
“Why a supermarket? It is something of today’s life and even people who dress at Chanel go there — it’s a modern statement for expensive things,” said Lagerfeld after the show. It is a notion that is true of all these everyday-turned-‘it’ bags. While fashion has often been about the creation of fantasy, it is more compelling when there is a bridge with reality — an interplay between the familiar and the fantastic.
But the power of a grocery bag turned into a high-fashion accessory goes beyond this. Its inherent contradiction if funny, playful even. After all, fashion should not be devoid of fun or humor. When Demna Gvasalia turned to this formula for his first season at Balenciaga, with his Thai-inspired laundry bags, it provided exactly those qualities. We are now, however, on the fourth variation of this idea, and for some, the knowing smiles are beginning to turn to eye rolls.
It’s not that we don’t get it, we’ve just heard this one before.