Mar 14, 2024

The ‘It’ bags to buy now and enjoy forever, whether you’ve got £35 or £2,500

It’s been 20 years since Mulberry introduced its aspirational Bayswater to the world – here’s how today’s handbags match up

There are many ways to mark the passage of time. Grey hairs. The cost of a pint of milk. Your doctor looking like he’s only recently started shaving. And if you are a fashion lover, the 20th anniversary of the Mulberry Bayswater. Can it really be true that one of the most aspirational and best-loved bags of the 2000s is already two decades old? Way to make us feel ancient.

It’s hard to overstate the Bayswater’s impact when it was launched in 2003. Aspirational and affordable (at £495, it was steep but not silly money), it was a perfect marriage of form and function that shared the same sleek, elegant lines as a Hermès Birkin at a fraction of the price. It was also proudly designed and manufactured in Britain, and toted by a slew of fashionable Brits – Kate Moss, Alexa Chung, Sienna Miller – whose patronage made fans covet it all the more. During the 2000s, it was the ultimate first pay cheque purchase. Landmark birthday? A Bayswater would be top of your wish list. New job? A Bayswater would have you looking the part.

That the Bayswater became so popular without the amplification of social media is some feat. Pre-Instagram and TikTok, the only way to get your bag seen was by putting it on the right people. Mulberry was one of the first luxury brands to recognise the potential in partnering an “It” bag with an “It” girl – influencer marketing at its finest, years before the phrase came to exist. But it was the quality that really cemented its status. Bayswaters are built to last. Thirty-five pairs of hands are involved in its craftsmanship, which still takes place in Somerset.

Twenty years later, the Bayswater remains a Mulberry bestseller. But the retail landscape has changed exponentially since its launch. Thanks to regular price hikes, which seem to revolve around thinking of a number then doubling it, most designer bags are now so prohibitively expensive as to only be affordable by the 0.1 per cent. While Bayswater prices now start at £1,195, a comparably-sized bag by Gucci, Valentino or Louis Vuitton costs around £3,000, while Prada, Saint Laurent and Bottega Veneta’s cost upwards of £3,500. A recent 16 per cent price hike at Chanel, meanwhile, has seen its classic quilt soar to £8,530.

What are women looking for in a handbag in 2023? Certainly not bankruptcy. We want practicality, longevity, good value and good looks. We want a workhorse that looks like a thoroughbred. We also want space. Despite a recent trend towards smaller bags, most women would admit they need a bag that can hold more than an iPhone. Big bags might have been lambasted on Succession recently (“What’s even in there? Shoes for the subway?”), but spare shoes are precisely why capacious bags are needed. Ideally with a side pocket for the kitchen sink.

Modern lives are complicated. Women have more demands on their time than ever. Whether you’re time-poor, cash-strapped or simply in the market for some new arm candy, here are the best investments at every price point.

For most of us this year, the purchase of any handbag, never mind an expensive one, won’t be a decision we take lightly. The good news: a groundswell of choice in the under £100 category, as retailers capitulate to cash-strapped customers. This one by M&S is a standout: recycled polyester lining, brushed gold hardware, an adjustable cross-body strap and an accordion-style interior ticks every functionality box. In six colourways.

Crossbody bag in khaki, by Marks & Spencer, £35

Or try: Mango’s curved white shoulder bag with strap (£25.99), Zara’s basic leather crossbody bag (£89.99), Matt & Natt’s Adel vegan micro tote bag (£85)

Jigsaw is having a strong season, and its slouchy, butter-soft leather tote is one of a clutch of great bags this spring. With a passing nod to Saint Laurent’s Le 37, it’s a future classic, one whose minimalist exterior belies a slew of useful features. A magnetic closure gives security, an internal back zipped pocket provides utility, and discrete gold metal feet ensure longevity – and all for under £200.

Heckfield leather tote by Jigsaw, £195

Or try: Arket’s buckle crossbody bag (£169), Whistles’ Mini Verity backpack (£189), & Other Stories’ double-strap leather bucket bag (£125)

If you use TikTok, you’ll be aware of Polène, the French-based, Spanish-made brand founded in 2016 by siblings Antoine, Mathieu and Elsa Polene. And if you don’t, a Google search will soon whet your appetite. Made by artisans in Spain, the Un really is a number-one choice in the price bracket: a good-sized, beautifully designed bag in full-grain textured calf leather that can be worn as a handbag, shoulder bag or across the body.

Numero Un by Polene, £370

Or try: Demellier’s Vancouver (£360), ATP Atelier’s Assisi (£450), Coach’s Tabby (£450)

The term “quiet luxury” is as misused as it is overused, but this tote screams – or rather, whispers – it. It’s crafted from natural leather sourced from Swedish farms with the highest standards of animal welfare. It’s also chemical-free, allowing it to biodegrade at end of life. A clever belt closure ensures it’s completely hardware free, too, making it as light to carry as it’s capacious, with handy leather interior slip pockets for your phone and cards.

Return to Nature tote by Anya Hindmarch, £995

Or try: Toteme’s T-lock clutch (£750), Wandler’s Penelope (£630), Neous’s Sigma (£695)

Understated and elegant, Métier bags are well-crafted, made to last and subscribe to that “if you know, you know” aesthetic. It will cost you upwards of £2,500 for the Perriand City, which has so far stolen the hearts of the Princess of Wales, Katie Holmes and Succession’s Shiv Roy, but the small suede and leather version of the Incognito is just under the £1,500 mark. Don’t be put off by the “small”: it’s still big enough for your spare shoes.

Incognito Small Cabas by Metier, £1,480

Or try: Alaia’s Le Seau (£1,330), Alexander McQueen’s The Bow (£1,490) or Mulberry’s Bayswater (£1,195), available in a series of new colours to mark its anniversary.

Yes, Cartier is better known for its diamonds, but it devotes the same attention to detail to its bags as to the jewellery that has adorned royalty, and Elizabeth Taylor. Handcrafted near Florence, the Double C is the jewel in the crown, a neat shoulder bag that can also be worn across the body. With a recycled acetate clasp, three inside compartments and a pocket with a removable mirror, it’s a timeless classic, and an heirloom as lasting as any watch.

Double C shoulder bag by Cartier, £2,390

Or try: Prada’s Cleo (£2,400), Loewe Small Puzzle (£2,300), Burberry’s Frances (£2,350)

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