How An "It" Bag Is Made: From First Sketch To Street Style Gold
June 17, 2016
An “It” item comes in many forms–handbags, most commonly (Birkin, PS1), but also shoes (rag & bone Newbury, Isabel Marant Bekett), jewelry (Sydney Evan Love ring, Cartier nail bangle) and even clothing (J Brand Houlihan cargo skinnies, Phillip Lim Nueva York tee).
We’ve all had a fascination with one, if not many, of these “It” items at some point. I can easily recall my own obsession with the Fendi Baguette, made famous by Carrie Bradshaw. Who could forget the scene in which SJP’s character is robbed and the mugger demands that she hand over her bag. “It’s a Baguette,” she famously corrects him.
Or in 2005 when Marc Jacobs debuted the Stam. Remember how nuts everyone went for that perfect bag, with its quilted body and chunky chain? It seemed like every girl on the streets of New York had one, especially my classmates at FIT. We were all obsessed.
So how does an article of clothing or accessory earn its “It” status? Of all the collections issued each season (between New York, London Paris, Milan and beyond), and the fifty or so products within each line, how does an “It” item stand out from the rest and become the one thing that every girl around the world wants/needs/has to have? Is it a deliberate effort on behalf of the designers, like “We want this bag to sell,” or is it more of a coincidence, like a celebrity posts a picture of themselves on Twitter wearing the item, causing it to go on back-order? Do the designers know from the initial sketch that they have created an “It” item, or do they have to wait to see how the public reacts to truly know? What about the role of celebrity gifting–how important is it for the item to be seen on a celeb?
In an effort to better understand this phenomenon, we interviewed industry insiders, including top designers as well as those on the marketing/PR side who are responsible for promoting these “It” items and getting them in the hands of tastemakers. This is what we found:
What’s In A Name?
There are many factors involved with the creation of an “It” item, starting with the name. Historically, if a piece is named after an “It” girl, it has a better chance of becoming an “It” item. Many brands have named or re-named products after stylish public figures such as socialites, models, actresses, etc., to achieve this. For Hermes, this meant re-naming a leather handbag that they had been making since the 1890s the “Kelly,” after American-actress-turned-princess Grace Kelly used it to shield her pregnant belly from the paparazzi in 1956. Hermes had already been selling the bag under the name “Sac à dépêches” for many years by the time Grace Kelly wore it, but it wasn’t truly popularized until after it took her name. As the “Kelly,” it became their bestselling handbag, and still is to this day.
Hermes followed the same thought process when naming their 1982 travel bag the “Birkin,” after English actress and singer Jane Birkin, and many other designers have played the name game since. Marc Jacobs’ Stam comes from supermodel Jessica Stam, Mulberry’s Alexa and Cara bags are named after “It” girls Alexa Chung and Cara Delevingne, and Gucci’s Bardot was named after French sex kitten Brigitte Bardot.
When The Concept Comes First
For some designers, the process of producing an “It” bag or shoe starts before anything is manufactured or even designed–it starts with the concept. In 2001, Jimmy Choo wanted their fledgling handbag collection to take off the way their shoes had (at the time, they were just making evening bags and selling about 600 units per year). Co-founder Tamara Mellon had witnessed how the Fendi Baguette, Prada Bowling Bag, Chloe Paddington and YSL Mombasa had taken off in the 90s, and she wanted the same success for a Jimmy Choo design. “Being known as an ‘accessories brand’ was far superior to being known as just a shoe company,” Mellon wrote in her biography “In My Shoes.”
With the outright goal being to create an “It” bag, Mellon and her team hired an outside design consultant and held design meets to look at the prototypes as they came in from his studio in Italy. Keeping their eyes out for the next big thing, Mellon and her employees combed through the designs, finally landing on a favorite.
Timing Is Everything
Other brands, like Proenza Schouler, strike while the iron is hot. The design duo had just won the CFDA Womenswear Designer of the Year Award when they released their bestselling PS1 satchel in 2008. At the time, every department store was carrying their collection and every woman wanted something Proenza Schouler in her closet. They were at the top of the fashion world and the PS1 couldn’t have come at a better time.
And the public reception couldn’t have been better. When the cobalt suede version first came out in 2012, it sold out within a week at Barney’s. I remember going to Proenza sample sale that same year and almost everyone was there trying to get a PS1. Much to their (and my) dismay, there was not a single PS1 at the event.
The Role Of Fashion Editors
When Celine’s Luggage tote first launched, it was everywhere. It was featured on cult handbag blog Purse Blog, in VOGUE and ELLE, and in countless other fashion magazines worldwide. That doesn’t happen by accident; this is where public relations comes in to play.
Promoting a bag or shoe starts with getting it into the hands of the long-lead fashion editors, specifically the Senior Accessories Editors at places like VOGUE, Lucky, Glamour, ELLE, etc. Technically, these editors don’t accept gifts (though that rule definitely gets broken), so publicists will have them come in to the designer’s showroom to look at a collection–this is an Editor Preview. “If the editors like what they see, they’ll ask to ‘pull’ (borrow) pieces from the collection to use in shoots for an upcoming issue. And when a bag or shoe is really strong, it’s more than likely that more than one magazine will pull it to shoot,” explains a PR executive we spoke to. And the buzz begins to brew.
Celebs, Socialites & Beyond
If a bag or shoe gets positive feedback from editors at the preview, publicists make sure that they pitch or gift that item to celebrities or other public figures who they want to be seen wearing it. They know that celebrities, in particular, have a lot of sway over what us regular people want to buy and that having their product worn by someone like Olivia Palermo or Kim Kardashian or Jennifer Aniston can make all the difference. A celebrity wearing your item can not only earn it “It” status, but can also drive sales in a major way.
Such is the case for the Sydney Evan’s “Love” ring. According to the brand’s designer and owner Rosanne Karmes, the ring had been around since 2008, “selling here and there,” when Lauren Conrad infamously wore it in her Instagram post announcing her engagement to William Tell. Arguably, the “Love” ring upstaged her 2-carat diamond ring from Tell, and Conrad’s posting caused the Sydney Evan website to crash. Soon, the ring was sold in out in many sizes and colors. “All of a sudden I started seeing the knock offs everywhere, including from very well-known designers that were much bigger than me,” Karmes explains.
For rag & bone, celebrities have played a major role in the success of their bestselling Newbury bootie. In fact, many celebs own more than one pair of the versatile shoe, such as Taylor Swift, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jessica Alba, Sienna Miller, Rachel Weisz, Cameron Diaz and Drew Barrymore. This is the ultimate stamp of approval for a product and a guarantee of “It” status.
For Jimmy Choo, the process of pushing their Tulita bag as an “It” bag involved getting it in to the right hands. In 2003, Tamara Mellon hosted a lunch at the Plaza Athenee in New York, where she invited a small group of very-well connected women. “After dessert we gave each of these women ‘the bag’.” Mellon explained in her book. “It wouldn’t be available in stores for another 5 months, but I wanted it to be seen and coveted, which it was. We developed long waiting lists for it.” Which brings us to the concept of wait lists and their role in creating demand for “It” items.
The Wait List
Creating demand for an “It” item can be done in many ways, one of which is having a wait list. A bag or shoe on backorder or with a wait list can create the kind of fervor that takes an “It” item over the edge. Sometimes the wait list is legitimate, as was the case with the seasons-long one for the Chloe Paddington bag or more recently for Celine’s furry Birkenstock-style sandals. Other times, not so much. Many brands have been accused of faking a wait list to create more hype (remember the Birkin waitlist sham?). Just don’t count on any of them ever admitting to it–this is one of the fashion industry’s best kept secrets.
Style Bloggers: The New A-Listers
One could argue that in 2014, the style blogger is the new A-lister when it comes to influencing “It” items. This was certainly the case for Tiffany & Co when they relaunched their Atlas Collection in 2013. Their goal was for the collection to become a status symbol among the younger, cooler set (sort of like what they had done with the Heart Tag collection for teenage girls in the late 90s/early 2000s). They wanted the Atlas collection to the be the next “It” arm candy, and so they went directly after the most influential style bloggers including Aimee Song of Song of Style, Chiara Ferragni of The Blonde Salad, Jessica Stein of Tuula, and others. The bloggers co-hosted an invitation-only launch event for the line in New York City and were gifted many pieces from the line.
Bloggers are a great tool in driving sales, too. The reach is wide (Song of Style has more than 1.8 million fans on her Instagram account alone) and the sites feature direct links to buy just below the photos. Never before has a tastemaker had such a direct connection to selling merchandise, and brands have taken note. You will likely see more of this in the future.
When the ‘It’ Bubble Bursts
Of course, not every “It” item will have the long shelf life of a Birkin or a Chanel 2.55 or a rag & bone Newbury (it is still their bestselling boot five years after its debut). In a post for Man Repeller, Sophie Milrom writes, “I accepted that what goes up must come down—and what is an It Bag eventually was an It Bag.” Certainly there are exceptions to the rule that what goes up must come down, and most brands probably wish they could take a little of that Birkin magic and bottle it up for themselves. The truth is, however, that fashion trends come and go and so does the public’s obsession with certain products. It’s happening right now to the Isabel Marant wedge sneaker and it happened to the Chloe Paddington bag. People eventually tire of things that are so overexposed.
If you’re wondering what happens to “It” shoes and bags when nobody wants them anymore, here’s Sophie’s theory. “Maybe like every other cultural phenomenon that can’t be explained, they are big in Japan.”
[Photo: Viva Luxury]