When Sex and the City debuted on HBO in 1998, the show helped make designer handbags like Fendi Baguettes and Dior Saddle Bags status symbols for stylish 30-somethings.
Twenty-five years later, young, fashion-forward women aren’t looking to buy the hottest designer bag. Instead, they’re carrying a $20 Uniqlo shoulder bag or even a free tote from their favorite bookstore.
“The idea of luxury has changed for consumers. It’s not all about designer, high-end, spending a lot of money. It’s about smart purchasing,” says Beth Goldstein, footwear and accessories analyst at consumer behavior analyst firm Circana. Earlier this summer, the company published a survey that found only 39 percent of women aged 18 to 34 in the US report carrying a handbag for everyday activities, compared to 60 percent of women aged 35 and older.
Handbags have long since served as flagship items for brands, with the likes of the Hermès Birkin — whose namesake Jane Birkin passed away at the age of 76 earlier this month — and the Jacquemus’ signature Chiquito not only defining a label’s aesthetic, but serving as stand-ins for the very idea of luxury. But with the athleisure movement and quiet luxury trend upending style habits, designer handbags face competition from canvas totes and fanny packs to capture the attention of young consumers.
The new affordable “It” bags
In a survey of the hottest products of the first quarter of this year from trend analyst firm Lyst, a rather humble item toppled designer products like Alaïa’s heart-shaped Le Coeur bag and Bottega Veneta’s chic drop earrings to claim the number one spot: Uniqlo’s Round Mini Shoulder Bag, which retails for $19.90 and comes in seven colors.
And it’s not just the Uniqlo bag. Other affordable, utilitarian models like Lululemon’s Everywhere Belt Bag, which retails for $38, or Patagonia’s Ultralight Black Hole Tote, which goes for $99, are appearing on celebrities and taking over shopping recommendations.
According to Circana, handbag sales among consumers under the age of 34 declined 2 percent over the last year, while sales in other categories climbed. Totes and shoppers went up 11 percent; fanny, waist, and chest packs increased 56 percent; and everyday lifestyle backpacks rose 7 percent.
Those changing habits reflect economic realities for young consumers. The price of designer handbags from the likes of Chanel and Louis Vuitton have steadily increased in recent months, making them out of reach for some young shoppers.
“The mainstream designer brands with the logos and everything, that was a splurge. But right now in this environment, that aspirational consumer can’t do that, necessarily,” says Goldstein.
But these trends are also reflective of how young shoppers have found other ways to express their style and their values, particularly in an environment where sneakers and athletic wear can be as much of a style statement as a designer dress.
A viral TikTok trend sparked by user @samiamdean showing “how to dress like you’re from the Lower East Side” includes a “tote bag that your friend who’s an artist made.” “I think it is a status symbol, in a way. It’s sort of like, I didn’t spend a lot but I have this fun, great looking thing that is very functional and easy,” Goldstein says of utilitarian items like tote bags.
@samiamdean How to dress like youre from the lower east side nyc #nycfashion #streetstyle #lesnyc #nycstyle #fashion #styletips ♬ samiamdean LES girlie – Sam
Goldstein attributes some of the decline in designer bag sales to a lack of spending by Chinese consumers abroad following the lifting of travel restrictions there in January this year. But even some young Chinese shoppers are expressing an interest in lower-priced, utilitarian bags.
“In China, a signature handbag is the face of a luxury brand. For most luxury consumers, their impression of a brand might not come from the design of the ready-to-wear collections, but from the brand’s most popular handbag style,” says Chinese fashion blogger Mr. Bags. But Louis Vuitton and Chanel aren’t the only bags that appeal to young shoppers.
“In China, a signature handbag is the face of a luxury brand. For most luxury consumers, their impression of a brand might not come from the design of the ready-to-wear collections, but from the brand’s most popular handbag style.”
“At the same time, many bags priced under 10,000 RMB [$1,400] or even under 1,000 RMB [$140], from brands like Longchamp and Cos, are also very popular, especially among young people. People will often choose to pair these bags with [clothing featuring] popular cartoon figures like LinaBell and Hello Kitty,” he added.
Unspoken value of quiet luxury bags
When it comes to bags that shoppers are willing to spend big money on, a key category stands out: simple, logo-free, “IYKYK” (if you know, you know) bags. In other words, quiet luxury, as exemplified by bags from brands like Loro Piana, Loewe and The Row. “The consumer who would always buy those brands really isn’t as impacted by what’s going on in the macro environment right now,” says Goldstein.
Mr. Bags’ top 30 list of the most desirable bags in China for July 2023 includes four Loewe bags, three of them new entrants to the list, along with Loro Piana’s minimal Extra Pocket, and The Row’s Margaux, which retails for $4,390. Loewe also topped Lyst’s hottest brand index for the first time this year, beating out Prada and Versace to take the top spot in the second quarter of 2023.
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But Mr. Bags’ monthly list still includes plenty of logo-heavy favorites, like items from Chanel and Louis Vuitton, and he believes the opening of borders in China post-pandemic may help designer handbag sales worldwide.
“It’s safe to say that from the beginning of next year, there will be a much bigger impact brought by Chinese consumers around the globe,” he adds.
And Sex and the City is impacting fashion all over again thanks to the reboot, And Just Like That…, the second season of which premiered last month. The show has spotlighted new bag creations, like J.W. Anderson’s surrealist pigeon clutch, and also sparked renewed interest in old favorites, like Fendi’s Baguette. Star Sarah Jessica Parker carried a Baguette designed especially for the show this season, which saw Pinterest searches for the bag climb 170 percent following the second season premiere, according to a survey by fashion retailer Boohoo.
The only difference now is Carrie Bradshaw and co. are in their 50s rather than their 30s. In this economy, who else can afford New York rent and an $890 pigeon bag?
Additional reporting by Sadie Bargeron.