The ubiquity of certain “it” handbags on social media can create a feeling of snow blindness when you’re scrolling online. If you want to break out of that trend cycle, the solution is obvious: Get a vintage bag.
This is a wild and exciting world to dive into! It’s also overwhelming. Allow me to talk you through it. You’ll want to take your time, familiarize yourself with sellers’ authentication guarantees, do research on serial numbers, get a lay of the land on competitive pricing and learn to understand the subtleties of how sellers describe the conditions of their goods. Sounds exhausting but trust me, it’s worth it.
You should know things like what Prada calls its nylon (tessuto) and the name of Bottega Veneta’s woven leather (intrecciato). Never hesitate to ask questions or request more photos — advice that also applies to life in general.
For our purposes, we’re using a loose definition of vintage: at least a decade old. There are many, many, many strategies for shopping for vintage bags. One way is to frequent vintage shops that carry a lot of bags. Check out What Goes Around Comes Around in New York and Beverly Hills, Calif., or Dina C’s Fab & Funky Consignment Boutique in Palm Beach, Fla. (a.k.a., destination shopping heaven). Browse by designer at a resale site like ReBag or Fashionphile. Visit super-specific destinations like ClosetfullofCoco on Instagram, which sells Chanel exclusively — and almost all of it bags.
If you need something to do after eating lunch and before returning to work, browsing Christie’s Collection of André Leon Talley is a solid use of your time. Mr. Talley was not just a fashion historian and writer but a real shopper. While few can attend the live auction on Feb. 15, and fewer can place a winning bid on a beige ponyhair Chanel bag or a black Ralph Lauren alligator duffel, looking at the collection can inspire your own vintage bag rabbit hole.
Satin is one of my favorite materials for bags, especially small evening bags with drawstrings or fringe. Renaud Pellegrino’s bright pink satin bag would be ideal for a night at the ballet, maybe. Also, look for materials that were often used in past decades, like tortoiseshell, resin or Bakelite.
Or you might try looking for earlier pieces from your favorite labels. Search for Kate Spade from the early aughts when some of the bags were made in Italy. You can find wonderful Tom Ford-era Gucci or Yves Saint Laurent bags. Ditto Louis Vuitton bags in Epi leather, a Vuitton-specific creation that’s textured with tiny wavy ridges.
Another way to search is by looking for bag shapes that were all the rage before your time. I like to search for frame bags or top handle bags; the Céline clasp bag from just a few years ago is a favorite. For a treat, try minaudières, a whole world unto itself. Maybe a Judith Leiber egg?
Important note! You won’t look costume-y if you wear any of these with normal clothes. But looking like you’re in costume isn’t always a bad thing.
A friend of mine who designs accessories loves to search for Sharif bags from the 1980s and Susan Gail bags for their high quality leather. Another classic is Roberta di Camerino, an Italian brand whose heyday was in the midcentury and whose bags are known for trompe l’oeil and color-blocking. Once you see the bags, you can’t unsee their influence in other designers’ work — Prada, Gucci. There are a lot of bags around at an array of prices. I prefer the velvet to the vinyl and would wear it with thin wale corduroy pants. 640 euros; about $700
For a certain kind of fashion fixated person, the biggest revelation in “Rear Window” was the box bag Grace Kelly’s character carried. There are vintage versions of the bag on 1stdibs.com, but Mark Cross continues to make a smaller version of the bag that Gerald Murphy, who ran Mark Cross, designed in 1954 for the film, called the Rear Window Day Case. (Mr. Murphy and his wife, Sara, were significant Lost Generation figures, legendary for their time in the South of France.) I find the interior mirror completely charming. Black is practical, but who needs practical? Go with the celadon. $3,590
The Birkin and the Kelly bags are more or less household names, but Hermès has a deep bench of lesser known styles: Picotin, Chevreuse, Chaîne D’Ancre, Cordelière, Sandrine. “I think many overlook all of the wonderful styles Hermès had in the ’60s,” said Zabrina Estrada, who owns Etéreo Vintage in Brooklyn. “I love the Palonnier in a skin, and the Piano bag is also really chic.” Her dream bag is the Mallette, which has a lockable compartment for jewelry. The Brooklyn Museum has one owned by Babe Paley that was donated by her social secretary! $13,000
I consider companies whose bags are less celebrated than other things they make a whole category of vintage. Bally fits in there, as does any bag from Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, Nina Ricci, Fortuny and Ferragamo. Kudos to whoever gets this gold and pink metallic polka-dot Manolo clutch worthy of Cher Horowitz, Carrie Bradshaw or other ’90s protagonists. $487.50
Vintage Chanel bags go in a lot of directions. You could get a wild piece from one of its collections, like an $84,000 shopping basket from 2014 made out of the house’s signature chains. Take it to the farmers’ market? But as with Hermès, the elegant move would be a piece from the 1960s, like a chocolate brown Ottoman bag with a lipstick red lining. Why does red lining make everything better? 1,800 euros; about $1,960
Skip all the Louis Vuitton logos, unless you’re buying a trunk. Instead, go for simple. Sumptuous. Mysterious but privileged. I’m talking about Sofia Coppola! But specifically, the Louis Vuitton Sofia Coppola SC Bag Leather PM. The navy blue is classic. In fact, everything about this bag is classic. I’d be happy with any color — light brown, cherry red, oxblood — and it’s large enough to carry a laptop, wallet, tiny notepad for deep thoughts, a bag of Doritos. You know, the essentials. $2,005