It was only when I emptied the contents of my go-to black Kara handbag last week that I realized how long it had been since I last wore it — or any bag, for that matter — out of the house. The tube of red Stila lipstick, wad of U.S. dollar bills, MTA Metrocard and boarding pass for a March 6 Air Canada flight all seem like the product of another era, one in which the daily task of leaving the house necessitated a roomy carryall.
With most offices still closed, travel on hold and large events verboten, the role of the handbag in the Covid-19 era is a question that both brands and consumers are reckoning with. If there aren’t any weddings on the calendar, who’s buying a bejeweled clutch? If all your meetings are on Zoom, what’s the point of a work tote?
“Now more than ever, we are thinking about why our customers might need a handbag,” said Karla Gallardo, co-founder and CEO of direct-to-consumer apparel and accessories brand Cuyana. “Where are they going? What do they need to bring with them? What pockets do they need?”
Last week, the brand launched its Messenger Bag, a work-friendly style with a laptop sleeve and adjustable shoulder strap. It also rolled out new colorways of its Oversized Hobo. The former was designed prior to the pandemic, but Gallardo argued that the style was functional enough to find a place in consumers’ new routines.
“We felt strongly that it still fulfills a purpose in today’s world — a lightweight, hands-free bag is ideal for staying organized at work or at home (even if they’re the same) or making quick errand runs,” she said.
The same can’t be said for the clutches and shoulder bags that some brands were banking on for the spring and fall.
Alicia Skehan, a handbag designer and consultant who has designed for brands including Kate Spade, MZ Wallace and Coach, said she’s always taking note of the bags she sees fellow New Yorkers carrying.
“One thing that stands out to me that I definitely don’t see very much of are literal handbags that you would carry with your hand or in the crook of your arm,” she said. As consumers’ routines shift from restaurants and happy hours to farmers’ markets and small gatherings, “I feel like shoulder bags or things that take a little more care aren’t going to be as relevant, unless it’s something that emotionally grabs you.”
For an example of the latter, just turn to Kate Spade’s $348 pineapple-shaped crossbody bag, which the company highlighted in its most recent earnings call. “[The customer] is happy to pay for that because it makes her happy,” said Kate Spade’s CEO and brand president Liz Fraser.
Michael Kors, meanwhile, pointed to backpacks as one of its strongest categories — no surprise, given this summer’s cycling boom. As people avoid public transit and seek out more outdoor activities, they’re ditching their typical handbags in favor of bike-friendly styles like knapsacks and fanny packs.
For bags that don’t have novelty or utility on their side, retailers are turning to promotions to make the sale. Clutches and crossbody styles are discounted, on average, 42-45% among mass-market retailers, according to Kayla Marci, market analyst at retail market intelligence company Edited.
While handbags have a well-earned reputation as a fashion-industry money maker, retailers are reducing the number of styles they carry — while brands are cutting the number of styles they produce — to focus on their bestsellers.
Over the past six months, the number of new handbag styles at mass-market retailers has dropped 28% year-over-year, said Marci.
For the upcoming holiday season, Coach is reducing the number of styles in its assortment by 50%, aiming for “greater productivity and clearer brand messaging to the consumer” with a more focused collection.
For brands used to churning out dozens of new styles every season, whether to appease buyers’ demands for exclusives or consumers’ expectations of constant newness, the current moment may be an opportunity for a reset.
“You have to think more about innovation, rather than [focusing on] number of styles and satisfying what a wholesaler needs from you,” said Skehan.
The rest of us, meanwhile, might use this hands-free time to reevaluate what we really need in a handbag — my new everyday carryall, a convertible fanny pack by the Hanoi-based brand Aokaië, for instance, comes with the unexpectedly useful feature of a built-in mask clip (or at least that’s what I’ve been using it as).