It turns out, when architects turn their eye to handbags, they are remarkably practical. That’s what Prada revealed last week, as the luxury fashion house unveiled the results of a new collaboration with three female architects–Kazuyo Sejima, Elizabeth Diller, and Cini Boeri–during Milan Fashion Week.
The pieces they’ve created weave together form and function in new–and sometimes–funny ways. One bag doubles as a neck pillow. Another has designated pouches for sandwiches. The inside of one bag looks a lot like a jigsaw puzzle.
On the surface, it all seems a little absurd. But it’s also in keeping with a new trend in the fashion industry to treat women’s bags as more than eye candy. These bags reflect that women today live full, complex, multifaceted lives, and brands should recognize this as they design for female consumers.
Japanese architect Sejima, the first woman to be named curator of Venice’s Biennale, created two bags specifically designed for travel. The bags have many pockets and pouches that add a spark of color to the otherwise simple pieces. One bag can be configured into a neck pillow when traveling, with an attached pouch that appears like it can be used as an eye mask. It’s a playful piece, but it could also come in handy while on a flight, eliminating the need to tote around a bundle of travel accessories.
New York-based architect Diller–who helped design the High Line–created two bags that look like life vests, complete with plenty of straps and buckles that can be configured in different ways. They can also morph into other things, including a raincoat. One bag contains a section specifically designed to accommodate “sketchpads, sandwiches, and lipstick”–all the important things.
Boeri, who has collaborated with legendary architects like Gio Ponti, designed a bag that looks most like Prada’s traditional nylon bags. On the inside, however, the bag has removable and adjustable modules, so the bag’s owner can customize it for her lifestyle. Imagine being able to take out the compartments full of your office items, and replacing them with your kid’s toys and snacks during the weekend.
Prada’s iconic nylon bag collection was always an experiment in pragmatism. Miuccia Prada created the first iteration in 1984. It incorporated heavy-duty nylon otherwise used for army tents. While luxury brands then and now focus on using the rarest and most expensive leathers in the world, Prada wanted to create pieces that women could actually use as they went about their daily lives. The nylon bags, which had an industrial flair, were lightweight, waterproof, and easy to clean.
But they were also status symbols, with a price point north of $1,000. The message Prada was conveying was that practicality could also be high-end, and luxury didn’t have to be useless.
These architects, whose jobs involve blending form with function in physical spaces, have taken the original practicality of the nylon bag to a new level. They’re clearly thinking about how women live their lives today and how a bag can fit into everything they do. Wouldn’t it be nice, for instance, to have a spot for your lunch in your beautiful designer bag? Wouldn’t it be lovely to have a work bag that can easily be reconfigured as a diaper bag?
For the last three years, I’ve been tracking startups that are on a similar mission as the architects in this collaboration. (Among them are Cuyana, Dagne Dover, Caraa, and Coyne.) The founders of these companies are interested in creating what I’ve called “work/life” bags–purses that fit into the hectic lives that women live these days. Several founders actually left jobs at larger luxury accessories brands because they felt that the bags they were tasked with making there weren’t what women actually needed. The bags they create now have spots for laptops, or gym shoes, to take a woman through her entire day without forcing her to switch bags. But the startups that make these bags also have to make enough money to get their nascent businesses off the ground. So this often limits how creative they can be, since bags that are too radically different may seem too risky a purchase to many women.
The beauty of this Prada project is that the architects in question could reimagine the bag in radical new ways without worrying about how the market will respond. It’s a welcome experiment at a time when most luxury bag brands focus more on beauty at the expense of usefulness.