Coco Forever: How to Collect Chanel Handbags Like a Pro
Once you fall in love with fashion, there’s no turning back. If someone hasn’t already coined this adage as a truth universally acknowledged, they should — the call of well-crafted shoes, immaculate watches, iconic handbags and effortlessly designed clothing can sometimes be overpowering. Our experts know this first hand. It’s why they dedicate years to studying brands, trends and techniques, taking their interest in luxury from passion to full-fledged career. And it’s why they invest in the things they value, sometimes choosing to curate collections of the pieces they know so much about.
Which brings us to Yang Zhao, NYC-based Merchandising Manager. When she’s not using her vast knowledge and research to implement best business practices both online and at our SoHo store, refine consignment standards and school inquisitive luxury lovers on handbags in one of our many workshops, she’s creating a coveted Chanel handbag cache of her own. In this new series, we ask RealReal experts-cum-collectors about their very first find, what to keep versus sell and if they actually wear their treasures. Read on for Yang’s expert advice on starting a collection, and for a peek at some of her prized handbags.
First things first… what do you collect?
I collect vintage Chanel bags and accessories from the mid-’80s through the late ’90s and occasionally limited edition bags from more recent collections. I currently have seven bags. I’m constantly acquiring and selling, and about 50 pieces have come and gone. I only keep the pieces that I personally feel connected to.
When did you first become interested in collecting, and what’s the story behind your first piece?
After grad school, I started my career as a handbag merchant in 2014. I inspected tens of thousands of luxury handbags and when I laid my hands on a vintage Chanel bag, I instantly fell in love with it. Compared with all the other handbags I saw, vintage Chanel bags stood out with their extremely supple lamb leather, 24 karat gold-plated hardware, impeccable craftsmanship and iconic silhouette. I couldn’t think of another brand that could work this magic… not even Hermès!
My first Chanel bag was a limited edition Pre-Fall 2013 Métiers d’Art Paris Edinburgh Celtic Boy bag in black lambskin. I think from very early on, I knew I was always looking for rarity and novelty, instead of popularity or hype. I never had any desire to own a Chanel Classic Flap, or a Wallet On Chain. I’m glad that after five years, my first bag still retains about 90% of its retail value, and I believe that in ten years the resale price will exceed its original MSRP due to inflation.
What’s the thought process when choosing your next piece? How do you know when you really want to invest?
It comes down to three things. First, intuition. I have to really like it. I like rare colors and materials in smaller sizes. Second, rarity. I see thousands of Chanel bags every month, so if I see a piece that I know I would only come across two or three times a year, I consider acquiring. Third, affordability. Rare vintage Chanel pieces in the resale market are often extremely overpriced. I would love to acquire a Wicker Basket Bag but outside of The RealReal, pricing can be a complete rip-off. I am a reasonable collector and will only pay competitive market price.
Out of your entire collection, do you have a favorite?
My favorite is a pre-1986 Square Flap in red satin. I love it because it’s one of the earliest examples of the Mini Square Flap (a cult vintage piece) and it’s still relevant. It was made right when Karl Lagerfeld took over the design house, and before the hologram serial system had been implemented. I can see some imperfections in stitching and construction compared to its late ‘80s and early ‘90s successors, but it is a testimony to Chanel’s refinement of craftsmanship.
What’s the rarest handbag in your collection?
A vintage denim Mini Flap in pristine condition. I’ve seen fewer than five pieces a year surface in the entire resale market. I like the mix of high and low… the material is the twist here and it makes luxury fashion feel less uptight. Lagerfeld featured denim in his 1984 ready-to-wear collection, his first for the atelier. Chanel was probably one of the first haute couture houses to incorporate a streetwear element like denim into high fashion, so for me it’s very iconic.
Yang leading a workshop on collecting Chanel handbags at our SoHo store.
Do you wear your pieces regularly, display them or keep them tucked away?
Sometimes I wear them when I want to be a bit edgy. But as I get older, I care less about logos and my outfit choices have become even simpler. I use tote bags more often than all of my designer bags.
Which piece holds the most elaborate “hunt” story?
I shop internationally and have bought some crazy random and rare pieces in less popular markets. I obtained two sets of Chanel domino sets in Russia, and suspenders in Ukraine. Being able to authenticate via photos helps me hunt for those finds.
What’s the most challenging aspect of collecting, and how has the online resale market factored into this?
Teasing out personal preference, and deciding if I want to sell a piece or hold onto it long term. The online resale market always provides a point of reference but at this stage, I feel I can rely more on my intuition.
How do you know when it’s time to sell?
For pieces I buy with the intention of selling, I consider it when I estimate that I can make a profit of at least 40%. Not all vintage Chanel bags are the same. The classics — such as small and medium Flaps and Wallet On Chains — and cult bags always have great resale value. Cult bags embody a combination of rarity, aesthetic, condition and even hype. I never hesitate to sell less popular styles as they do depreciate over time.
An array of vintage Chanel at a handbag-collecting workshop.
Any special tips for keeping handbags in great condition?
Always stuff your bags, and keep them in dust bags. When storing them, tuck the chain inside, as it can leave an indentation in the leather. And never wear light-colored lambskin with jeans. I used to have powder blue and lavender Flap bags but they were quickly discolored when I wore them with jeans. I had to resell them before they lost even more value due to damage.
And last but not least… what advice would you give someone looking to start their own collection?
In terms of collecting vintage Chanel, the market is incredibly mature and prices have been rising steadily for awhile. Start off with safe bets like the Classic Flaps and Wallet On Chains, because there is less volatility in price, and then let your research and personal style guide your decisions. Try going for limited seasonal collections or runway pieces if you have the means. Those are all produced in small quantity and are desirable in the resale market if you decide to sell.
Ready to start collecting? Shop our curated selection of Chanel handbags.
All items are pre-owned and consigned to The RealReal. Trademarks are owned by their respective brand owners. No brand owner endorses or sponsors this ad or has any association and/or affiliation with The RealReal.