Birkins, Zumis & Beyond: 8 Iconic Handbags and Their Muses
What’s in a name? When it comes to some of the most noteworthy bags in history, the styles with staying power always seem to have a muse behind the moniker. Inspiration comes in many forms, and the designers of these distinguished bags memorialized iconic actresses, activists, fully fledged royalty and even the art of gymnastics with their creations. Read on to discover why Danse Lente’s bags are more art than fashion, how the Kelly hid a big secret and why the Zumi’s name is ironic, plus tips for spotting the real deal.
The Hermès Birkin
In Hermès’ 182 years of existence, the Birkin is surely the heritage house’s most legendary achievement. Hand-constructed by artisans with an excruciating level of detail—it takes hours and hours to create just one—the Birkin is in a league of its own. No one really knows how many are made each year, since Hermès keeps that intel close to the vest, but the bags’ rarity and exclusivity has awarded them an inconceivable amount of prestige. Perhaps the origin story is partly responsible for its prominence.
In 1981, actress Jane Birkin met Hermès’ then-artistic director and chief executive, Jean-Louis Dumas, on a plane. Birkin was attempting to stow one of her infamous wicker baskets in an overhead compartment when it overturned, and she criticized the bag’s capacity to Dumas. This sparked something in Dumas’ brain. Three years after their encounter, Dumas designed a true pièce de resistance and asked his muse if he could name it after her. Surprise—she said yes. And when the Birkin was featured on an episode of Sex and the City in 2001, it forever cemented the bag in the hearts and minds of socialites around the world.
Hermès Birkin Authenticity Tip: The four feet on a Birkin should not spin or unscrew. If they do, that’s a huge red flag.
The Danse Lente Johnny & Lilou
Art and fashion frequently go hand in hand, and Danse Lente founder Youngwon Kim is truly an artist at heart. The London-based designer draws inspiration from modern art and architecture greats like Le Corbusier, Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró, and envisions wearers carrying her handbags in “imaginary dance-like movements” (hence the nomenclature—Danse Lente means “slow dance” en français). In addition to Kim’s affinity for the abstract, she has a background in footwear design, which somehow translates perfectly, the curved lines traditionally found on shoes appearing in the unique silhouettes and details of bags.
For the brand’s coveted Johnny bag, Kim looked to the sculptures of Romanian artist Constantin Brâncuși for guidance. With that in mind, the Johnny becomes something much more than a bucket bag. Its trapezoidal hardware is reminiscent of an eye or a mouth, while its body evokes the deliberate geometric lines of Brâncuși’s woodwork. Danse Lente’s half-moon Lilou bag has a different artistic progenitor—gymnastics. Imagine a gymnast balancing atop metal rings, shifting gracefully between shapes, and the Lilou makes perfect sense.
Danse Lente Johnny Bag Authenticity Tip: Counterfeit Johnny bags often possess overly yellow or orange-saturated hardware. Authentic Johnny bags should have gold-tone, silver-tone or lacquered black hardware without any texture or striations.
The Hermès Kelly
While many Hermès fans have speculated about whether the Kelly is the new Birkin, few may know how the bag got its name—or that it actually preceded the Birkin. The Kelly was born the Sac à dépêches in 1930, designed by then-head of the company Robert Dumas. Inspired by 1880s-era saddle bags, the Sac à dépêches was prized for its elegant design and versatile straps, once seen as un-ladylike. Seven years later, a new version of the bag was created—the Retourne, defined by its effortless slouch that results from flipping the bag inside out once it’s been sewn together. The original Sellier, by comparison, is boxier with visible wax-sealed seams. Hermès fans would forever be divided.
The bag’s rechristening did not come for some time. In 1956, star of the silver screen and Princess of Monaco Grace Kelly was snapped by the paparazzi with the Sac à dépêches placed strategically at her stomach (Retourne, in case you were wondering). She strove to maintain her privacy and hide her baby bump from the world, but the photo hit the cover of Life Magazine and circulated globally. The intrinsic association of Kelly and the bag was inevitable, and Hermès officially changed the bag’s name in 1977. New iterations of the Kelly family include backpacks, wallets, bracelets and belts, and while they won’t hide that baby bump, they still retain the je ne sais quoi that Hermès does so well.
Hermès Kelly Authenticity Tip: Kelly bags are lined with chèvre leather. If you shine a light across the interior base, you should see a line down the center of the grain.
The Dior Lady Dior
Dior’s Lady Dior is another handbag to join the ranks of royalty after its inception. The bag launched without a formal name in 1994, though internally it was referred to as the Chouchou (“Pet” or “Favorite”). Imbued with the spirit of haute couture, the original boasted one of Dior’s most elegant house codes—the delicate Cannage, a pattern lifted from the Napoléon III caned chairs used at Christian Dior’s 1947 show. Endless variations have been produced since then featuring embellishments, graphics, the Oblique logo and exotic skins, but the classic Cannage arguably reigns supreme.
It was the fall of 1995, and Princess Diana of Wales had arrived in France. The country’s first lady, Bernadette Chirac, gifted Diana the bag, and she was first spotted wearing it at a Cézanne exhibition’s opening gala. The myth goes that Diana was so smitten with the style that she ordered it in every color available, and that after she was seen with the bag, it instantly sold out. In 1996, Dior made things official and crowned the bag Lady Dior, honoring her pre-marriage title Lady Diana Spencer.
Dior Lady Dior Bag Authenticity Tip: The signature Cannage stitching should be present on all sides of lambskin Lady Dior bags. On patent leather versions, the sides will not have the Cannage quilting.
The Gabriela Hearst Nina & Diana
Gabriela Hearst may be a relative newcomer to the luxury goods industry, but her handbags are no stranger to the public. Oprah, Anne Hathaway, Thandie Newton and Dakota Fanning have all been seen with Hearst’s Nina bag, but when Meghan Markle was spotted with a satin version last October, it seemingly became an overnight sensation. At one time, the bag reportedly had a waitlist of nearly 1,500 people. This is no small number considering the bags are available only by special order (or through luxury consignment!), an effect of Hearst’s dedication to sustainability and aim to combat over-production.
The notable women who have worn the bag are definitely in good company when it comes to the Nina. Artist and activist Nina Simone was the inspiration for the coveted bag, which Hearst herself calls a “Power Ball.” The accordion-like Diana bag, less widely known though equally exquisite, takes its name from the one and only singer, actress and record producer Diana Ross. It’s only fitting that the bags be named after icons of both style and substance, as Hearst’s pieces are the kind that truly empower women and encourage them to be their best selves.
Gabriela Hearst Nina Bag Authenticity Tip: Beware of bags with loose or messy stitching. Counterfeits will sometimes have small tears where the stitch and the leather or fabric comes together. Counterfeit versions also tend to blind-emboss the logo, while authentic Nina bags should feature gold-foil stampings.
The Gucci Zumi
Meet the Gucci Zumi. It’s not every day that a new icon is created, but this past spring designer Alessandro Michele debuted a bag destined for a Dionysus level of fame. It’s clean. It’s ladylike. It comes complete with elegant top handle and horsebit-GG logo, a motif pulled straight from Gucci’s archives. It’s the Gucci equivalent of classic minimalism. And ironically the woman whose name it takes is anything but.
Los Angeles native Zumi Rosow is a little bit of everything—actress, model, jewelry designer, musician and now Gucci muse. With a shock of dark hair, broken tooth she never fixed and self-proclaimed vampire-meets-leather-daddy-meets-wild-child aesthetic, Rosow goes against the grain in every way. She’s a stark contrast to the Gucci Zumi bag, which boils down to an inside joke between her and Michele. But all jokes aside, Zumi the muse shares one commonality with Zumi the bag, aside from the name—an inherent versatility. As a performer and multi-hyphenate, Rosow is able to move freely between roles and personas. The handbag, with its classic boxy frame and hybrid of crowd-pleasing Gucci motifs, is similar in that way. Don’t be surprised to see it at a punk show one night, and then at brunch the next morning.
Gucci Zumi Bag Authenticity Tip: The Gucci Zumi’s unique closure should be fastened with star-sided screws. Flathead or Phillips head screws are a sign that the bag is not authentic.
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