For a woman, the perfect handbag is an illusion worth chasing. Handbags are not functionality, they are an expression of style and personality. As a result, they are almost sacred. From my numerous voluntary (and involuntary) discussions on the subject with many women, I have uncovered that there are five brands of handbags that are truly worth owning … Prada, Coach, Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Burberry. Unlike other elements of a woman’s wardrobe, individuality is not rewarded here. When people recognize your purse, know the maker and perhaps even have one of their own, that’s a good thing. What is most startling about this world of handbags, though, is how uniformly ugly they are (um, that would be my opinion, not what the women said of course). The Louis Vuitton bags are a muddy brown color covered with clip-art style icons in a checkered pattern. They are quite possibly the ugliest piece of accessory or luggage I have ever seen … and everyone wants one. The Burberry bags all look like their equally popular line of scarves, with plaid checks and a tan color so well recognized on their products, Crayola should rename it "Burberry Tan."
But despite my dislike or other’s like of these designs, surely design cannot account for their immense popularity. There is something more at work here. As Tom Ford, former designer at Gucci said, "If a bag is attractive, it makes you feel good by default. It’s all about proportion, shape, line, finish, fabric, balance. If all of that is pleasing it will sell. More than that, it’s like you’ve gotta have it or you’ll die." Fake or real, handbags are a must have — more important even, than shoes to accessorize a woman’s wardrobe. Why? Because handbags are more closely tied to a woman’s aspirational personality than another other piece of fashion. It is an expression of what group you want to be considered part of – but you have to choose a group. In handbags, you don’t start your own group. As a result, handbags are a testament to the old mass market view where we all fit a demographic.
Contrast this with a woman’s experience online, where she can choose how her screen appears, what her username will tell others about her, what photos to post online to create herself, and how to build a virtual identity. Many women have vibrant online personalities, each unique and distinctive. With Yahoo’s new Shoposphere, users can even share shopping pick lists in Yahoo’s self proclaimed move from ecommerce to "me commerce." Online, individuality is awarded and celebrated. But individuality is often at odds with the desire to belong to a group. Most will agree it’s tough to stand out and fit in all at once. So perhaps there is room for both – and there is a place for the aspirational mass personality. If only it wasn’t symbolized by such ugly handbags.