When Anya Hindmarch's close friend had a baby, the London accessories designer came up with a novel gift: a satin handbag with the baby's photo on it. It wasn't a big stretch for Hindmarch; her eponymous company had been printing kitschy photos on handmade bags for years. But her friend so loved the gift that Hindmarch, 33, decided to make personalized bags available to all her customers, donating the proceeds to cancer charities. She kicked off the venture, called Be a Bag, by inviting 150 celebrities to submit images for bags and got some amusing results, including Sting and Trudie Styler's son, Ewan McGregor's motorcycle and a close-up of Elton John's glasses. Now available at Anya Hindmarch stores or www.beabag.com until May, these personalized bags can be made from a print, e-mail or CD-ROM image, and run $170 to $210. "So often now, you get what companies make, not what you want," says Hindmarch. "With Be a Bag you have a say. That's a real luxury these days."
There aren't many true fashion luxuries left. Handbags remain one of the most accessible--and affordable--items in a woman's luxury wardrobe, and can communicate taste, refinement and social status in a glance. Still, in recent years certain luxury-brand bags, like Chanel's quilted purse and Fendi's baguette, have become nearly as commonplace as Nikes on a teenager's feet. Happily, now there are a handful of designers making personalized bags for women who want what they carry to reflect who they are--not just how much they spent.
Celebrities, naturally, are leading the trend. Madonna, Cher, Susan Sarandon and Julianne Moore are all devotees of Brazilian-born leather craftsman Carlos Falchi, who is based in New York. An original hippie designer, Falchi adorns his hand-sewn buffalo-hide bags with suede fringe, leather flowers and beads. They retail from $250 to $5,000 at Barneys and Neiman Marcus in the United States, Harrods and Selfridges in London and his own store in Tokyo. He got his start in the late '60s, when he met Miles Davis, who in turn introduced him to Tina Turner. Falchi went on tour with Turner in 1970 and decked her out in sexy, swinging hand-cut fringes. Another loyal client, Gigi Hancock--jazz artist Herbie Hancock's wife--suggested that Falchi try to sell at Henri Bendel. "I put together a bunch of my stuff in a big bag that I had made," Falchi remembers. "They loved the pants, they loved the jacket, but they especially loved the bag." Falchi believes his bags are popular today not only because they go perfectly with the current hippie-fashion revival but also because women are seeking individuality in a world of homogenization. "A handbag is a very personal thing," he says. "You can't be told what to wear."
Even some of the big leather-goods makers are moving away from signature styles. Tomas Maier, the creative director for Italy's Bottega Veneta, has come up with the antithesis of the fashion-label handbag: a seamless, logo-free limited-edition tote. Called the cabat, after the simple French carryall, the bag is hand-woven by two craftsmen on a giant wooden frame. A zippered pouch inside holds valuables and sports a gold plate engraved with the bag's number. Bottega Veneta is producing only 800 this season: 400 small ones ($2,800 each) and 400 large ($3,800). "It's a bag that becomes a part of you," says Maier. "It's not for a woman who needs a logo to define her style."
Just because a bag is personalized, that doesn't prevent it from being over the top. For extra-special occasions, French handbag designer Renaud Pellegrino has joined with jeweler Harry Winston to create an elegant silk evening clutch topped with real diamonds. Pellegrino, whose fans include Catherine Deneuve and Lauren Bacall, has individualized bags since he got into the business 20 years ago. He uses plenty of vibrant colors, often in silk, and decorates his purses with Murano glass fish, pearls from India and Bohemian glass beads.
The jewels are new. Last year Harry Winston president Patricia Hambrecht, a longtime Pellegrino client, fell in love with one of Pellegrino's new evening bags: a small rectangular box topped with a rhinestone brooch. "We should do that with real diamonds," she declared. So they did. Last fall, Pellegrino produced two dozen silk boxes decorated with diamond flowers, swirls and snail shells. For spring, Pellegrino and Harry Winston have decided to add a more affordable line with semiprecious stones. They retail from $1,200 (with pearls) to $30,000 (with diamonds set in platinum).
Once a woman does find the bag of her dreams, she can call on Nathalie Lecroc, a 35-year-old Parisian artist, to immortalize it in watercolors and ink. Lecroc began her Petit Anthologie de Sacs in 1998 by painting her own handbag--surrounded by all its contents, which she labeled--on an ivory 5x7 card. She liked the idea so much she began to do them for others. Now proud handbag owners are seeking her out. Each illustration takes two and a half hours and costs 61 (euros). The 400 or so handbags Lecroc has painted include New York socialite Lyn Revson's made-to-order Hermes bag with a diamond-encrusted watch on the flap, and keys and a mobile phone tucked inside; Texas socialite Lynn Wyatt's Chanel purse filled with an art deco gold compact, lorgnette and lace handkerchief, and top model Heidi Klum's cheerful red and yellow Chanel quilted clutch with big black sunglasses, a Montblanc pen and a pack of chewing gum inside. Lecroc hopes to publish the ensemble in a book. "For me," she says, "a bag is an extension of a person's personality--inside and out. A real inventory of the human riches." Used tissues, diamonds and all.