I've just returned from a four day stint at Berlin Fashion Week's Spring Summer 2012 installment, where, amongst the perpetual land of the German hipsters, I was reminded of a fact that's not particularly novel, but worth a wee rumination: the canvas bag as coveted fashion currency. The "swag bag," a small and subtle piece of printed cloth often given out as goody bags at fashion shows and events, can speak volumes about how far into the ranks of fashion's inner circle the wearer has penetrated. It's like the mark of the hottest and most exclusive nightclub stamped on your wrist that you casually "forget" to wash off for a few days so that everyone you meet can see without you telling them that you managed to make it past the bouncers and into the VIP room at the Box last night. The only difference is that a canvas bag won't disappear down the drain with a shower or two.
To tote a bag from the most exclusive after party or sought-after show is a way to proclaim without saying, "I WAS THERE! MY NAME WAS ON THE LIST AND YOURS WASN'T!" Canvas bags are to the fashion industry what t-shirts are to society at large, quietly branded pieces of cotton to brandish as a triumphal souvenirs in the faces of others. Patiently placed on the seats of certain runway shows of brands commanding enough budget (or sponsors), the bags themselves are way more important than the press releases and night cream samples to be found inside. And over the years, as more and more people (like bloggers) infiltrate the tents, they've become all the more elusive and exclusive, in many cases, now only placed on the seats of first two rows. The carrying therein of one such swag bag, therefore, instantly signifies not only the fact that you were there, but that you were FRONT ROW. Ooooooh.....
One need only spend about five minutes loitering about High Holborn and count the legions of Mulberry/London Fashion Week totes dating back as far as, oh I don't know, Spring/Summer 2009 proudly swinging from the shoulders of many a London College of Fashion student to know it's true. Last season's bags from LFW AW11 can still be found for sale on eBay, where, no doubt, the incoming freshers "bag" theirs before arriving on campus and admitting to their peers that they may or may not be (oh, the horror!), fashion week virgins.
Every fashion week, at least every fashion week that I've attended, there's always at least one or two totes that bring with them the stamp of insider approval for that particular season, the "must-haves," if you will. My first encounter with the Order of the Free Fashion Week Tote took place my very first round of shows, back in September 2008, where (to my intern eyes at least) all the coolest of the cool floating around then-venue Natural History Museum (ahh the good old days...) were sporting black commemorative YSL bags, as the designer had recently passed away. I was desperate to have one and inquired as to where they could be found. After several girls merely pursed their lips in stylish silence to my queries ("if I don't tell her, she'll never get one"), one reluctant fashionista finally fessed up rolling her eyes, "they were given out at the show in Paris last season, you can't get them anywhere, sorry."
YSL free canvas totes again became the-item-to-covet during NYFW back in September 2009, when the brand's US staff took to the streets outside Bryant Park to distribute the first 2,000 of the highly awaited "manifesto" or the campaign published in a 32-page booklets. The bags, featuring an upside down leather-clad Christy Turlington intertwined amongst the house's signature initial logo, were snapped up in a frenzy by those attending the 9AM shows and those of us who rolled out of bed for the noontime lot found ourselves feeling on the outs for the rest of the show calendar. The same season, at London Fashion Week, Jeremy Scott delighted editors other FROWers (and cunning, early-arriving SWAG scouters) by giving out one notch better, a hot pink and black printed nylon bag in collaboration with Longchamp. These freebies still make the rounds at shows to this day, a smug reminder of a possible front row triumph seasons back.
Of course, fashion's favorite freebie didn't stay a means of insider power play forever, and once the recession bloomed in all its glory (hand in hand with a burgeoning public interest in all things green and eco-friendly), canvas bags went mainstream. Anya Hindmarch launched the now iconic and instant sell-out "I'm Not a Plastic Bag" bag in late 2007, and by summer 2009, Karl Lagerfeld (Karl WHO? bags had a fruitful run at Paris' Colette), Vivienne Westwood, Prada and a host of other top-notch designers had followed suit.
In Berlin this past week just gone, the bag to covet was actually that of the official sponsor, Mercedes Benz, which went out to each and every registered member of the accredited press. Yours truly missed the deadline to register and hence felt like the only journo in the whole of Germany without a yellow branded sack with fancy yellow straps (word on the street, the bags of the hometown installment of the automobile's fashion week sponsorships had to outdo those of the bigger and more famous New York counterpart) in which to place my stash of tickets and extra pair of flats. As I toured round Berlin for four days, visiting sites when I wasn't attending shows, the yellow MBBFW bags stood out like beacons on the Underground and the streets, identifying fashion-week-goers more readily than busloads of Chinese scouring maps are pegged as tourists.
I felt decidedly peeved at the fact I couldn't get my mits on one to take home and add to my slightly inappropriate stash, that prickling niggle of exclusion making you feel that you're just not that cool. Even whilst toiling to drag my bag off the conveyor belt at Heathrow's baggage claim last night, still, the elusive yellow bags plagued me, proudly toted home like wartime spoils by the few members of the London fash pack who made the trip as carry-on. So I guess as far as Berlin Fashion Week is concerned, you'll just have to take my word (or my coverage!) for it, that I was actually there.
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