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It's in the bag: hitting the contemporary accessory sweet spot

Manu atelier

A wave of new bag brands – priced under £500 and available in an array of shapes and colours – has exploded into the accessories market. As more retailers add niche names to their stockist lists, Drapers explores the rise of affordable luxury accessories.

Instagrammable, desirable and affordable: a new class of must-have bag brands are taking the accessories market by storm. This proliferation of small, contemporary labels, offering fashion-forward product at a premium but accessible price point, has emerged to fill the gap between the high street and high-end luxury brands. Embraced by buyers and customers alike, up-and-coming names such as London-based Danse Lente and US brand Cult Gaia have won high-profile stockists such as Browns, Selfridges and Net-a-Porter.

Danse lente summer 18

Danse Lente summer 18

A combination of price and design has quickly propelled these affordable luxury bag labels up customers’ wish lists. Changing priorities and a shift in spending habits towards experiences, such as travel, entertaining and dining out, means even those customers able to spend big on a luxury handbag are thinking twice. Shoppers who would have once splashed thousands of pounds are now turning to the new breed of bag brands, which also includes Manu Atelier, Mansur Gavriel, Boyy, Wandler and Staud, without having to compromise on design. These contemporary labels offer a quirky, fresh aesthetic rather than relying on heavy logos or brash branding, giving customers a new alternative.

And, at the same time, shoppers who would usually purchase high street accessories are prepared to stretch to a more achievable premium price point in return for better quality and innovative, unique designs.

“We’re seeing a shift in trends when it comes to what customers want to spend on,” explains Claire Miles, head of London concept store The Shop at Bluebird, which stocks Danse Lente, Cult Gaia, Manu Atelier and Turkish brand Mehry Mu. “There’s a real sweet spot under the £500 price point – people who used to spend £1,000 on a handbag now have more important things to spend that money on. Mansur Gavriel was the first of these brands to have volume appeal – now it’s Danse Lente enjoying a moment.”

She adds: “It’s becoming about design over labels. We’re seeing the interesting styles with really standout details sell the best, rather than something more traditional like a classic black tote. Colour-block styles and interesting shapes are doing especially well, which I think is because of the growth of ecommerce. When you’re scrolling online, it’s the more interesting pieces that really jump out to you.”

Tiffany Hsu, fashion buying director at luxury etailer MyTheresa, which stocks Danse Lente, Mansur Gavriel and Wandler, agrees that shape and colour has been key to the success of these new accessory labels.

“Price point is key, but furthermore, these brands offer really unique and recognisable shapes that the big fashion brands are not. In one word, what they’re bringing is newness. They bring fun, new shapes that are a little less function driven, and an instant wardrobe update. And, don’t forget, they’re very photo-friendly and Instagrammable.”

Cult gaia ark bag prefall 18

Cult Gaia’s Ark bag 

Cult Gaia is known for its architectural crescent ark clutch, which retails between £135 and £335, and comes in candy pink and emerald green. Danse Lente, where prices range from £120 for card holders to £435 for a shearling handbag, has made its name with clean lines and pops of contrasting colours. Dutch label Wandler has also seen particular success with its geometric Hortensia bag, which retails from £560 to £760 and is available in a rainbow of different hues.

Ceanne Fernandes-Wong, chief marketing officer and vice president, EMEA, at luxury resale site Vestiaire Collective, adds: “We’ve definitely seen a significant increase in demand for contemporary bag brands such as Simon Miller, Cult Gaia and Mansur Gavriel, along with Wandler and Danse Lente. These pieces often sell within 24 hours of going live on the site.”

Turkish label Manu Atelier was founded in 2014 by sisters Beste and Merve Manastir. Known for its jewel-toned mini bags, which retail from around £320 to £500, stockists include Selfridges, Browns and Net-a-Porter. Global sales hit €5m (£4.45m) in 2017, up 220% on the previous year. Off the back of its accessories success, Manu Atelier will launch its first footwear collection this October.

The duo tell Drapers that the brand’s versatility, combined with impactful social media, has helped it find a loyal customer base: “We pride ourselves on how our bags are made and Instagram has also been a major tool in the telling of our brand story. Followers are able to get a sense of our personal style and how we wear the bags. Customers are looking for their go-to bag [for] night and day, and our bags can be worn in the evening or styled with sneakers. Flexibility is what we offer with our accessories. There is a definite place in the market for mid-range handbags. Everyone wants to get their hands on the ‘It’ bag and being able to make something well produced at an affordable price is at the core of the brand.”

Jingjing Fan, designer and founder of Parisian handbag brand Elleme, which launched in 2015 and debuted in Harvey Nichols last month, agrees that social media has worked in the emerging label’s favour.

“Social media and ecommerce have given contemporary brands a chance to succeed in the market,” she tells Drapers. “Our success stems from offering original designs, which are top quality and at a contemporary price point. Customers are very well informed and they are demanding unique designs that stand out from the conventional luxury brands.”

Contemporary bag brands have found favour through a blend of design-led, innovative product and aspirational, yet accessible, price points. The photo-friendly nature of these labels and their entrepreneurial founders’ social media savvy have further helped to make them a must-buy.

However, as the market becomes more crowded, brands will have to guard carefully against becoming overexposed and carefully manage their stockists. Relying on a single hero product will also not be enough to keep shoppers’ attention – smart brands are evolving their offer by adding new styles and even expanding into new product categories, as Manu Atelier is doing. Brands and retailers alike will have to ensure they know exactly what customers are looking for.    

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