When Amsterdam fashion-shop owner André Grundmann was looking for a line of affordable bags that would appeal to a wide range of women, he couldn’t find exactly what he wanted despite searching far and wide. So two years ago, he started to create his own, with the help of bag designer Vincent Blanchard, who can count Louis Vuitton and Dolce & Gabbana as previous employers. What started out as a project to fill Grundmann’s shelves has taken over his working life. The label Smaak (roughly ‘good taste’ in Dutch) creates bags priced at around €200, which are available in the brand’s own store in Amsterdam as well as from some 150 shops across Europe. Presumably these stockists, like many of Smaak’s customers, are drawn to the line’s easy shapes, soft Italian leathers, functional design and distinctive colours.
Bags as a type of jewellery
A new generation of bag designers has emerged in the last decade – Sacha Wendt, Mariëlle Willems and Natassia Jacobs – to name just a few, partly in response to the growing international demand for handbags. ‘When I started out 30 years ago not so many women were into bags, whereas now the market has exploded,’ explains designer Maria Hees who has won a reputation for her bags’ clever cuts and folds, and the use of skin from the Nile Perch fish, which is strong but supple. ‘Retailers are frequently being approached by young bag designers these days. Bags are now considered a type of jewellery, but with the obvious function that jewellery lacks. And for that reason you can always convince yourself that you need a bag!’
Reflecting Dutch design
Sigrid Ivo is the curator of the Museum of Bags and Purses; located on Herengracht, it is the only museum of its kind in Europe and has the world’s largest collection of bags, from the 16th century to the present day. ‘Twenty years ago the Netherlands wasn’t really a bag country at all. If women used a bag, it was a practical shoulder bag they could carry while cycling. But as Dutch design in general has improved and come to be better known abroad, so the bag design scene has developed,’ she says.
The museum’s exhibits show that, throughout the decades, bags are a reflection of changes in society: we carry different items, we travel more, and designers have access to a wider range of materials. According to Ivo, bags from the Netherlands similarly reflect Dutch attitudes and are typical of Dutch design in general: they have clean lines, are intricately constructed, practical and colourful.
A no-nonsense approach to functionality
The museum’s current exhibition features fun and quirky bags such as those by Maria La Verda. Manufactured in the Netherlands, La Verda creates bags in up to 15 colour and material variations, with flashes of the unusual or the humorous. ‘The Netherlands leads the way with graphically strong art bags, building on the heritage of the country’s internationally-respected art, design and fashion academies,’ says La Verda, who specialises in using light and tough artificial leathers.
A bag from Maria Jobse and Susan Bijl is, according to Jobse, ‘so big that from a distance it might look like a piece of clothing’. ‘But it still has a no-nonsense approach to functionality. So many bags on the market look much the same because they all approach bag design from the same starting point, they all use traditional patterns. But we like to persuade manufacturers that what they say can’t be done can be done.’ Jobse and Bijl consider bags to be 3D sculptural forms, and as a result their creations are sold in design stores as well as in fashion boutiques.
Elvira Vroomen graduated in fine art eight years ago and started designing bags almost by accident: originally seeing bags as art pieces, she would create bags which were full of holes, or that would deliberately fall apart. She soon turned to real bag design, where laser-cut and screen-printed felt and eco leather are crafted into geometric shapes. True to Dutch design, these are primarily practical items: ‘Don’t expect an overdose of useless buckles, zips and extra shiny bits. That’s not the Dutch way,’ she says.