If shoes maketh the man, bags maketh the modern woman, according to one fashion expert. Tahira Yaqoob investigates why designer handbags are no longer the preserve of the very rich, and how a good choice can be an investment as well as an accessory.
Step into Bloomingdale's handbag department and the hubbub of Dubai Mall immediately fades away into a hushed awe at the treasures inside.
Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Prada... each is displayed like the headline act on a stage with its own special platform and spotlight. It's a wonder they don't step up to take a bow.
Customers tiptoe around, fingering the leather longingly, no one daring to ask the price. Because let's face it, if you have to ask, you can't afford it.
What is it about designer handbags that makes us willing to spend a month's salary at the drop of a hat, just to get the latest arm candy?
I ask one of the immaculately dressed women responsible for keeping them pristine. She arches a purple tattooed eyebrow and speaks very slowly in a clipped Russian accent as if explaining it to a small child: "Because of the name, of course."
Can she suggest an ideal designer handbag to start my collection? I am willing to invest, I say.
Her gaze runs over my attire and takes in my flip-flops, and she promptly steers me in the direction of the "bargain" section with bags priced at the Dh2,000 mark.
The designer handbag may have moved out of the clutches of the elite into the mainstream, but clearly, not just anyone can be seen touting the merchandise.
Milton Pedraza, chief executive of the Luxury Institute in New York, explains: "It used to be: 'The shoes make the man'. These days, the handbag makes the woman."
One has only to think of the bags that make us quiver with reverence to see his point, named after women with such style and grace that it's hard to know which came first, the bag or the panache. Sometimes all it takes is a word for us to go weak at the knees. The Kelly. The Birkin. The Stam.
Customers are willing to invest large sums in a handbag or pair of shoes, Pedraza says on his blog, because they see the value of something that lasts.
The bag is no longer a fashion accessory but an investment and a collectable.
"It is like the lust in a relationship," sighs Reema Al Khomeiri, the Dubai-based founder of ToujoursChic.ae, which rents and sells secondhand designer handbags. "Mostly it fizzles out after a while and you move on to the next one."
Her love affair with bags started when she was 15 and blew an entire year's allowance on a Louis Vuitton. Since then, she has run up debts amounting to the cost of a small luxury apartment with her collection of up to 80 bags at a time.
ToujoursChic put a stop to her habit and allowed her to recycle her own and customers' unwanted bags, delivered to homes and offices in discreet plain paper packaging so no one need know they are not new. The website now has 2,000 subscribers in the UAE and 5,000 followers on Facebook.
"A bag is an extension of a woman's personality," Al Khomeiri says. "You carry your entire life in your bag - your secrets, your necessities and your comfort. You are carrying your self."
She says brands are responsible for "the democratisation of luxury".
"A decade ago, luxury was only accessible to the rich and not the middle classes," she says. "They introduced more products and marketed to the middle classes."
A recent study by the Luxury Institute backs her theory. The New York-based research and ratings organisation found that the designer label Coach had consistently outperformed its competitors for the past five years, not because its products were superior but because it had the highest brand recognition. One in four of the affluent women surveyed in the US had bought a Coach handbag in the past year and another 25 per cent said they planned to buy one, compared to the next highest-ranking brand, which registered only five per cent of women. The women were more likely to recommend Coach to their friends after rating its customer service highly.
That, says Al Khomeiri, is a world away from the luxury market of a decade ago, which marketed its products firmly at the elite and turned its nose up at the mainstream.
"Luxury is much more accessible," she says. "Here in the Middle East we are under tremendous social pressure to be part of the herd. You cannot ignore what is happening around you. It is about showing off luxury and saying: 'Look at me carrying this bag, I can afford it.' Most of the time, though, we can't and it is bought on the credit card or on loan."
The roots of the handbag are thought to go back to ancient Egyptian times, when men as well as woman wore pouches around their waists.
Early modern Europeans wore purses made of leather or fabric to carry coins. In the 17th and 18th centuries, women wore separate fabric pockets, hidden under their petticoats, to carry their essentials. By the 19th century, they had evolved into more visible reticules, or purses made of silk or velvet with wrist straps, which were nicknamed indispensables.
The modern handbag is thought to have been invented when the British confectioner Samuel Parkinson undertook a lengthy train journey in 1841 during the Industrial Revolution and ordered a travel bag for his wife. His bag maker, HJ Cave, came up with a tote but they were initially unpopular, with critics complaining they would "break the backs of ladies".
It was not until the last century that handbags rose in popularity. The Kelly bag, which Grace Kelly was famously photographed using to shield her baby bump in 1956, had actually been around since the 1930s and was originally called the sac à dépêches. Hermès, rather sensibly, renamed it. The Birkin followed in the 1980s and since then, a many celebrities and high-profile figures have inspired bags, some with greater longevity than others.
Meanwhile, Al Khomeiri has offloaded her vast collection and now limits her spending to two bags a year.
"At the end of the day, you are going to get bored of your bag and this dream that the brand has put in your head and heart is going to fade," she says.
10 bags to die for
HERMÈS BIRKIN Named after the British actress Jane Birkin. There are waiting lists of up to two years for the bags costing Dh60,000-plus
CHANEL 2.55 A quilted classic created in 1955 because Coco wanted a shoulder bag that would allow her to keep her hands free. The padded style was inspired by the coats of jockeys.
CHLOE PADDINGTON Designed in 2005, it created a boho-chic trend embodied by the likes of Kate Moss and Sienna Miller.
MARC JACOBS STAM Named after the designer's friend, the supermodel Jessica Stam, it is popular among Hollywood starlets.
YVES SAINT LAURENT MUSE An oversized tote in embossed leather, it is beloved by the likes of Katie Homes, Lindsay Lohan and Jessica Alba.
LOUIS VUITTON MONOGRM SPEEDY 30 Ironically the most copied bag in the world was created to preserve the authenticity of the logo.
BALENCIAGA LARIAT When the Gucci Group bought Balenciaga, the designer Nicholas Ghesquière came up with the motorbike-inspired bag in distressed leather for a biker chic look.
FENDI BAGUETTE An early "It" bag in the 1990s, it came in lizard, crocodile and mink skins in different colours to add va-va-voom to any outfit.
MULBERRY BAYSWATER It's sensible, it's a classic and even Mulberry calls it an "all-rounder", which could explain why the company decided to bring out a shocking pink version.
DIOR SADDLE It features horsey embellishments such as buckles and rivets and comes in python and alligator. Very Jilly Cooper.
How the Birkin was born
The story of the creation of the Hermès Birkin is now the stuff of legend.
The British actress Jane Birkin was sitting next to the Hermès chief executive, Jean-Louis Dumas, on a flight from Paris to London and complaining about her inability to find a suitable weekend bag.
Dumas asked her to describe the features she was looking for and followed up by sending her a specially created bag named after her with a personal note.
The bag has been elevated to icon status, thanks to the laborious process that goes into making each one, together with a wince-inducing price tag. It is handmade and takes 48 hours to assemble. The price, starting from Dh60,000, depends on the type of leather used, with the most expensive a saltwater crocodile skin. The lining is usually goatskin.
The hardware is plated with gold or other precious metals and is designed not to tarnish. That and the stitching, the craft marks and the inner tag mean it should be easy to spot fakes.
Victoria Beckham is said to have one in every colour.