A Closer Look

The Noughties’ Obsession with Dooney & Bourke

In fond reminiscence of what were quite possibly our very first it-bags.

In the popular purse lexicon, certain handbags evoke a clear sense of nineties’ nostalgia; its rabid excesses, glamorous highs, and slick lows permeate the annals of pop culture in the form of Galliano-era Dior Saddles, Carrie Bradshaw-approved Fendi Baguettes, and Madame Miuccia’s buttery bowlers

Then there’s that particular subset of purses that have seemingly jumped straight out of the pages of a sepia-tinted 90s Polaroid album. In my mind, that’s home to the cult-favorite all-American brand, Dooney & Bourke. 

Now, don’t get me wrong. You might recall Dooney as one of the leading labels of the middle-school fashion scene (aside from Coach), its multicolor monogram and hyper-girly, pre-Juicy Couture charm making its way onto the Christmas wishlists – and eventually, the arms – of many a pre-tween fashionista. And that’s fair.

But before it had begun to saturate the Y2K suburban American mall scape with its saccharine pink sweetness and some combination of recurring bumblebee-/muffin-/Tinkerbell-prints, Dooney & Bourke had already established itself as a purveyor of dependable leatherware that women from all walks of life had come to trust.

So today, we’re throwing it back to that era of Dooney & Bourke – the epitome of country club chic and a much-loved label prey to the shifting sands of time.

Two Little Ducks Went Out One Day…

As far-fetched as it sounds now, Dooney & Bourke wasn’t always in the business of making handbags. In fact, when Peter Dooney and Frederic Bourke opened the doors to their leather atelier and headquarters in South Norwalk, Connecticut, in 1975, their offerings primarily comprised striped surcingle belts and classic suspenders, archetypes of the Americana aesthetic courtesy of films like Chariots of Fire (1981).

But with the creative Dooney and the enterprising Bourke at the helm, it soon expanded to purses in 1981 with the introduction of the Tack Case and the Equestrian Bag, crafted out of bridle leather and retailed via both the company’s own stores, as well as high-end retailers like Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue.

Hayden Panettiere appears in a D&B campaign.

However, with the development of the signature All-Weather Leather (AWL) in 1983, the brand’s hardy and durable handbags, apparently indestructible and complete with a rustic brass duck-shaped charm, gained widespread popularity. 

Why a duck? The brand explains how it “symbolizes the water-repellent qualities of the brand’s signature all-weather, high-performance leather, similar to the oily coating of a duck’s feathers” while acting as a means of connecting with nature.

In line with the duck theme, D&B further designed a special range of purses for the popular reality show Duck Dynasty and partnered with the (possibly duck-loving) starlets of the time: Lindsay Lohan, Mischa Barton, and Emma Roberts.

Dooney Bourke Duck Logo
The duck logo

A Problem of Perceptions

April showers bring May flowers; rain showers are in great demand, Dooney & Bourke. 

You get the point, even if that isn’t how the saying goes. AWL, the nineties’ Dooney staple, became the go-to for thousands of working women (with the introduction of menswear men), rain or shine. And where the brand’s later foray into apparel met with a lukewarm reception, the AWL’s popularity endured.

Of course, here we refer to simpler times when utility, not vanity, was paramount. And for D&B’s original clientele – older, moneyed, and “motherly,” sometimes referred to as the “country club set” – its quintessentially vintage feel, durable leather, exceptional craftsmanship, and organized interiors were all said to be on par with the likes of far more status-oriented labels, like Louis Vuitton and even Hermès!

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Dooney’s new juvenile direction wasn’t appreciated by many.

But while they were loyal, it was only natural for Dooney to wish to expand to a younger clientele. That, unfortunately, was also when it all started going downhill.

The It-Bag Sans an It-Girl

In October 2002, Marc Jacobs, then Creative Director at Louis Vuitton, unveiled the Monogram Multicolore, a limited-edition collaboration with Japanese artist Takashi Murakami, rendering the iconic LV monogram in 33 strikingly different colorways, a collection that went on to become one of the brand’s most successful racking up $300 million in sales, and widely touted as the next “It” bag in the media.

In March 2003, Peter Dooney of Dooney & Bourke, in an experimental trip to Europe with four senior accessory design students from the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), devised the It-Bag Collection, consisting of six different silhouettes rendered in, you guessed it, multicolor interlocking D&B initials.

Multi Color DB

What ensued was a lengthy four-year trademark battle between the two brands, ultimately leading, like much of fashion IP precedent, to a victory for Dooney due to there being “no proof that the similarities in the marks are likely to confuse ordinary consumers, whether it is at the point of initial interest, point-of-sale, or post-sale.”

Unsurprisingly, the It Bag generated over $100 million in sales, the most popular being, as the New York Times reports, “the one that looks the most like the Vuitton… The It Bag might be a knockoff – but it’s an acceptable knockoff.”

Indeed, even though the apparent new direction for Dooney, paired with the courtroom win, brought the brand extensive coverage, especially in teen magazines, it had seemingly lost sight of its core clientele, a mistake that it realized one too many Disney and Winnie the Pooh collaborations late.

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The new Florentine satchel as seen in the wild.

And in a final twist of fate, Dooney itself soon fell prey to its own knockoffs, its easily replicable monogram and cartoon prints making their way onto the hands of scores of tweens, teens, and their moms across the nation.

But does that mean the brand has no chance at redemption? 

While it’s still perceived as a more juvenile label (now also prone to quality qualms in the wake of offshoring production to China, Italy, and Mexico), it has attempted to relaunch the AWL in a bid to replicate Coach’s recent success, with newer, pricier leather styles like the Florentine filling up department store shelves.

The only question is, would you, as the consumer, be willing to give it a second chance?


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