Buckle up for some very frank introspection about designer bags and wealth

Everyone thinks about their money and shopping habits in different ways, and with varying levels of introspection, neither of which is necessarily dependent on how much money has. We’ve certainly all known someone with a limited income who chose to deal with that stress by simply ignoring their finances for as long as possible, and today, in our latest edition of Closet Confessionals, we’ve got the opposite: A woman with a significant salary, the desire to spend a fair bit of it on bags, and some qualms about what all of that might mean.

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The Basics

Age: 34
Gender Identity: Female
Location: San Francisco
Occupation: Attorney
Industry: Law
Household Income: $625,000

The Bags

Are you a PurseForum member? No

How many bags do you own? 12

How much is your collection worth? $17,000 – $20,000

What is your most expensive bag? My Céline Classic Box Bag (in liege).

What are the most important brands or pieces in your collection? Hands down, my Céline bags. And not just because of the recent change in leadership. Ever since I bought my first Céline bag years ago, I have had a hard time finding another brand I like enough to spend that much money on. In my humble opinion, compared to Céline (under Phoebe Philo).

What age did you get your first designer bag, and what was it? I was 28 or 29 and it was a Phillip Lim Pashli bag (the big one). I still remember thinking I was absolutely insane to spend over $800 on a bag. Nowadays, it’s not like I’d think nothing of spending spending under $1,000 on a bag, but when I see one I like in that price range, it seems like a bargain (see e.g., Wandler).

Any particular bag that holds a special sentimental value? Definitely my Céline Classic Box. It’s just such a simple, special piece and one I know I will have and treasure for the rest of my days (may they be long). I think the reason it holds special sentimental value for me is because when I bought it, it literally made my heart flutter. (Some would call those heart palpitations! Maybe it was the price? Ha!) I remember at the time feeling like such a lady. Like an adult lady. Not just a young woman pretending.

I think it’s also because the purchase of that bag was the first step in what has become a significant evolution in my personal style and taste. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the purchase of that bag was the beginning of my transition to a wardrobe consisting of simple, timeless, high-quality pieces that will last season after season.

Do you feel like your bags change people’s perceptions of you or how you’re treated? I definitely think my bags change the perception of salespeople when I’m shopping. The rest of the general populous? I can’t tell, but I doubt it. Most of my bags are Céline and are therefore bereft of super noticeable logos. And I don’t have any of the easily recognizable styles like the Luggage Tote or the phantom, so I think only those who know, know.

I don’t really want or care for anyone to notice. I think that’s why I have become such a Céline devotee; the styles are simple and you can’t tell who makes the bag unless you’re familiar with the designer. But also, I don’t want people to notice because I do feel a small sense of personal shame for spending so much money on a purse—a purely utilitarian item at bottom, let’s be honest. I can afford it, but it still makes me feel bad for some reason. I think part of that is the fear that people will think I’m somehow less authentic for liking nice things. Also, I don’t know how to take a compliment, so whenever someone does comment on my bag, it makes me feel awkward.

The Shopping

How often do you buy new bags? Once or twice a year.

Which stores do you frequent the most? In person: Céline, Barneys, Neiman Marcus, local boutiques and vintage stores in San Francisco and when I travel.
Online: Matches Fashion, Net-a-Porter, Farfetch, and Etsy for vintage.

Do you ever buy second-hand bags? Where do you buy used? I have bought second-hand bags twice in my life: Once when I was much younger and couldn’t afford the new Louis Vuitton bucket bag I “had to have,” and once when I was looking for another designer bag that was sold out everywhere. I found the former on eBay and the latter on Tradesy.

Do you sell old bags to pay for new purchases? Luckily I don’t have to. But I’m also building a collection. Even the bags I no longer wear, like the Pashli and that LV bucket bag that I thought I couldn’t live without, I still keep in my closet. I was lucky to inherit an Hermès scarf and a small Dior bag from my grandmother, and those pieces are so special to me. So if I have a daughter or a son who likes handbags, I want them to be able to enjoy them.

Do you ever feel societal pressure to purchase more bags? Never. I buy my bags for me and me alone. Most of my friends aren’t into nice bags and don’t follow fashion, so I certainly don’t feel pressure from my immediate social circle. San Francisco also isn’t a particularly fashionable city, so I don’t feel much pressure from the people around me either. But none of us are immune to advertising, so I think it’s impossible to honestly say I feel zero societal pressure to buy more bags—to the extent advertising counts as social pressure.

Do you consider your bag purchases investments? Absolutely.

Who influences your buying decisions? My bank account, first and foremost. It’s very dictatorial. Jokes aside, when it comes to bags, as I have gotten older, I’ve become a pretty serious Céline devotee (I have five pieces and am about to purchase another one). Aside from one Chloé bag, all of the nicer bags I have purchased in the past five years have been Céline. I just haven’t found anything else worth spending that much on. That said, I recently bought a less expensive bag (a few hundred dollars—I know that makes me sound like an asshole) after seeing it on a blogger. I had never heard of the brand—it’s an obscure heritage bag maker from Denmark.

Are sales associate relationships instrumental to your shopping? I don’t think so. But I don’t buy things from shitty people. I will say that I’m more likely to go to a particular Céline boutique because the service has been impeccable. So actually maybe my final answer is yes.

Why do you enjoy shopping, beyond just acquiring something new? That’s a good question, and one I have been struggling to figure out. When I’m stressed at work, I definitely find that I reward myself more often with new things. It’s not just the thrill of something new but, rather, finding a way to convince myself that my hard work is “worth it.” It definitely releases some pressure point from deep within, but I’m still trying to effectively articulate what that is. I guess that is the very definition of retail therapy and I was too embarrassed to admit it.

Also, over the past few years, I have enjoyed culling my wardrobe of fast-fashion junk and impulse purchases and replacing those items only with high-quality, classic pieces I will have for years to come. That means fewer trendy tops and more cashmere sweaters and good button-down shirts. I have enjoyed rebuilding my wardrobe with an eye toward wearing the same pieces in 20 years because I feel like I’m also building a new identity for myself as I get older. I think it’s made my style less interesting but I definitely feel more confident when I dress and I much prefer that.

I wouldn’t say I’m a shopaholic (my husband would probably disagree), but I definitely go on sprees during which, over the course of a few weeks, I’ll buy a bunch of new stuff and then won’t purchase another thing for several months. This usually coincides with new seasons, as one might expect.

Have you ever felt like you received inferior service at a store or boutique due to your appearance, ethnicity or gender? I’m fortunate to be able to say I don’t think I have. I’m a black woman and I know plenty of other black women who do feel like they have been treated differently because of their ethnicity. Maybe it has something to do with the way I present myself. When I go shopping, I’m not rolling into a store in sweatpants and sneakers. I wouldn’t say I dress up any more than I normally do if I were going to lunch or to see friends, but that typically means I’m carrying a nice bag, probably wearing nicer shoes, jewelry, and some eyeliner. That is all to say, I make an effort whenever I leave the house to do anything beyond grocery shopping, errands, or working out, and that includes shopping. I think I just happen to have nicer stuff or generally try to look put together even in a t-shirt and jeans, and I definitely think that has an impact on how people treat me at higher-end stores.

When I was growing up, my mom would and I would go shopping at places like Neiman Marcus and Bergdorfs (as well as TJ Maxx and Century 21), so being in a really nice store has never intimidated me. I don’t know if the same can be said for many other black women due to the socio-economics of America (for example, I was friends with a girl in high school whose family was less well-off than mine, and her mother forbade her from going to the “nice mall” with me because she “didn’t belong there.”)

I do think the way you carry yourself has a significant impact on how people treat you. I’ve never felt like I didn’t belong in any of the stores at which I shop—I mean, I’m shopping there for god’s sake—so I probably project a certain level of comfort with the environment that other people may not.

The Money

Who pays for your bags? Me, myself, and I. My husband and I put our paychecks into a joint account but I save a portion of my pay and use that to pay for my bags.

Do you set aside a budget for your bag purchases? I do not have a budget for my bag purchases. What typically ends up happening is, I’ll see a bag I want, mull it over for a few weeks, think about how much money I’ve spent on material items lately and what my upcoming travel plans are, and if I can justify it (the bar is usually quite low), I buy it. I never put a bag on a credit card unless I know I can pay that card off within a month, though—I am strict about not letting myself go into debt to buy things, because if I’m doing that, it means I can’t afford it.

The Taboo Topics

Have you ever purchased a counterfeit because you couldn’t afford a designer item? I have never bought a counterfeit designer item because I couldn’t afford the real thing. I’ve thought about it, but in the end it made me feel icky and like an impostor so I just saved and bought it when I could afford it, or forwent the purchase altogether. I always felt like no matter how good the fake, I would always know and it would make me feel embarrassed. And although so many of these fashion houses are run by huge corporations and probably wouldn’t miss my little purchase, buying a fake feels disrespectful to the creators (who are artists in their own way), as well as the people on the factory floor who actually make these beautiful things with meticulous, painstaking care.

Do you ever hide purchases from your significant other? Yes, I do, but only the big purchases. He has a much harder time letting go of money than I do. And, for the most part, he doesn’t see the same value in buying designer things that I do (though he does have a pair of Saint Laurent sunglasses—that I convinced him to buy). He also doesn’t understand why I “need” as many bags as I have. And he’s basically right. I don’t need over ten designer bags.

One day I was complaining to his aunt about the fact that I couldn’t go shopping with her and she said, “Don’t you know how to hide things? You have to know how to hide things so when he asks if it’s new, you can say, ‘No, I’ve had this for months.'” I do feel bad about that but I think that’s also become part of the thrill for me.

I think on an academic level, he knows that certain brands are expensive but I don’t know that he knows enough to understand how much they truly cost. So while he may know that Chanel is pricey, he’s never said anything about my Chanel shoes. I also always mix my designer items with less expensive pieces like vintage jeans and t-shirts from Everlane, so there is a balance there that I think makes it a bit less ridiculous.

What’s the craziest thing you’ve done to afford a bag? I can’t think of anything crazy I have ever done to afford a bag but that’s because I didn’t start buying nice ones until I could truly, honestly, and without an ounce of stress afford them (that LV bag from eBay notwithstanding). That’s also a function of how much money I have now, though. I didn’t have expensive taste until I had the money to have expensive taste. And it’s been mission creep ever since. I remember when I was 21, I bought a Rebecca Minkoff bag and thought it was the most extravagant thing. And back then, on my budget, it was. I scrimped and saved for months for that thing. But I went up to my limit and no further. I do the same thing now—I don’t have an Hermès bag in my closet because, guess what? I don’t have Hermès bag money.

Do you think your shopping is ever a problem? Yes, I have definitely thought that my shopping habits were a problem. Mostly when I find myself shopping to make myself feel better about something that I know I ultimately can’t shop my way out of. Like loneliness or feeling sick (yes, I sometimes go shopping when I have a cold because it makes me feel better), or working too many long days.

In the past, when I have forbidden myself from shopping because I’d been saving towards another goal—like when I was renovating my current apartment and saving to buy my second house—it was a struggle for sure. And the fact of the struggle really frustrated me. Needing to scratch such an ephemeral, materialistic itch made me feel pathetic and empty. Like, why can’t I derive the same pleasure from reading a book or the news or taking a long walk? That is still something that I see as a flaw in my character and it’s driven me to therapy because I think it speaks to a more significant problem with my sense of self-worth that I need to figure out.

The way I have managed it is by (1) putting my credit cards in a bag of water and putting that bag of water in the freezer to physically prevent myself from buying things and (2) forming a habit of just not doing it for a while (takes about a month or so each time) and recalling the sense of accomplishment and satisfaction I feel when I see how much more money I have in my bank account.

The Rest Of It

Any other expensive hobbies or passions? I scuba dive. It requires traveling to far-flung exotic places and paying thousands of dollars for a week-long trip (on top of airfare). I also love fancy hotels and will spring for an extravagant weekend at an absurd luxury resort once or twice a year. I also buy nice tequila and bourbon on a pretty regular basis—I don’t spend $100 on a bottle but I may spend $50 or $60, which still feels absurd to me. I also collect antique textiles. I also buy very expensive balsamic vinegar because I eat a lot of salad and do not like salad dressing.

My husband and I also take one big multi-week international trip every year or so. On these trips, we have no budget, do and buy just about whatever we want regardless of cost, and pretty much always stay at a luxury hotel or apartment/villa.

And now that my husband and I are in our mid-30s, we’ve decided it’s time to stop flying coach on international vacations. It feels like a ludicrous way to spend money but we’re done being uncomfortable on the 12+-hour flights we often take when we travel.

Finally, this isn’t a hobby or passion, but I also pay for someone to clean my apartment even though it isn’t huge and would only take a few hours for me to do it myself. I grew up with live-in help so I know it’s just what some (lucky) people do, but it still feels like a big indulgence of my laziness.

Anything else?

Like a lot of people, I struggle with understanding my desire for luxury goods. Society is always pushing us to make more money and live “better” (i.e. more expensive) lives. And we value wealthy people more than poor people—one look at our social policies makes that clear. Having as much financial freedom as I do does make me feel guilty sometimes. I mean, I’ve worked really hard for it. And my parents worked really hard to give me everything I have. So I do feel like I have earned it. But I’m still conflicted.

I have also always valued being a humble, unassuming, self-effacing person. To some extent I feel like the purchase of designer things runs directly counter to that. I see value in supporting certain brands that create unique, high-quality pieces even if they are a bit more expensive. I’d rather have one expensive piece than five fast-fashion pieces. But I’ll admit that even though I can afford these things, it still feels a little gross to spend so much money on them. Then again, you can’t take it with you when you die, I’m financially responsible (lots of savings, max out my 401(k), invest in the market, etc.) and I don’t forgo real expenses to feed this habit. But I also don’t know how having designer bags and other things makes my life “better” in a real way that actually matters. Why do these things give me such pleasure? It’s something I’m still working out. I may never come to the answer.

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