As you might have noticed, we didn’t exactly flood the site the New York Fashion Week coverage last week. That wasn’t an oversight; we’ve found that, over the years, you guys really only care about seeing the great bag collections that go down the global runways, as well as the great bags that pop up outside. Unfortunately, for the past few seasons, it’s been a lot easier to find interesting purses on attendees’ arms than on NYFW runways. It feels like a bit of a market lull, but that only means the opportunity is right for a brand to fill the void.

There are, of course, plenty of notable American accessories brands, and a couple with the kind of heritage stories that globally popular handbag makers take straight to the bank. Coach is the longest-running and most well-known of these companies, and it’s currently one of a few making convincing steps to reposition itself as a true luxury brand.

There’s also Alexander Wang, whose bags have provided a modern alternative for young women who think they’re too cool to carry the old Coach, but Wang hasn’t had a new handbag hit for his own brand since he started at Balenciaga. Indeed, his Fall 2015 runway bags were retooled versions of previous hits, plus an on-trend backpack for good measure. 3.1 Phillip Lim, in a similar tier of the market, has struggled to find his next big thing after the smash hit Pashli.

And then there are the Tory Burches, Rebecca Minkoffs and MICHAEL Michael Kors of the American market, who move enormous amounts of product by creating accessibly priced takes on the looks that luxury designers perfect and popularize. They’ve got what they do down to a science and serve a worthy audience, but they also leave a lot of opportunity in the American market for high-end luxury, innovation and diversification.

American fashion is often criticized as too commercial and contemporary; we are, after all, a culture than tends to value commerce more than art, at least when compared to Europe. But that doesn’t, and shouldn’t, be an impediment to the manufacture of great top-tier luxury handbags. Bags are the most commercial of fashion’s categories, and brands often rely on them to stay in the black; a decline in bag sales can poke significant holes in the hull of even the biggest fashion ships. (For proof, look no further than Prada and Louis Vuitton.)

Indeed, two of American fashion’s most recent handbag success stories blend creative design and steady sales seamlessly: Mansur Gavriel and Proenza Schouler. The former is growing its product lineup slowly and deliberately while still selling through its complete stock every season, and the latter, while still feeling around a bit for its Next Big Thing, proved that fashion customers will still pay luxury prices for bags from young American designers, as long as the bag is great and feels worthy of the price.

Marc Jacobs proved that once upon a time as well, although his brand now struggles with the repercussions of its own commercial success; shoppers eager to get a piece of the brand flocked to the less-expensive Marc by Marc Jacobs handbag line, and now that’s what most accessories consumers think of when they think of the brand, making the four-figure price tags on the original line a tough sell. Michael Kors, another quintessentially American too-much-success story, is currently dealing with similar consumer perception.

Despite the relative lull at the top end of the American market, though, there are signs of life. In addition to Mansur Gavriel’s addictively minimal day bags and the Coach creative turnaround, Marc Jacobs is once again making bags that feel as though they might be worth the $2,000 price tag. American fashion will never have the heritage prestige of French houses like Chanel and Hermès, but that’s not the only way to make compelling luxury bags. And for those who successfully harness the trappings of heritage, like Ralph Lauren, there’s room for expansion.

Alexander Wang seems likely to come through with something new for the cool downtown girls, but he’ll have the be careful to not fall into another trap that afflicted Marc Jacobs: letting his eponymous brand become stale while he put tremendous creative energy into the venerable old French house he was hired to lead. 3.1 Phillip Lim, on the other hand, feels like he’s very close to the perfect Pashli followup, and it takes experimentation for even the most seasoned accessories designer to get it right. (See also: Reed Krakoff, Coach’s longtime creative director who is currently in the process of recalibrating his own young brand. So far, the results are positive.)

The opportunity that exists in the American market is clear; we make up a huge proportion of foreign brands’ annual sales, but we’re a fashion market still forming our own accessories identity. For enterprising young designers or existing brands looking to redefine their own public faces, there’s no time like the present.

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Share Your Thoughts With Us

  • Groupthink7

    I actually like the Coach brand now. I love the duffle bags. No they are not like the original ones (I had my first one in 1989 at the age of 15). I own like 3 of them now. I like the new ones that just came out. I am kind of over purses. I can’t justify spending a lot of money on purses anymore. After looking at several Chanel, Hermes and my Bottega Veneta bags, the leather is no different than the Coach bags. I don’t think the quality is there with the higher end bags anymore. When the masses are purchasing the so called premier bags, the qualify suffers. It is more about turning a profit at the cheapest route possible. I can compare this with Toyota automobiles. The quality was there many years ago, and then the quality suffered with all of the cars losing control. Many brands hide behind the name that they were known for many years ago.

    • B

      That over processed for the masses is the reason I left Coach behind a few years ago. After getting 3 defective limited edition leather bags of different styles in a row and paying nearly $1000 for each bag, I was done. I don’t think you should get that type of quality for that price. Which leads back to the over processing of bags.

  • circafashion

    great post

  • Lori

    My biggest “complaint” about American designers is they tend to throw so many bags out there, that they cheapen their higher end bags. I think M. Kors and M. Jacobs are perfect examples of this. They have both so over saturated the market with cheap, poorly designed bags that I would not ever wear one of their high end pieces. They have literally created their own high end demise. I agree, Coach is doing some interesting things and I am looking forward to seeing where they go. And you might notice, they didn’t really ever do a cheap over saturated push with their bags. They did too much logo stuff, but their leather has always been quality for the price. M. Gavriel isn’t very expensive, yet their bags are so clean and lovely, that the quality is there. They are high end without being high end priced. I think there are other M. Gavriel’s out there. They just need to be found! Thanks for your great post!

    • My issue with Kors and Jacobs is just that their lower end stuff is such a crappy design. Kors just feels completely unimaginative and Marc by Marc bags are just… kinda tacky. I don’t understand how that’s supposed to make me buy into the creative vision. I think brands like Elizabeth and James end up being much better diffusion lines for The Row (though the aesthetic is different, probably of necessity), while T by Alexander Wang, though they don’t do bags, definitely captures the aesthetic of the main line in a more commercial way.

  • Stina Sias

    Normally I would jump in at this point to talk about all of the AMAZING new Coach bags but due to problems with their website I missed out on an item that i had been waiting/saving for for MONTHS!!! I am so mad at Coach right now.

    • Bummer! Any way we can help?

      • Stina Sias

        That’s nice of you :) I doubt it, it’s just nice to be empathized with. I know it seems really petty but their customer service didn’t seem to get how awful it felt to have taken all the right steps over a period of MONTHS only to be let down on their end.

      • Ya, when you have your heart set on something and it doesn’t work, it’s such a let down :(

  • sev2108

    For me it’s that most American designers manufacture their bags in China. I won’t spend $$$ on a bag made in China.

    • Pam

      Girl they’re all mostly made in China! Even the Europeans. They don’t really have bag factories in Europe. I learned this whole living in France. Sad but true. They “design”in Paris and Italy. Very few things actually manufactured in Europe.

      • Geena

        Louis Vuitton bags are Made either in Spain or Turkey depending on the type.

      • lavinia

        Mansur Gavriel bags are made in Italy (Toscana), many other designer go to italy to produce their bag. So what are you saying?

      • sev2108

        All of my LV, Balenciaga, Celine and Stella bags say they were made in either France or Italy on the bag itself. I’m sure other bags aren’t made in Europe, but I think the top name ones still are.

      • sweet waters

        Yes they are, there are many small handbag factories in the Tuscany area of Italy famed for its leather. Handbags are still made in Europe… not very many though.

      • intheindustry

        They are not. Check out a book called Deluxe by Dana Thomas- details the whole story. High end brands have their bags made in asian factories and shipped to stores or warehouses where the ‘Made in China’ tags are replaced with a ‘Made in France’ or ‘Made in Italy’ tag. Very few bags are still made in European countries. If it is a pret a porter bag it is probably made in China. Custom requests are more likely still made in design house workshops.

      • Aurore de La Gorce

        NO that is not true. Most of great labels still make their bags in France Italy or Spain !

    • lori

      A certain percentage of the bag needs to be made in that particular country to be labeled “Made in”. Bags can be made in China and then just assembled together in Italy to be labeled “Made in Italy”. I’ve seen a factory ( a very good china factory) that makes Prada and Celine etc. The panels of the bags (Prada) were all made hanging on a rack, to then be sent to Italy to be assembled.

      • Chronic

        This is correct information. I know some people in the fashion industry in Italy and they have told me much the same thing. Aside from that, most bags are cut by machines, even many high-end bags. I don’t care if a machine is making my bag in China or Italy. As for the price, people expect to pay low prices for goods made in China. I am not sure why. Companies have costs for factories, materials, shipping, marketing, etc matter where a bag is made. These bags are not made in back alley sweatshops exactly. If I pay $300 for a Michael Kors handbag, I get a good quality, functional every day handbag. I have several and the quality is very good for the price.

  • multipolarity

    Interesting post, and great writing! I wonder why Tom Ford and The Row, both squarely in the luxury market, have not enjoyed more success.

    • I think both are so expensive and it was price shock – especially when it came to The Row. Tom Ford is known for suiting/dresses and his bags entered the market high as well

      • lavinia

        for me to survive in this market you have to make a choice: High luxury market or low cost? you can’t be in the middle. The choice of tom ford and the row is correct. If you are luxury your price have to be shocking…that’s what happened in the few 3 years every single designer moved from the middlle to the higher line. Look at Gucci bag-prices and how they changed in just two years: what you could pay 450 euros now costs here in Europe 950 euros…for the same bag :)

    • I think Tom Ford’s bags, plain and simple, are just not very good. Not for the ultra-premium prices, anyway–they often look a little cheap to me, like someone designing a bag and really HOPING people think it looks expensive. His handbag line is relatively young, though, so I think there’s still plenty of time to recalibrate and command luxury prices on the strength of the full brand’s success.

      The Row, I think, has a smaller market by design. A lot of European brands want to put bags on the arm of every wealthy woman on the planet, but it seems like The Row wants to focus on making a small group of bags for a narrow portion of the fashion market.

  • Jia

    What about CH?

  • klynneann

    Great article, but I think Reed Krakoff should have received more discussion. The whole time reading I was thinking of him and then saw that you gave him a little shout out at the end. I really think he is poised to fill this gap in the market in the next few years.

    • I really like his RK40 bag a lot – and since he left Coach it will be great to see the direction he takes with his accessories

    • I was so hopeful about Reed Krakoff a couple of seasons ago, but I’m more cautiously optimistic now. I like the brand’s new bags a lot, but I’m not sure the price/product mix is quite right yet, and that’s a big stumbling block for a lot of brands. I’m hoping it’ll pick momentum back up, but it’s such a young brand that I feel like I don’t have much to go on, you know?

      • klynneann

        I totally understand what you mean, and clearly you were right. I’m very hopeful he can rebound from the difficulties he is currently facing. Another great article, Amanda. :)

  • FashionableLena

    Personally, I feel that most of the American market doesn’t think that American designers are worth the money. They only see Europe as being a glamorous place because that’s the way the continent has been marketed on television and magazines. America has never been seen as that glam place to visit or the place to buy luxury goods. Why pay America to buy a $16,000 Michael Kors handbag when they can get Chanel, Hermes, et cetera? As much as I love MK, that’s not going to happen with his accessories line. In all honesty, I’m not buying what Coach is trying to sell either.
    But I will say this, my vintage Coach bags and the one leather Dooney that I have has better leather than the Gucci that I’m carrying now. Again, it’s all about perception. No one has that perception of America.

    • Groupthink7

      I agree with you. I just don’t like the leather on the higher end bags. It is all about perception. If something costs a lot of money, people think is of better quality.
      I say why pay $$$$ for something and the quality is not there especially when you see everybody with one. In my opinion I think the so called Chanel’s and Hermes are becoming the Mc Mansions and College education of today…everyone has to have it and it is no longer special.

    • lavinia

      I have Prada, Gucci, Armani, Hermes, and many other bags from Europe but lately I bought a Tory Burch bag. I think she is doing a great job, she also has a taste that we european like.:)

  • TB BHC

    Kendall Conrad – check them out – best women’s American handbags in years…

  • CatR

    I really love Marc Jacobs, but it has been really difficult to find his line in large department stores lately, and small leather goods are almost non-existent. Marc, I want to buy your stuff, but you won’t sell it to me!

    • I think a lot of department stores dropped the brand in-store when the product mix got a little stale toward the end of Marc’s tenure at Vuitton. The new bags are a lot better, and if they gain traction like I’m hoping they will, I bet it’ll be a lot easier to find Marc in the near future.

  • off the beaten path

    I need a solid work tote, willing to pay up to $2000 but I’m fed up with the saturation of labels – and low quality. I did some research on new/lesser known designers. Found Parabellum featured in Vogue (http://parabellumcollection.com). Want the Archer tote in grey but currently sold out.

    The big names instantly go commercial. Now I’m looking at the uniqueness and quality of the bag – NOT the brand. If I do get the tote no one will know the brand but I don’t care. I want quality. No longer interested in impressing strangers.

    • @kaylaglazier

      Completely agree. Sick of buying purses thinking it’ll be my every day bag then be second guessing it’s durability a week later.. The search begins again to find the replacement I’ll eventually need.

    • Check out Smythson. I’ve carried a *white* Smythson around constantly for over six months now, and it still looks gorgeous.

      My problem with a lot of the big name brands is that they’re completely impractical for carrying around a laptop. I guess all the big brands are working off desktop computers still or something…

      • Groupthink7

        I love Smythson. I am actually carrying a black tote now.

      • Yes!!! I thought I was crazy that I’m the only one with the obsession. Their colors are really wonderful too, I’ve been eyeing the green tote since it zips up even (:

      • Groupthink7

        Which Smythson do you have? Is it the Panama bag?

      • Yup, the tall Panama tote, it’s amazing. Completely in love with it. Do you also carry the Panama? I’m not so sold on their other bags yet, I’m worried that the lack of straps on some of their other totes are kinda a no-go for me.

      • Groupthink7

        I have a men’s tote. It is really big. It is my work horse. I also have a smaller grey tote lined in blue satin. It is made out of goatskin.

      • Oh, the smaller tote sounds nice. I’ve been a bit hesitant on the men’s items, since their beautiful colorful leathers aren’t in the men’s collection :/

  • Steve Brooks

    What about Kate Spade?

    • intheindustry

      made in China.

  • ElleC11

    I find it interesting that you didn’t mention Mark Cross considering there were a few Grace Boxes featured in Vlad’s excellent street-style photos. It’s perplexing to me why Sara Lee purchased them in 1993 “with the plan of making it Coach’s premium line”, spent very little to market them, and then unceremoniously shuttered them just 4 short years later – a brand that goes back to 1845 and has a place in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, not to mention “Rear Window” and Grace Kelly lore! Fortunately, they seem to be in good hands with the new owners and Martha Kramer’s stewardship, and as Amanda stated, there’s no time like the present!

    (sources:

    http://greg.org/archive/2011/01/08/zombie_mark_cross_now_stalks_the_earth.html

    http://runway.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/03/30/that-thing-called-good-taste/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

    http://www.chicagobusiness.com/article/19970906/ISSUE01/10004426/why-sara-lee-bagged-mark-cross)

  • boyle92

    If we’re talking about real American luxury brands, that are actually made in America there didn’t seem to be the mention of Ghurka or J.W. Hulme. Both brands create quality items, and it shows in the prices they command. While their style is a bit more understated (read traditional), they are still lovely pieces that will last multiple generations. I tend to be a bit more on the traditional and classic side of things, especially when spending upwards of $1000 on a bag. I enjoy my Ghurkas and Hulmes just as much as my leather Coach, Cole Haan, and Mulberry bags. BTW, I like the direction that Coach is headed back toward. I really didn’t like the years of the fabric, canvas, or emblem bags. It just didn’t seem true to the brand.

    • intheindustry

      I agree with you. What about Mark Cross (not made in America anymore I know) or Filson or Shinola or Will Leather Goods or Thiekona? There are actually many recent accessory brands starting to be made in the USA or at least emerge as an America brand. It is a slow process of creating a brand and producing domestic goods and then getting customers. If people are wanting to see a rise in luxury American accessories, start buying them. The power is yours. Turn your eyes from the glittery behemoth luxury brands of the East and buy well made bags from domestic little known brands. And yes, I love Coach now more than when RK was at the helm.

  • Bibliothekarin

    What is the beautiful bag in the photo? Because I’d buy that regardless of the brand!

  • Sandra

    A lovely new bag which is a collaboration of Made in Italy and made in the USA is from the Katherine Webster collection. http://www.katherinewebster.com Because the collection is new the price is within reach and the quality is very high. The bags are Italian leather inside, (yes inside) and out. I too am tired of designer bags with big price tags made on a production line in China