What do designers think they’re accomplishing with these bags, anyway?

First, let’s define our terms. You’re all familiar with the contemporary bag market, even if you’re not familiar with the term: it’s made up of all the bag brands whose lines don’t reside in the four-figure territory of premier designers, usually retailing from around $250 to $800. Bags in these lines traditionally skew toward younger shoppers, although that’s broadened significantly over the last five to seven years, largely thanks to more sophisticated indie upstarts in the contemporary space like Mansur Gavriel.

Diffusion lines are part of the larger contemporary market, but they’re a very specific part: their corporate parents are premier designer brands, and they’re intended to capture business from shoppers who count themselves as fans of the higher-priced lines but who are a little too young and early in their careers to buy from the main line. Brands like Marc by Marc Jacobs and MICHAEL Michael Kors became popular during the luxury boom of the mid-2000s, when more people than ever before caught the designer bug and wanted a little piece of the pie. And for a while, designers opened these lines left and right; business soared.

As it has turned out, though, diffusion lines were a better bet in the short term than the long term. For many brands that maintained a vast price distinction between the two, the wide recognition and availability of the less-expensive options eventually started to cannibalize both the business and the exclusive reputation of their parent lines. After all, if you can get a $350 handbag that says Marc Jacobs on the label, the value proposition of spending $1,500 on one with a slightly different Marc Jacobs label eventually starts to weaken. In the case of Marc Jacobs, the confusion between the two lines eventually required the designer to shutter Marc by Marc and move the main brand in the contemporary direction; the consumer association was too strong to fight.

At the same time that brands like Jacobs and Kors are struggling to figure out how their lower-priced reputations fit in with their larger aspirations of luxury, the contemporary bag market as a whole is arguably the best it’s ever been. In part, that’s because of the path those same diffusion lines paved; they showed a reticent retail market that enormous potential could be found in the space between mass and designer, and once that was clear, contemporary-focused indie brands sprang up to serve different sectors of that middle market. By now, some of those brands are making truly excellent, fashion-forward bags that are influencing trends in the high-end market as a whole.

The most recent explosion in the contemporary market was set off by Mansur Gavriel, which brought forth a whole wave of sleek, Instagram-friendly competitors making bags in the mid-three figures. Because these brands are smaller, they tend to be more nimble in responding to market feedback and more able to take chances on a fun idea that’s not super consumer-friendly—after all, they don’t have large, bureaucratic corporate structures or executive boards to please. So many trends right now, from circular bags to handheld totes, have flourished because of that flexibility.

Diffusion lines, by comparison, are all starting to feel a little dated. MICHAEL Michael Kors hasn’t evolved much in recent years; See by Chloé feels both derivative of its big-sister line and bizarrely cheap-looking for its prices; RED Valentino never really caught on and is probably too expensive to do so now. Marc by Marc Jacobs ate its parent company alive. The only diffusion line that’s both truly thriving and hasn’t changed the reputation of its parent company is Miu Miu, but it was never as inexpensive as most of its contemporaries or as closely associated with its parent company, so it never pulled Prada down market. Now, it’s basically just as expensive as Prada, if maybe a tad more youth-oriented.

What this ends up looking like will be different for every brand involved, but now seems like a smart time for many of them to start tiptoeing away from the contemporary market and leaving that price range to the experts sprouting up left and right to take their places (and do a better job of it). For Kors, like Jacobs before him, it would likely mean committing his business full-time to the contemporary market, which seems unlikely. For the rest of them, though, it seems like there’s precious little to lose—except for some dull handbags.

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