Taking another strategy from the Chanel playbook seems to be paying off
Bags don't make me get philosophical every day, but sometimes when I'm flipping through a lookbook or some product listings, something about the activity feels relevant beyond just the experience of shopping. At the end of last week, while pulling photos for a post about Julianne Moore, I came across a photo of her carrying what was both a new and very much not new Saint Laurent bag. I knew it was Saint Laurent because it had all the markers: the brand's iconic tri-letter initial logo, a matching chain strap, a flap closure onto which the logo was affixed, a small-to-medium size, a structured body made of glossy black leather. I pulled the photo without looking too hard at the bag; only later did the shape of the flap and the position of the logo tip me off to the fact that it was a new design. But was it new? How different does something have to be in order for it to be meaningfully different? For it to be a genuinely different thing?
The bag in question is the Saint Laurent Sulpice Bag, which is indeed a new addition for Pre-Fall 2018, in that Saint Laurent has not previously manufactured a bag with exactly that combination of flap shape and logo placement before—the flap has two angled, staggered lower edges, and the logo hangs over the edge of the top one and onto the bottom one. Saint Laurent has made bags with logo hardware and two staggered, angled edges before, but not exactly in that way. So, sure: it's new.
It took me a while to find the model name of this new bag for two reasons: first, there weren't enough distinct things about the bag to provide helpful results from even the most specific and descriptive Google search of the bag's appearance, and second, most retailers also can't tell the difference between Saint Laurent's many and very similar bags. When I found the bag on a retailer's website, it didn't have a model name. As I dug deeper to see exactly how many similar-but-distinct bags Saint Laurent has out right now, I noticed many retailers calling some of the bags by others' names. It was a weird type of aesthetic dysphoria, where everyone involved seemed to tacitly agree the bags were too similar while Saint Laurent swore up and down that they were all totally different, man.
The only model everyone seems to agree on is the Kate, which wasn't even called that for the first couple seasons of its existence. I can't be totally sure of the motivation, but that bag seemed to acquire its distinct name around the time that Saint Laurent started releasing a bunch in its image, all with different names to signal that they were part of different bag lines. In music, this is called "theme and variations"—a melody is played and then followed by a handful of riffs on that melody. They're the same but different, just like the bags are. And the bags aren't just different in size or color or embellishment—something structural about the bag is changed when it is made into a new line, but only just enough.
Although most designers riff on their popular bags a fair bit, I can only think of one other brand that, season after season, releases so many structurally and aesthetically similar bags while insisting they're all distinct designs: Chanel. And, arguably (and I have argued, and some of you got mad at me for it), Chanel's constant flap-bagging was the inspiration behind this genre of Saint Laurent bags in the first place, even before it was a complete genre. The flap bag structure, the chain straps, the prominently placed logo hardware: as long as a brand has the lineage to pull it off, it's a very lucrative strategy.
Saint Laurent has one of the best and most recognizable logos in all of fashion history, of course, so the brand can make this flap bag theme and variations work. As with Chanel, that logo and its attendant aesthetic markers—the gilded straps, the often-black leather, and in the case of Saint Laurent, the party bag aesthetic—are actually what people want, and giving them a slightly different version of it every season makes perfect sense, from a marketing perspective. Also like Chanel, Saint Laurent makes a ton of bags that aren't this one idea, but if people also want ten versions of this idea, it's probably not Saint Laurent's job to convince them otherwise.
Credit where credit is due: most brands never come up with a concept popular enough that they can change the flap and logo placement a little bit every season for years on end, call it something new, and sell a bunch of them, many to shoppers that already own a previous version under a different name. At Saint Laurent, the gimmick has lasted beyond Hedi Slimane, the designer who started it, and has kept going strong under his hand-picked successor, Anthony Vaccarello. Vaccarello has started letting the accessories team stretch its legs a little when it comes to bags, which is steadily resulting in options outside the logo-hardware shoulder bags and Sac de Jours that were hallmarks of Slimane's tenure at the brand. When it comes to these designs, though, YSL shows little sign of slowing down or changing course. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
Right now, by our count, Saint Laurent makes around ten bags that are, spiritually speaking, the same bag. Check them all out below.