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Throwback Thursday: A Look Back at the YSL Mombasa

Another aughties-carryall primed for a comeback!

Say what you will, but OG bag lovers would certainly agree: the early 2000s were some of the best years in handbag history.

The Dior Saddle and the Fendi Baguette had their pop-culture moments under Ms. Bradshaw’s armpits.

The fab collab between Marc Jacobs and Takashi Murakami seeped into the collective conscience as the epitome of “cool-girl chic,” whether it be in the form of the Louis Vuitton Multicolore Monogram Keepall that Ms. Hilton paired with ultra-low-rise everything, or the Cherry Blossoms Pochette Regina George sported with an omnipresent frown.

And, of course, die-hard collectors of the Balenciaga Moto bags would chime in unison: the flat-brass Firsts and pewter Citys from the early aughts are the most covetable of the lot!

But it wasn’t just it-bags that encapsulated the purse-centric frenzy of this era. For instance, the first trappings of the Birkin’s popularity manifested in the form of Samantha’s escapades during the fourth season of Sex and the City (which aired in 2002). Chanel, too was having fun trying out its hand at everything from pop-culture favorites, like the Medallion Tote, to borderline-grunge styles like the Coco Cabas, as well as now-vintage classics like the Single Flap.

It was amidst this veritable hullabaloo of swoon-worthy purses that one bag, in particular, emerged; quickly, but also rather discreetly, making its way to the handbag hall of fame.

It had neither the slick detailing of the Fendi Baguette nor the over-the-top bells and whistles common to Galliano-era Dior Saddles. It lacked the historical cache that the Gucci monogram had come to proclaim or the off-duty glamor that the Balenciaga Motorcycle exuded.

In fact, save for a distinctive horn handle, it pretty much had no other embellishments! But because it had nothing that could tie it to a particular point in history, or even a certain aesthetic, it became all the more versatile, not to mention supremely usable.

Thus, this purse not only made its way onto the shoulders of every it-girl well into the turn of the decade, but it also transformed a sleepy couture house into a formidable giant of the luxury industry. And now, more than twenty years into its release, it appears to be back, and if you love handbags, you better watch out for it! So, ladies and gentlemen, re-introducing the Yves Saint Laurent Mombasa bag!

The History of the Mombasa

What bamboo is to Gucci, the horn is now to Saint Laurent,” Tom Ford reportedly announced when he came up with the Mombasa bag. Named after a strategic East-African seaport in the Kenyan coastline, the Mombasa’s history is intricately tied to that of the storied house of YSL.

Now, Yves Saint Laurent’s YSL was a very different brand from the one we see today, and that’s not taking into account the radical changes Hedi Slimane controversially made. In fact, the YSL of the 60s was at the forefront of the couture-meets-ready-to-wear movement, popularizing women’s tuxedoes, like the infamous Le Smoking. Throughout the 60s and 70s, it came to signify the “Beatnik” aesthetic, featuring thick padded jackets, slim pants, and thigh-length boots, while in the 80s, fragrances became the brand’s best-sellers.

By the waning decade of the century, however, the brand had become obsolete, unable to compete with the utilitarian-chic movement that Prada spearheaded and other, more responsive brands had followed. Surprisingly, the house was even acquired by pharmaceuticals giant Sanofi, but changes weren’t afoot until the Gucci group (now known as Kering) took formal ownership of it in 1999.

Croc Saint Laurent Mombasa

Tom Ford, the prodigal designer who was heading the creative direction of Gucci at the time and who had nearly single-handedly turned the brand from a hereditary mess (à la House of Gucci) to the sultry and seductive purveyor of sleek luxury accessories, was now also put in charge of YSL. And from the accounts in House of Gucci, Ford’s debut collection for Saint Laurent was one that Mr. Yves would have heartily despised, but the crowds readily accepted. As a part of this massive rebranding process, he launched the Mombasa bag, the purse hitting the stores in December 2001.

A New York Times piece released right after the Mombasa’s release captures the sentiment perfectly: “Bergdorf Goodman, which had cautiously ordered only 60 of the $700 bags because of concern about the economy, asked for another 500, received 420, and ran an ad for the horn-handled Mombasa as the must-have accessory for spring.”

And, of course, there was the strategic gifting. From actress Gwyneth Paltrow to Mary Alice Stephenson of Harper’s Bazaar and Michelle Kessler Sanders of Vogue, fifty editors across New York City received the carryall, some swearing by it, some not so much. But no one could deny its appeal: the Mombasa and its counterparts generated $90 million in revenues, the sale of accessories measuring up to 26% of the brand’s total earnings that year! Mr. Ford noted, ”Having a strong bag at Saint Laurent was key.”

What Makes the Mombasa a Favorite?

The genius of Tom Ford is that he was able to distill his knack for the playful and the seductive to match the different DNAs of the respective fashion houses he tenured at. Therefore, while his designs for Gucci (including the revival of the archival-favorite Gucci Jackie) were often presented via gasp-inducing advertisements with sometimes blatant eroticism, his approach towards Yves Saint Laurent was to put women in a position of dominance. And this was apparent in the early campaigns of the Mombasa, featuring powerful-looking women sporting dark attire and somber expressions displaying the bag.

YSL Mombasa Campaign
Yves Saint Laurent F/W 2005

But it wasn’t just the marketing that sustained the Mombasa in the market right into the 2010s. Rather it was a combination of superior craftsmanship, customer support, and beautiful design. Available in four sizes – small, medium, large and extra-large (XL) – and in many colorways, there was a Mombasa for everyone. The original design featured a structured hobo-esque silhouette crafted from panels of triangular leather, completed with a handle made from naturally shed deer horns and decorated with metal.

Every season had a new, lust-worthy variation to watch out for – some years, it was made of ornately-embroidered leather in a bright red hue. In contrast, in others, the deer horn was replaced with a hardier (and relatively inexpensive) buffalo horn. And there was a rendition in every material under the sun, from suede to canvas, satin, velvet, sequins, metallics, and even exotics like python.

In the later years, variations were also brought into the silhouette, releasing a unisex messenger and tote versions, as well as “sisters” of the original Mombasa, like the Mala Mala, the Vincennes, and the St. Tropez. It was, however, the original that remained a celebrity staple: Nicole Richie had quite a few, and so did SATC’s Kim Cattrall, as well as the queen of oversized style, Ashley Olsen.

The YSL Mala Mala, a Sister-Purse of the Mombasa

And it’s easy to see why it’s such a favorite. Not only was it extremely spacious and convenient to reach, but its magnetic snap closure and under-arm carry made it quite secure. Plus, unlike the prevailing hobos of the period, the horn handle attached with metal chain links made the purse easy to carry on the shoulders, even with a winter coat on! Additionally, the tough leather was made to withstand wear and tear, often looking pristine despite many years of use. If push came to shove, YSL even sold the horn handle separately if you ever needed to replace it!

YSL Mala Mala
The YSL Mala Mala, a sister-purse of the Mombasa

The Return of the Mombasa

We needn’t tell you again how today’s consumers are more aware than ever of mindful consumption, keeping sustainability and style in mind. This has accounted for a massive boom in the luxury resale industry, and vintage designs are back like never before. While this has, on the one hand, led to the revival of archival designs by the luxury brands themselves, other buyers have sworn to exclusively buy pre-loved. And the good news is, there’s something for everyone regarding the Mombasa!

We’ve discussed how Saint Laurent hasn’t yet embarked on this trend towards revivals, making it rather unlikely that the Mombasa would be back again to purchase new. Does that mean, though, that other designers can’t feel inspired? Not at all! In fact, Mathieu Blazy’s debut spring ’23 collection for the house of Bottega Veneta put forth the Sardine bag, an Intrecciato half-moon hobo with a horn-shaped metal handle along the tracks of – you guessed it – the YSL Mombasa!

Of course, there are significant differences between the two designs. While the archival YSL gives a hardy, Western, and borderline equestrian feel (I’ll wait), Google pictures of Ashley Tisdale in cowboy boots to see the tough-but-feminine look I’m talking about). The Sardine feels more gilded and delicate. Clearly, it’s a modern reinterpretation of the Mombasa in the world of Bottega.

Bottega Veneta Sardine Bag

Bottega Veneta Sardine Bag
via Bottega Veneta

What the Sardine did manage to do, however, is generate a renewed wave of interest in the Mombasa. Fans of the original were frenzied at the resemblance, and resale prices have already witnessed an upward tick (and all Mombasas on Fashionphile are sold out). However, prices are still reasonable enough for you to jump on the bandwagon.

Plus, the design elements of the Mombasa make it the perfect contender for a resurgence too. Devoid of any incriminating piece of monogram or signature hardware, it feels almost as classic as the Balenciaga (sorry, Mombasa, but I’ll always have a soft spot for the BBag), and hence, the perfect retro hobo to acquire as the trend charges forward at full steam. But let me warn you if you’re looking for the smaller sizes – they’re much harder to score now!

Saint Laurent Mombasa

Yves Saint Laurent Mombasa Bag
via Vestiaire Collective

There’s something about the purses of Saint Laurent, both from the pre-and post-Yves era, that lends to them a more classic feel that many other brands have strived for and failed to achieve. If you’re talking about Y2K YSL styles, the Muse, the Chyc Cabas, or the Downtown all sport the signature aughties-elements but won’t look too out of place on the arms of any fashionable individual. As for post-Slimane purses, my love affair with the Sac de Jour is well-documented.

And as the purse that started it all, the Mombasa has a certain panache that carries it just as gracefully to the modern day. It features Tom Ford’s signature aesthetic while serving as the reflection of the powerful YSL woman, all in a neat, scrumptious leather package that’ll make you want to hold it in your arms and carry it around all day. That being said, the horn can also serve as a formidable weapon when in distress! So, as our favorite nostalgic purses from childhood increasingly meld into our modern-day wardrobes, do you think the Mombasa is primed for a comeback?


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