Shanghai exhibition tells story of the handbag and how it became a status symbol

Retrospective spanning 400 years at city’s K11 mall features bags ancient and modern, including some of the icons of 20th century fashion

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 July, 2016, 3:57pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 August, 2016, 6:06pm

All you need to know about handbags is revealed in a Shanghai exhibition featuring 300 examples from around the world which span four centuries.

Running until October 9 at K11 mall, “Bagism” will showcase antiques from bygone eras and modern versions from Dior, Louis Vuitton, Prada and Yves Saint Laurent, as well as Hermes’ iconic Kelly bag, named after former Hollywood actress Grace Kelly.

Curators Elizabeth Azoulay and Penny Liu worked closely with 15 contemporary Chinese artists, including He Cairou, Zhang Enli and Zhao Yao, on the show.

“With this exhibition, we worked a lot with a team in France to chart the history of bags, and to tell a story about its cultural significance,” says Azoulay. “Through our team, this exhibition works with over 70 lenders, including the Musée des Art Décoratifs in Paris, and also esteemed institutions in Chile and Italy along with private collectors.”

There were a few hurdles along the way. “The most difficult part of this project was finding brands that have disappeared,” says Azoulay. “I am crazy about Elsa Schiaparelli, but finding pieces from her is quite a lot of work. Yes, there are private collectors who have her work, but the sourcing process for the brand is not as streamlined compared to other companies that exist today.”

Bags and shoes with a tribal touch add fun to the wardrobe

One stand-out exhibit is the peanut butter and jelly sandwich bag by New York-based artist Chloe Wise, adorned with a Louis Vuitton strap and tag. A black leather quilted Chanel bag with its chain strap doesn’t have today’s double ‘C’ monogram and highlights the nascent role of branding in the French designer’s early years.

In portraying the history of the handbag, one obvious evolution stands out: while it was used originally to keep valuables close, this is no longer the case – now it’s more often seen as a status symbol.