The Lariat: How The Balenciaga 'It' Bag Changed Fashion
When it comes to sartorial benchmarks of the early 2000s, there may be few as potent as that of the ‘It’ bag. The usage of ‘It’ (capitalization, quotes and all) first became common at the start of the 20th century thanks to author Rudyard Kipling and his manner of using it to describe a particular kind of feminine allure. It didn’t take long for ‘It’ to be applied to stars of stage and screen, a practice that’s endured. But the idea of an ‘It’ item, particularly an ‘It’ bag, was something novel. There had been iconic bags in the past, but the intersection of the internet and the explosion of luxury brands (thanks largely to Bernard Arnault’s acquisition of several historic companies, a strategy matched by Tom Ford at Gucci) combined to create a frenzy surrounding the category that had never existed before. Many notable styles emerged, but one of the first, one that turned out to set the stage for so many of the rest, was Balenciaga’s Lariat.
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If the name Lariat doesn’t immediately ring any bells, it could be because this ‘It’ bag has acquired two other names over the years: the City and the Motorcycle—and both are telling. Designer Nicholas Ghuesquiere was appointed creative director of Balenciaga in 1997, a role he assumed after the tenure of Dutch couturier Josephus Thimister. Though the famed house founded by Cristobal Balenciaga remained in operation, it hadn’t yet achieved the same kind of enormous success it once enjoyed. Guesquiere’s minimal debut for Spring/Summer 1998 was a smash that would begin a lauded 15-year stint as the company’s design lead.
But even then, accessories were emerging as a crucial aspect of any designer collection. In 2001, Guesquiere and his team developed the first Lariat only to be met with general disapproval by the brand’s suits. Guesquiere recounted his experience to WWD in 2011 where he said, “Every girl who was walking [the show], including Kate [Moss] came in and was like, ‘What is that? Is it vintage? Is it something that you found at the flea market?’ I was like ‘No, it’s a handbag that we prototyped but just didn’t produce.’ We didn’t produce it because I think when I showed the prototype to the people who asked me to do it, they weren’t happy with it.”
The response from his models proved so encouraging that, according to the same WWD interview, Guesquiere decided to craft a limited run of just 25 samples for that season’s show so he could gift them to those walking the runway. They were a critical hit and it didn’t hurt that the world’s top models were photographed carrying them everywhere—photographs that, thanks to new digital technologies, were easily accessible to more and more people. It was unlike most other bags at the time in that it was free of a rigid structure and the kind of elegant polish one might expect from such a bag originating from such a vaunted house.
Consumer interest became intense enough that the Lariat was eventually put into production. When it comes to the ‘why’ of the bag’s popularity, Guesquiere continued, “No logo. Very light. Very effective. There is something familiar with the vintage side. Women and girls thought it was something they’d always have. It was a new fresh thing, but it looked like an old, good, friendly thing. And I think the brand also was becoming desirable. People had desire for my goods and [the bag] was the most accessible piece. You could be a Balenciaga girl with that bag.”
Much like other small leather goods, and even perfume despite its highs and lows, bags act as a critical entry point for luxury brands. They do not require a specific kind of body to fit, they can be worn repeatedly without question, and, if well taken care of, retain a respectable value on the resale market. All are claims that cannot be made by the majority of available ready-to-wear. Despite being initially driven by the need to create something modern, the Lariat turned out to be a precursor of larger trends indicating how much of the industry would come to operate. It’s no secret that most luxury brands place tremendous focus on their accessories simply because they generate so much more profit. According to Bloomberg, Louis Vuitton (Guesquiere’s current employer) loses in excess of $118 million on its apparel despite being one of the brand’s fastest-growing categories bringing in north of $510 million annually. You don’t have to be especially good at math to recognize what a small fraction that sum is compared to the company’s estimated $9 billion in annual sales.
With one piece, Guesquiere was not only able to push handbag design in new directions but also created a springboard from which the small brand he helmed could once again become a fashion force–something it certainly became long before his departure. All that aside, today, nearly 20 years after it’s debut, it still sparks desire in the eyes of shoppers worldwide. What could be better?