How paper bags became designer accessories in their own right

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To the uninitiated, it may seem like high fashion lovers are waking up earlier these days.

But the many designer paper bags that can be seen on the bus in the morning often do not contain purchases from Chanel or Prada, but rather the commuters' packed lunches.

The trend brings new meaning to the term “designer bag,” with even Birkin lover Kim Kardashian wearing one at Balenciaga's show in Los Angeles this week.

On resale sites like eBay, empty paper carrier bags from luxury brands like Chanel and Balmain can sell for up to £65 ($81). Prices for a paper Hermes bag start at £45 ($56), while the box starts at £200 ($250). A Smythson bag with matching tissue paper typically costs £40 ($50), while a set with eight different brands – including Gucci, Burberry and La Mer – starts at £114 ($143).

It later emerged that Kardashian's special bag was a collaboration between Balenciaga and Erewhon – an expensive organic grocery store in the US that has become a mecca for health freaks. It has become the best-known example of the unlikely tote bag movement that is sweeping both the high fashion and secondhand markets.

On Tuesday, an advertising campaign for luxury brand Bottega Veneta featured American rapper ASAP Rocky with a substitute brown paper supermarket bag that he filled with chard and orange chrysanthemums. Called the Medium Brown Bag, it's made from suede-lined calfskin – and retails for £1,800 ($2,258).

It is reminiscent of the Bloomingdale's department store chain, which first launched its “Little Brown Bag” newspaper in 1973. She was instantly recognizable and became a symbol of an ambitious American lifestyle. A PVC version followed in 1995. There are various reasons why consumers are following the trend by reselling £10 Chanel paper bags on resale sites. Some buy them to display at home, the Gen Z equivalent of fine bone china. Others use them to create an illusion of wealth, either in public or on social media. Instagram and Tiktok are awash with influencers who carefully place them in the background or incorporate them into shopping trip footage and “unboxing” videos – in which users dramatically untie ribbons and peel away tissue paper to reveal their latest purchase.

Some people buy real designer tote bags in which they give away fake designer bags. Others may have purchased a genuine designer item at a thrift store and would like to have the tote bag that goes with it. There are even TikTok hacks to turn a designer paper bag into a more durable bag by wrapping it in plastic.

In 2021, a study found that a group of 17 black and white paper Chanel tote bags sold for £265. December is one of the busiest months as Tiffany's signature blue bags and Jo Malone boxes are in particular demand.

Isabelle Szmigin, professor of marketing at the University of Birmingham, says carrier bags are linked to identity. “They have value and substance because they imply that you have some connection to that brand, and that means credibility, especially on social media,” she added.

An eBay user, who wishes to remain anonymous, is a VIP customer at Harrods and began selling her old paper bags on the side during lockdown. She says that as a VIP, she regularly receives purchases in limited-edition totes that are different from those regular customers receive, making them particularly desirable.

Another user, Helen Pacey, recently sold an empty Christian Dior paper bag and matching gift box that originally contained one of the brand's perfumes for £85. She said: “Demand for this type of paper bag increased sharply when the plastic bag levy was introduced. People now view them as a luxury. Many are embossed and tied together with a ribbon. It makes you feel special.”

By Chloe MacDonnell

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