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BoF Exclusive | Sacai Launches Handbags

Chitose Abe’s 18-year-old brand is expanding into accessories with the help of ‘handbag genius’ Katie Hillier.
acai has launched its first handbag collection | Source: Courtesy
  • Helena Pike

PARIS, France — Sacai, the cult Japanese label founded by Chitose Abe, is expanding into handbags with the help of Katie Hillier, the accessories designer and consultant who helped create 'It' bags for brands including Victoria Beckham and Marc by Marc Jacobs.

A protégée of Rei Kawakubo, Abe has built a reputation among fashion insiders for her couture-like craftsmanship and playful designs, which fuse elements of different garments to create new silhouettes.

For her first handbag collection, which consists of six styles in a range of colour and fabric combinations, Abe has spliced recognisable handbag shapes using her signature deconstruction techniques. Pieces include a vintage-style coin purse reimagined as a shoulder bag in black mink and crocodile, and a canvas and leather hobo tote inspired by a camping dry bag. "It's a new way of holding or using a handbag — and it's how that can be interpreted in new ways," she told BoF. "It's a hybrid [aesthetic] that is connected to the clothes."

Prices begin at €950 (about $1,068) and some of the items will go on sale in Colette on Monday, immediately after Sacai’s Spring/Summer 2017 show in Paris. The full collection will go on sale on December 1 at Sacai stockists including Bergdorf Goodman and Selfridges.

Chitose Abe and Katie Hillier | Photo: Victor Demarchelier

Hillier, who Abe describes as a "handbag genius," has worked with brands including Stella McCartney and House of Holland, and was brought on by Sacai as a consultant to advise on manufacturing and development of the line.

“Initially, the first starting point was, ‘Okay, from a really basic commercial level, these are things that we need to have in the line,’” Hillier says. “The main focus was to create something from the designs that Chitose gave us … to make these incredible-looking things work on an everyday basis. So it could look like it was not necessarily a bag, but it has to function.”

In turn, Abe found Hillier an inspired design partner. "For every one idea I proposed, Katie and her team gave me 10 different ideas back. Collaborating with her for this was so meaningful," Abe says.

"You know, it’s not very often that people share such a similar sense of creativity," she continues. "What I can say is that the suggestions that ultimately came through from her were definitely from a 'handbag genius.' Some of it was very unexpected but, together, we really created a completely new framework."

Founded 18 years ago in Japan, Sacai has taken longer to expand into handbags that many other ready-to-wear brands, for whom handbags and accessories have become an important source of revenue. "Everyone and their brother have launched a handbag collection in the most recent 15 years, because they boost retail productivity and profit,” says Luca Solca, head of luxury goods at Exane BNP Paribas.

"I always wanted to launch handbags, but at a time that was natural for me — doing it my own way and in my own time," explains Abe. Indeed, Sacai's growth has been studied. Although the brand had a presence in Paris showrooms from 2004, Abe didn't show during Paris Fashion Week until 2011, slowly building momentum and stockists, and acquiring high profile fans including Karl Lagerfeld.

Creating things that look like everything else is not the right way to go. Women want things that are unique.

Sacai's satchel | Source: Courtesy

However, the brand will be entering a competitive space, cautions Fflur Roberts, head of luxury goods at Euromonitor. “This is a very, very competitive market and there are hundreds of luxury brands out there offering accessories,” she says. “Coming out with a new product for a brand is very challenging, especially around that [price] mark. It’s not like they’re only playing in the affordable luxury or indeed the absolute luxury market. They’re in the middle ground, which is really the area that is being squeezed at the moment.”

“Right now in the accessories market, creating things that look like everything else is not the right way to go,” says Hillier, of the need to deliver a fresh aesthetic that can stand out in the crowded market. “Women want things that are unique.”

In this regard, Sacai's unique aesthetic could stand the brand in good stead. "There's definitely some space in the accessories category for newness, especially for labels offering something different," says Sebastian Manes, buying director at Selfridges, which will stock Sacai's handbag collection. "[Sacai's] integral concept of hybrid transfers to accessory design seamlessly… like ready-to-wear, the accessories are unconventional and precise, but ultimately easy to wear."

Sarah Andelman, creative director of Colette, predicts that Abe's designs will compete with "brands like Mansur Gavriel more than Gucci or Valentino." The challenge, she says, is "to create bags we've never seen before, with a strong identity. I know they'll have the quality, naturally."

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