handbags between workwear and fashion

Handbags have always been part of women’s wardrobes, but it was only in the course of the 20th century that their purpose and thus the style changed dramatically.

Until 1930, handbags were usually the size of an envelope – flat designs with small handles, designed to hold no more than a few coins, cigarettes and a single lipstick. The first noticeable change for handbags took place in the 1940s: When the war ended, scarcity and pragmatism led women’s bags to be inspired by satchels and backpacks, previously reserved for men. Then, with the economic recovery, handbag trends swung in the other direction, like a pendulum: Luxury, playfulness and glamor was the motto of the 50s and 60s – but unfortunately the sizes of the bags remained small.

With the free spirit of the 1970s, bags softened, their shapes became malleable and fluid, as desired by some in society at that time. It was in the 1980s when women entered the labor market in greater numbers than ever before. With it came power dressing – prominent shapes, sharp lines and controlled volume, allowing women to take up space physically and figuratively in the male-dominated fields of work. Bags were needed with a larger capacity, essential items – paperwork, cases, devices and work supplies – had to fit inside. During the turn of the millennium, bags became softer and larger. They became famous with the maxi-bag trend in the 2010s and then faded into their normcore interpretation: The cotton tote bag, which is indispensable in today’s cityscape.

But while the purpose, styles and shapes of women’s bags have undergone a massive change, one category has remained underexposed: the one worn to work. Neither entirely fashionable nor entirely functional, the work bag was brushed aside by creative designers and technical product developers, leaving women with half-hearted options that required compromise.

To this day, there is a gap between a bag suitable for workwear (and work essentials) and a high-end fashion accessory. Items that combine the luxury of a handbag with the functionality of a work bag are rare – especially if the design is desired on the more feminine side, while keeping practicality on the same level as work accessories intended for men.

Some would say that an accessory should not reflect women’s emancipation in the world of work, that it reduces their efforts and achievements to a stereotyped object, and that it reduces their abilities to a sartorial niceness. But there is another view, one that tells a story of invention and improvement, of equality and eye level – in which women become virtuosos of versatility, embracing what makes them different and seeing it as an asset. And with this perspective, handbags become an allegory of making way for creativity, entrepreneurship and craftsmanship, both on the level of the designers and developers and the women who ultimately wear these pieces – made by women for women.

And for some women, their first high-quality handbag is a sign that they’ve worked their way up professionally or personally and freed themselves from patriarchal structures.

Image: KAAI, property of the brand.

KAAI handbags come into the picture: An example of “fashion meets function”

Who better to come up with impeccable design that connects fashion with the function of handbags than the women themselves? The Antwerp accessory brand KAAI has set itself the goal of bringing the myth to life. After collecting in-depth insights from women and their relationship with their handbags, founders Ine Verhaert and Helga Meersmans come to two conclusions: fashionable bags, no matter how beautiful they look, are often impractical. At the same time, women have grown tired of the neutral look of work bags (which are still primarily designed to meet men’s expectations).

In addition, Ine and Helga, both women with a corporate past, were inspired by their personal struggle to find stylish business bags that complemented their active lifestyle. As a result, KAAI has created a collection of handbags, each of them “functional and fashionable, feminine and fearless.” KAAI bags are for women who lead busy and successful lives, bringing a contemporary and desirable style, made for casual and formal occasions, whether day or night.

“We need time and space to create things with quality. If an object isn’t given time to mature, it just becomes an echo of something we saw before.” With this mantra in mind, KAAI has devised an analytical and strategic approach to creating handbags with compartments such as key hooks and string-fastened wallets, flaps with buttons to secure laptops, adjustable straps and full-closure zippers.

Since its foundation in 2019, KAAI has grown continuously, with clients from London, to Paris, Milan, Tokyo, Singapore and Sydney. Meanwhile, the KAAI bags enable women to follow their ambitions – on their terms and without compromises all over the world. And, to close the circle: Ine and Helga reveal that often enough the decision for a KAAI bag is a mother-daughter moment, in which the different generations unite on the path of emancipation (or at least a branch of it): giving mothers their daughters a bag to kick off their careers in style, following in the footsteps of their mother who paved the way for them to carry on for generations to come.

Source: fashionunited.nl by fashionunited.nl.

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