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To Have And To Hold

Hand-stitched leather bags are the hottest art canvases

Fashion and art have long made excellent bedfellows. From the Met’s fashion-inspired art exhibitions, to headline-grabbing collaborations between contemporary artists and luxury fashion houses, the two industries cross-pollinate so seamlessly that the lines are often beautifully blurred.

Over the decades, one particular fashion item has emerged as the most conducive, not to mention popular, of canvases—the leather bag. Since Marc Jacobs turned Louis Vuitton purses into canvases for artists such as Steven Sprouse, Richard Prince and Takashi Murakami at the turn of the millennium, fashionistas with cash to spare have been wearing their art on their sleeves—as arm candy, that is.

It is a trend that shows no signs of abating. To wit: At the recent Burberry Prorsum Autumn/Winter 2014 show, chief creative officer Christopher Bailey pulled out an artsy bohemian collection featuring bold hand-painted flowers on almost everything he could think of—including, of course, handbags. Over at Etro, a collaboration with contemporary Indian artists Thukral and Tagra culminated in a breakthrough capsule collection of bags and small leather goods called Mirabilia. Meaning “marvel” or “wonder”, the striking collection was launched earlier this year and features the Italian house’s signature paisley motif overlaid with the duo’s colourful Pop Art illustrations of fantastical mansions floating on trees and puffy clouds.

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What’s special about hand-painted bags now that just about every fashion house is doing it? Indeed, not much. Enter the one-of-a-kind painted handbag—hand-stitched leather bags that double as pricey canvases for the truly moneyed style maven.

Kim Kardashian may not be the first name that comes to mind when it comes to high-end anything, but the reality star was totally on-trend when she was photographed toting a Hermès handbag customised with a rather macabre painting of three nudes cavorting with a green-faced monster. The painting was courtesy of American contemporary visual artist George Condo and a Christmas gift from fiancé Kanye West.

In 2010, Lady Gaga appeared in Tokyo carrying a white Birkin bag she had scrawled on in Japanese script. She later posted photographs of Canadian artist Terence Koh adding more scribbles and sketches to her bag, turning it into a “performance-art piece” for her fans, or so she told Vanity Fair. Subsequently, she self-embellished a separate black Birkin with studs and grommets.

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“Currently, the boundaries between fashion and art are merging with fashion-forward people embracing that art can be worn, creating a new narrative of self-expression,” says London-based artist Boyarde Messenger. Widely known as the artist who can “paint on everything but paper”, Messenger is also the artist du jour when it comes to painting kitschy Pop Art imagery on handbags—everything from Mr & Mrs Roger Rabbit on a plush cream-coloured Birkin, to a scene from Casablanca on a Louis Vuitton Neverfull tote, as well as a portrait of singer Jane Birkin on a Birkin for a private client.

Classically trained fine artist Nick Taylor is another name that comes up often in fashion circles. Taylor spent six years as Louis Vuitton’s company artist in North America and paints just about anything on the bags, from crests and emblems to motifs and initials, as well as more unusual requests such as a Native American dream catcher and an entire city skyline. It all depends on the requests of his A-list clientele, which includes burlesque performer Dita von Teese.

Lest one be mistaken, painting on fine grain leather requires skill and craftsmanship. “The main challenge comes with the actual texture of the bag’s surface,” Messenger explains. “Everything is hand-painted and a Togo-veined leather Birkin surface, for example, is like mountains and craters for my fine detail paintbrushes. These canvases require the steadiest of hands.”

For their owners, their true value probably lies in the fact that in a world of mass-produced luxury goods, these are truly one-of-a-kind—the mark, perhaps, of true luxury. And art.

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