Why those in the know are no longer in with the It Bag

The once-fashionable accessory does not carry the same weight it once did. Harriet Walker reports on new trend for the utility bag

The It Bag is dead! Long live the It Bag! In fashion circles, there's always a new piece of designer luggage to tote, but this season you'd be hard-pressed to spot it. With the overkill and overexposure of so many labels, what with celebs parading their goods everywhere from red carpets to the final of Britain's Got Talent, the style cognoscenti have turned to the last word in understated and elite accessories: the utility bag. Such a bag is likely to be quiet, casual, anonymous and – of course – staggeringly expensive.

"It's to do with the fact that fashion has gone so overground," explains Iain R Webb, professor of fashion at Central Saint Martins in London. "Cheryl Cole wears all the latest London designers on The X Factor, it's all show, show, show. This is the way that the high-end fashion industry returns to elitism."

The industry is not, of course, shunning the highly lucrative market for OTT and bling – only this week, a Gucci handbag costing £11,040, made from crocodile skin and topped with a bamboo cane handle, sold out on Net-a-Porter.com. But some of the season's other offerings – and some of the most popular among those in the know – are rather quieter in the way they proclaim their fashion credentials.

As part of the Jil Sander spring/summer 2011 collection, for example, the designer Raf Simons presented carrier bags. Simple, plastic shopping bags with two handles, made from transparent red acetate and bearing none of the signature hardware, name plates, bells or whistles normally associated with an It Bag. The Market Bag, as it was dubbed, sold out almost immediately wherever it was stocked. It cost £90.

"We had an amazing reaction to the Jil Sander Market Bags from the moment they went on sale," says Holli Rogers, buying director at Net-a-Porter. "The orange plastic version sold out within days of launch."

The trend comes at the same time as a resurgence of interest in Prada's iconic nylon rucksacks. These humble holdalls, which cost £480, became the ultimate status symbol of the Nineties. And at ultra-high-end label Reed Krakoff, you can pick up a blue leather gym bag for £1,200. "Fashions happen in cycles," Professor Webb continues. "It was the same in the early Nineties, too. With them, as soon as you see it, you know – but with these, only those in the know will know."

It has ever been the chic rule of thumb not to advertise one's personal assets, but "stealth wealth" truly caught on among the in-crowd in the years following the yuppie heyday, as a more classy alternative to the hyped-up "loadsamoney" attitude. Designers such as Christian Lacroix and Thierry Mugler, who had embodied the spirit of the flamboyant Eighties, gave way to the simple, more minimal work of Prada and Helmut Lang.

"Prada's minimalism is followed like a Zen Buddhist religion by fashion acolytes," wrote the International Herald Tribune's Suzy Menkes at the time. "The Prada philosophy fits the (fairly expensive) bill for the Nineties shopper who aspires to be a connoisseur of good things, rather than an avid consumer of status symbols."

"Prada may not make you look rich," Vogue declared in March 1995, "what could be more vulgar than that? But it sure makes you feel it." And that is the new direction for fashion in times of tightened belts and shallow pockets: the unobtrusive item recognised by a privileged few and, therefore, with a much longer fashionable lifespan.

"Fashion is once again becoming something more artistic, and less commercial," Professor Webb adds. "These products have a utilitarian moniker, but they're not necessarily what they say they are on the tin."