Joan Smith: I tried to bag a bargain, but I was outrun

Our writer wonders why sales shoppers are so mad for accessories


I like handbags as much as anyone. Or I thought I did, until I went to the winter sales last week, saw the prices and reeled back. When did a fairly ordinary handbag start to cost £250, even when it's reduced by half? When did they begin to have names – Marcie, Evelina and Daria – as though you're acquiring a posh new friend rather than somewhere to keep your keys and phone? I've also discovered that there's a kind of person who's prepared to queue before dawn – when sensible human beings are still snuggled up in bed – for the privilege of buying one of these over-priced accessories.

In the West End of London, a crowd surged through the doors of Selfridges on the first morning of the sale as though their lives depended on getting inside. "We just want Gucci!" a young Chinese woman exclaimed, heading towards an area of the store that had been roped off in anticipation of the need to control numbers.

I don't know how the leaders of the Chinese communist party spent the past few days – nervously trying to read the signals coming out of North Korea would be my guess – but I doubt whether it involved queuing half the night for a must-have shoulder bag at a bargain price. Six decades of communist propaganda have evidently produced a generation more knowledgeable about Gucci than about Chairman Mao.

I hadn't previously encountered the phenomenon of queuing to get into high-end stores as though they're nightclubs, but it's also been visible in out-of-town shopping centres such as Bicester Village. In the bleakest economic conditions for decades, such conspicuous displays of affluence turn shopping into a status symbol, suggesting that the individuals waiting behind the rope have more cash than the rest of us and aren't embarrassed about it. They're willing to pay astronomical prices for things they didn't even know they wanted a few years ago, with huge (in every sense) handbags a case in point. You can't wear them, and they don't make you look slimmer, but they announce to the world that the lucky owner can afford to carry a shoulder bag with a full-price tag of £1,000.

Personally, I've never been on first-name terms with a handbag, but when Mulberry named one of its bags after Alexa Chung last year, it proved so popular that there was soon a waiting list – and a leap in the company's profits.

Angelina Jolie is the face of the upmarket brand Louis Vuitton, and she was photographed (by Annie Leibovitz, no less) with a huge LV bag in a wooden boat in Cambodia for its current advertising campaign. Jolie didn't wear make-up for the shoot and the bag is no longer in production, which, in the strange world of designer brands, counts almost as a bold anti-fashion statement.

At this point, I suppose I should admit I'm not the world's most successful shopper. I went to the sales last week, fully intending to buy some dinner plates, and came home with a pair of pink sunglasses. I'm a sucker for beautiful objects and I quite admire the fashion industry's ability to create demand for things we don't really need, but the cult of the designer handbag is a step too far.

A thousand quid for something that, when you get it home, is full of scrunched-up tissue paper? Which you then have to fill with other things, until it's so heavy it makes your back ache? It may be called Alexa or Donna and turn some of your friends green with envy. But it's still just a bag, for God's sake.;

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