One blue leather oversized tote from French luxury label Balenciaga has become the focus of style-centric corners of the Internet this week, spawning articles, comments, and digital conniption fits. The New York Post, never one for much subtlety, ran their take with the headline “Balenciaga’s Ikea-Bag Knockoff Is Even Dumber Than It Looks.” Today noted, with a heavy dose of snark, that it features “a ‘gold-stamped’ logo on the top of the bag for the ultimate luxurious feel.” The Daily Mail wanted to know if it was “High fashion, or a high-priced knock-off?”
The bag is expensive—clocking in at $2,145—but not outrageously expensive for a designer piece in 2017. A quick shopping trip around the Internet will uncover handbags from peer brands to Balenciaga which are not only more expensive than the blue leather tote, but way less practical. A tiny $3,445 embroidered clutch from Valentino is beautiful, but also looks like it can barely store an iPhone. A simple structured black Fendi handbag is about 1/4 of the size of the big blue tote, but will cost you twice as much. Balenciaga’s bag may offend people with its price tag, but at least it’s practical. Accessories have higher margins than ready-to-wear and are often the category that fuels a brand’s success most, meaning handbags from designer brands are inherently expensive items—overpriced even—and Balenciaga is no different.
But the real hubub here stems from people believing there’s something wrong with Balenciaga designer Demna Gvasalia taking inspiration from a 99 cent object anyone can buy and turning that into a luxury product made to appeal to a significantly less amount of people. This is hardly the first time a designer has re-contextualized something cheap into a four-figure object, or even the first time one has been inspired by an inexpensive, practical tote bag. While at Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacobs turned cheap and synthetic market bags into woven leather totes, a similar—and equally clever—concept as what Gvasalia is doing right now.
This design philosophy is exactly what the Georgian-born has become known for. Under his Vetements label, he’s sold things like $300 DHL tees, $1,200 nylon windbreakers (made in collaboration with Reebok) and $800 Champion hoodies—both arguably better targets for criticism than the work he’s doing at Balenciaga—all of which sell out in hours.
Demna’s proposition is that price of an item, whether or lot or a little, has almost nothing to do with the extremely subjective idea “good taste,” and this blue tote is a prime example. It calls to mind the shape and style of Ikea’s beloved bag, but unlike a Vetements x Champion hoodie, sees an enormous leap upwards in quality in that it’s crafted entirely of leather and handmade in Italy. No, it doesn’t look like the kind of thing a rich Upper East Side housewife would carry to brunch, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a true luxury item, either.
Gvasalia, more than perhaps any other designer today, is an artist who loves nothing more than to challenge society’s accepted ideas of luxury. He challenges it through silhouette (sometimes oversized, sometimes cropped, hardly ever in the middle), through collaborations, and through his unconventional sources of inspiration (for instance his Fall-Winter 2017 menswear collection for Balenciaga was inspired by the seemingly uninspiring wardrobes of Wall Street bankers). In this so-called “Ikea bag,” his cheap-item-made-expensive concept might not be new, but neither is feigning outrage over the high price of a luxury item.
Even Ikea itself is down with the Balenciaga bag. A spokesperson for Ikea told Today, “We are deeply flattered that the Balenciaga tote bag resembles the Ikea iconic sustainable blue bag for 99 cents. Nothing beats the versatility of a great big blue bag.” We couldn’t agree more. Whether it costs a person 99 cents or two grand is kind of up to them.