Totes sweet

They say a picture is worth a thousand words but that's nothing compared with the epic tale of style, money and power expressed by woman's handbag. From a Mimco metal button tote to a Skipping Girl crochet beach basket, a woman's choice of bag is a reflection of her mood, age, income, postcode and more. And when it comes to social status, no style speaks louder than an it-bag - a luxury carry-all coveted by fashion followers, flaunted by celebrities and defined by a price tag that swings into the thousands of dollars - and beyond.

''Celebrities such as Victoria Beckham and Kim Kardashian parade their … Hermes bag collections because they are well-established symbols of success,'' fashion commentator and author Kathryn Eisman says. ''A woman might be walking down the street in faded jeans and a white T-shirt but the quilted Chanel 2.55 on her arm positions her differently to someone wearing the same outfit carrying a hemp hobo.''

If hysteria for the it-bag reached fever pitch in the late noughties, these days, in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, touting an obvious show pony seems a tad out of touch. So while the super-rich have shifted their investment into stealth-wealth pieces (earlier last year The Row's logo-less alligator backpack sold out around the world despite its $US39,000 price), fashion has responded with a new category: the boutique bag.

Boasting the luxe material and exquisite make of luxury bags, boutique bags are distinguished by limited production runs and more affordable prices. Where designer bags are available worldwide, boutique bags are often produced locally and their creators prioritise low-key ingenuity over mass appeal. And if the success of boutique bag brands such as the Cambridge Satchel Company - which struggled to keep up with demand for its cult £100 ($150) pouches earlier this year - is anything to go by, consumers can't get enough.

One Australian label operating in this space is Queensland-based After the Apple. Founded by former Mimco designer Rachelle Dendle in 2009, the brand takes inspiration from nature to reinterpret 12 distinct bag styles each season (think briefcases, clutches, shoppers and more) with prices that range between $300 and $600.

''The majority of heritage luxury brands do a brilliant job offering classic bags but at After the Apple we aim to create something diverse and deliberately different from these traditional pieces,'' Dendle says. ''Within the structure of our 12 ever-present styles, there's always an element of multi-functionality, whether that manifests in varying strap options, detachable market shopper bags or clever compartments.''

For the co-founder of Melbourne leather goods newcomer Hyde, Olivia Cole, launching a boutique bag label was a way of recapturing the essence of vintage design. ''I love vintage bags but it's hard to find something that's not worn and falling apart,'' Cole says, explaining that craftspeople in Indonesia make each one-of-a-kind Hyde bag by hand. ''With the brand, I've fused together all the things I love about vintage design but kept prices to $160 to $380.''

Since launching in March, Cole says the feedback has been overwhelming, with local stockists matched by interest from the Netherlands and Japan.

''One of my favourite moments was hearing a customer tell me they went home and dreamt about one of the bags,'' Cole says. ''She returned to the store saying she couldn't live without it.''

British designer Sophie Hulme's bag label is another boutique brand making waves. Adored by the British fashion pack - ''The buyer at [British department store] Selfridges said when she first saw one of my bags she chased a fashion editor down the street to find out what brand it was'' - Hulme points to lack of flash along with the £200 to £500 price range as factors that distinguish her designs from others.

''All the bags are created to last and, in lots of cases, they get even more beautiful over time as the leather ages,'' Hulme says. ''They are also limited at the moment as we are a new brand, so I think people like the exclusivity and the fact the branding is very subtle.''

It's a detail echoed by Sydney accessories label Benah. Offering discreet, intelligent designs that sell for $100 to $500, founder Brenda Harvey notes her customers range from ''20-year-old students saving up from their three jobs, to 60-year-old professional women who love the fact the price points are so accessible''. Explaining the appeal of her aesthetic over a luxury item, Harvey says her two-year-old label offers a fresh, Australian spin you can't get from other brands.

''Brands like Chanel, Prada and Gucci have history,'' she says. ''I feel like I have only just opened the first pages to put pen to paper. Each Benah bag is handmade with Italian leathers in this country and each collection is built around a philosophical idea.''

For fashion blogger and journalism student Hannah-Rose Yee, that's exactly what she was looking for. ''I was searching for a bag that was streamlined and minimal but also cool and youthful,'' she says, explaining the motivation behind her purchase of Benah's red Kodi mini canvas bag. ''The bags are made in Australia, which is important to me. Although there are so many lovely luxury bags, I can't afford them and there's the issue of everyone having them. Benah feels like my little secret.''

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