My 1984 Hermès 32cm box Kelly
Prince Rainier and Grace Kelly, 1956
When it comes to building a wardrobe, I believe in investment pieces. As far back as high school, influenced in equal measure by the thrift stores I frequented and classic Hollywood cinema, I set my mind on acquiring a vintage Kelly bag. I was rather young to begin saving for a Hermès bag, but there is a time in one’s youth when a person forges headstrong desires for iconic objects that will resonate through the years. A number of things attracted me to this handbag. First, Grace Kelly, who’s style I greatly admired, disguising her pregnancy behind her purse, had been featured in Life magazine carrying her namesake bag. Second, the timelessness and craftsmanship of such an object appealed to me. Third, the bag evoked a glamorous life that was far from the reality of my lackluster teenage existence. Luckily, the Kelly bag is a classic trapezoidal style that has been much copied, and so it was easy enough through the years to find substitutes in vintage and department stores.
Owning surrogate Kelly bags did nothing to quell my inclination for an actual Kelly. In fact, it had the opposite effect, serving only to stoke my desire for knowledge. The history of Hermès, various types of leather, and the artisan process of hand crafting a Hermès bag became the focus of my research. Until I understood the mechanics of making a Kelly, any identification I had with the bag would not be complete. Lack of this identification, I feared, would dampen my chances of finding a prospective vintage bag to set about acquiring.
My metamorphosis from dilettante to collector took hold in my thirties, shortly after I moved from New York to Los Angeles. I got to know the shops in my neighborhood where vintage bags congregated, and began methodically inspecting those bags I came across. Through this process I became familiar with the feel and smell of the leather, the detail of the diagonal Hermès stitching, and the artisan stamps. Both sales assistants and shop owners were gracious in allowing me to examine bags – they somehow understood my process and my wish for the perfect Kelly. Why did I long for such a bag? I don’t think I have the answer. The whole experience of researching the bags and learning about the rich history of the Hermès house provided an escape from the hard reality of contemporary manufacturing practices. It was a return to a connection with craft that I had had in my youth: my father was a stonemason and my grandparents had exposed me to the antiquated rituals of making clothes, bread, wine, and cheese.
It wasn’t until my fortieth birthday that I found the bag I had imagined owning for so many years. Ushered into middle age, I had at last realized the dream of my youth. I had met the past, and the past was elegant: a 1984 32cm box Kelly with gold hardware. When I set eyes on her, I saw right away she had suffered color loss and that the leather was dry, but I knew she would be restored to her former glory with some polish and conditioner. My vintage Kelly bag stands now as a symbol of a time gone by, conveying me from yesterday to tomorrow.
Grace Kelly with her Hermès Kelly bag
Grace Kelly carrying her bag with 18 month-old daughter Princess Caroline, 1958