My Eco-Tote, My Identity

BCBG eco-tote, Spring 2008One of my favorite stories of young professional girls is the classic soapy novel The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe. (Trust me, if you’re someone working your way up in a company, it’s right there with Valley of the Dolls.) What made me fall hopelessly in love with the story was the author’s description of the young ladies of the typing pool carrying their lunches in defunct Bonwit Teller shopping bags...

Don’t we all do this? I love buying just a little something (usually a cosmetic) in order to get a small shopping bag to take for lunches! What I love more is spying the girls on bus and seeing their lunchbags in turn. The whisper of a Neiman’s butterfly, the stately lettering of Marc by Marc Jacobs, the mod ovals of Jonathan Adler, the white-on-black of Barneys, or the elegance of Diptyque – I’ve carried them all for lunches at one time or another. It’s the air of “purchase mystery” that everyone loves to play up for another day, even if the bag holds nothing more exciting than tuna salad with a side of grapes.

A classic Fauchon tote - eco-chic for years!Of course, these little paper gems convey a lot more than one’s purchase power; they’re a walking passport of one’s shopping travels. The chocolate-ivory stripe of Henri Bendel or the whimsical blue-and-red of Fred Segal show that one has gone coast to coast in the pursuit of style. Then there’s the famous bags of Fauchon, the Paris gourmet shop whose re-usable bags have been gifted and carried for decades. More than a shopping memory, all these little bags have been resused and recycled into fashion caché for years! In the case of Fauchon, carrying their tote meant you'd travelled to Paris (or 5th Avenue,) knew the non-touristy neighborhoods there, and probably had a sophisticated palette - not to mention a tin of fois gras at close hand...

Kenneth Cole "Use Me" toteNow we have our “eco-tote” craze... In the name of eco-chic, designers are now bringing us coveted bags to carry within our bags, just so we have something handy and equally chic to carry home mundane items from the neighborhood grocery or Walgreens. Still, the simple canvas totes are rife with implications of status, location, and income, as they serve as a walking billboard of a person’s demographic.

Yesterday, my Dad dropped off something I’d forgotten on a recent visit to my parents’ house. My Mom had packed it up in a canvas tote, and I didn’t even notice what it said during the hectic few seconds of getting it from my Dad’s car and running back into the office… No sooner had I returned to my desk than my colleague (a native New Yorker) made a comment…

Colleague: “Oh, what did you get from Clyde’s?”

Me: “What?”

Colleague: “Your bag – it’s from Clyde’s…”

Me: “Oh – it’s my Mom’s. What’s Clyde’s?”

Colleague: (turning away with a raised eyebrow) “It’s a pharmacy on Madison at 74th…”

Me: “Oh…yeah, I think my Mom likes that place.”

YSL tote as a fashion-show gift bagWithin five seconds, my borrowed eco-tote conveyed a message that someone (me, ostensibly,) had been to New York and shopped at a very exclusive (and expensive) pharmacy shop on the Upper East Side.

Just like the witty upside-down logo totes being given out for free at the upcoming Yves Saint Laurent fashion show (Eric Wilson's NY Times article), the tote conveys a message of being an insider, being exclusive, being in the right place at the right time to get the right eco-tote. So much more exclusive than a mere Muse bag, don’t you think?

Last year, Anya Hindmarch’s “I am Not a Plastic Bag” totes flew off of store shelves and became a hotly-bidded eBay commodity thereafter. According to The Bag Snob, Hindmarch stated at the beginning of this effort: “Our aim with this project has been to use our influence to make it fashionable not to use plastic bas. 'I'm Not A Plastic Bag' was designed to be a stylish, practical, reusable bag that would raise awareness of this issue and spark debate." I would venture to guess that everyone that bought the Hindmarch bag knew about the pitfalls of plastic long ago, but they simply wanted the latest must-have item. Personally, I hate it when someone says they're "raising awareness" - who is some designer to say I'm not aware? The rhetoric just smacks of smug superiority, especially as it concerns something as simple as "plastic is bad for you." Duh! The reason the bags sold out wasn't because of their enlightening abilities, but because everyone wanted to convey that they too cared about the environment while looking exclusive doing it.

Whole Foods/Lauren Bush Feed toteAt Whole Foods, you have one of two branded options to purchase there: the standard reusable green bag, or the famous Lauren Bush “Feed” bag – the proceeds of which go to feeding children in Rwanda. Now this is an effort whose awareness needs raising. For just $29.99, you can feed 100 children. Talk about a great product: affordable, well-designed, results-driven, and coveted. Everyone’s happy with this bit of brilliance, and it even zips up into a compact carrying case so your bag isn’t floating around in your handbag causing traffic jams among the wallet, cell phone, and eyeglass case.

But charity aside, what does the “souvenir” of your munificence say? This “Feed” tote tells the world that not only do you a) shop at a rather expensive grocery store (Whole Foods), but b) are a conscious, philanthropic being, who c) cares about the needs of children in under-developed countries. Now that is quite the message to send!

As with any trend that starts at the street, designers are now capitalizing on these eco-chic totes by designing into the trend and creating new “It” bags. A search for “canvas tote” on Etsy yields over 4,000 items, all made by small-production crafters and artisans. Not one to be late to any party, Target has an entire section on their website entitled “Reusable Shopping Bags” with totes priced from $9.99. Other retailers start out in the market inexpensively, such as the $20 “Use Me” bag from Kenneth Cole, or the $38 “Be Chic Buy Green” tote from BCBG last spring. But now, Marc by Marc Jacobs is putting out screened bags upwards of $100! Other designers are making limited editions, using the classic luxury brand method of creating a must-have item. Luxury branding in a canvas tote? Does that even make sense? Isn’t accessibility the whole point of this trend?

Continuing the thought, aren't designers setting themselves up in competition with themselves by creating low-end carry-all totes and high-end luxury handbags? Which bag will attract more attention and draw more covetous envy?

Marc by Marc Jacobs "Save My Pole" toteApplying Beaudrillard’s thoughts on semiotics, this trend in eco-totes is really just another way for us to express ourselves. They’re our outward representation of what we stand for, where we shop, and what we want to support. By being conscious of our ecology and ridding ourselves of plastic bags, we have generated a replacement that is literally a blank canvas waiting for expression – preferably a designer one.

Of course, if I really want to carry an eco-chic tote with a label, I’ll keep packing lunch in a stylish paper shopping bag like I have for years. Those babies are chic, and free with the purchase of something you're buying anyway!