Bags of charm

December 19, 2013

A peek into the Simone Handbag Museum


By Kwon Mee-yoo

The average male might consider the handbag an unnecessary element of everyday life. And that would be one of the many reasons why women consider them, well, idiots.

When it comes to understanding why the handbag is so valuable and essential to women, men have always been left at something of a loss. But French thinker Jean-Claude Kaufmann offers to help.

“The handbag is a key piece in the day-to-day construction of identity,” Kaufmann once said, expressing his unique interest and insight into the item in his book “Le Sac, un Petit Monde d’Amour (The Bag, a Small World of Affection).”

“Veritable extension of the self, the handbag accompanies a woman throughout lots of life events, while stocking many of her intimate memories.”

Park Eun-kwan, president of local handbag company Simone, subscribes to Kaufmann’s theory that the handbag is much more than just a fashion statement — it’s an extension of one’s personality. While the company manufactures products for global fashion houses like Michael Kors, Tory Burch and Coach, Park’s ambition is to launch his own brand, named “0914,” by 2015.

But before taking that critical step, Park wanted the opportunity to step back and examine the culture and history of the handbag and put them in meaningful context. The result was the Simone Handbag Museum on Garosu-gil in Sinsa-dong, southern Seoul, which explores how an item that was supposed to be a functional complement to the wardrobe emerged as a key driver in the business of desire that is fashion.

At the museum, Park’s passion for handbags is evident. Even the building of the museum, which Park named as Bagstage, is shaped like a shopper bag. Aside of the museum, which is claimed as the world’s only museum entirely dedicated to handbags, the building is also home to Gallery 0914, an art exhibition space, and two fashion shops.

Museum for handbags

The Simone Handbag Museum is located on the third and fourth floor of the building and features a variety of valuable items, such as 16th-century silk bags to the contemporary classic that is the Hermes Birkin Bag.

The third floor is highlighted by handbags manufactured in the early 20th century. Seeing how the shapes and function of the handbags changed through the course of time is a delightful experience.

“In the early 1900s, the ‘art nouveau’ style was in vogue and many bags are in elaborate curves. Then after the 1920s, the shape of bags became simpler as the designers focused on function of the bags. The famous gas mask bag used in Britain during the 1930s was also a product of necessity that reflected where society was at the time,” said Ko Ji-na, a curator at the museum.

The Simone Handbag Museum in southern Seoul is claimed to be the world’s only museum entirely dedicated to the handbag. (Courtesy of Simone)

The Simone Handbag Museum in southern Seoul is claimed to be the world’s only museum entirely dedicated to the handbag. (Courtesy of Simone)

It was after the end of World War II when aesthetics became critical in the making of handbags. They became smaller and more decorative. A magazine-shaped clutch bag from the 1970s illustrates the influence of pop culture in design.

The shapes and designs of handbags have become more imaginative recently. Anne Marie’s Champagne Bucket Purse is a fun and deceptively elegant accompaniment to an evening dress, while the dog-shaped bags from Fuzzy Nation convey unique exuberance.

Kim Yong-ho’s “The Woman is Going Into Her Bag”

Kim Yong-ho’s “The Woman is Going Into Her Bag”

Recent products from the traditional fashion houses Chanel, Hermes, Coach and Gucci are also on display at the museum, highlighted by the Hermes Birkin, acquired by Park through an auction for about 100 million won (about $94,000).

The fourth floor takes visitors a further step back in history, highlighted by Western and Asian artifacts of the 16th century that could be considered as equivalents to the modern handbag.

“These bags, while beautiful, were defined by their functions. The perfumed sachets were necessary as these were times when people didn’t hit the showers every day. Some of the bags here aren’t really bags, but tie-on pockets attached to dresses, which were much more puffier than now,” Ko said.

As dresses got slimmer, bags increasingly became independent items and were designed with more sophistication. In the 20th century, the bags became sturdier, using metal frames and leathers, Ko explained.

Material Bazaar exhibition of the Simone Handbag Museum

Material Bazaar exhibition of the Simone Handbag Museum

Bag is psychology

There is also a separate exhibition in the building’s basement, part of nine-segment project running through September of 2015, featuring some imaginative art work devoted to handbags.

The first part of the program, which is currently on display and will be until Dec. 29, is titled “Bag is Psychology,” featuring the works of photographers Kim Young-ho and Hong Jong-woo and psychiatrist Kim Hyun-chul.

On one wall, Kim Hyun-chul wrote his own ode to the handbag, inspired by Kaufmann’s writing, arguing that bags convey an unconscious part of their owners’ desire. So attempting to buy a new bag doubles as that person’s attempt to gain distance from her past, according to Kim.

The Bagstage building,where the museum is located

The Bagstage building,where the museum is located

Kim Young-ho’s “The Woman is Going into Her Bag” is displayed in a space which resembles inside of a bag. Viewers have to walk through a slit of a bag to see Kim’s images printed on mirrors. Images of an opened bag and a naked woman are reflected on each other through the mirrors, which Kim says illustrates women’s urge to look into someone else’s bag.

Hong’s work is more dramatic, making subjects of his photos as heroines of a movie. He randomly interviewed people and asked what was inside their bag and took pictures of them.

A mannequin showing a Louis Vuitton creation

A mannequin showing a Louis Vuitton creation

Bagstage also has Material Bazaar, which features some 8,000 different types of leather from cowhide to sharkskin, and offers four-week workshops to create a bag of one’s own.

Those not satisfied with just seeing all these handbags can make a purchase at the 0914 Shop on the first floor.

One Comment

  1. Janessica N

    June 17, 2014 at 12:55 PM

    Thank you! This is very interesting and useful information.