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‘Makes you feel special’: how paper bags became designer accessories in their own right

<span>Photograph: Edward Berthelot/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Edward Berthelot/Getty Images

To the uninitiated, it may seem like lovers of high fashion are getting up earlier these days.

But the plethora of designer paper bags seen on the bus in the mornings often do not contain purchases from Chanel or Prada – but commuters’ packed lunches.

The trend brings a whole new meaning to the term “designer bag”, with even Birkin-loving Kim Kardashian seen clutching one at Balenciaga’s show in Los Angeles this week.

On resale sites such as eBay, empty paper carrier bags from luxury brands such as Chanel and Balmain can sell for as much as £65. Prices for a paper Hermes bag start at £45, while the box begins at £200. A Smythson bag with matching tissue paper tends to go for £40, while a set including eight different brands – spanning Gucci, Burberry and La Mer – starts from £114.

Kardashian’s particular bag was later revealed to be a collaboration between Balenciaga and Erewhon – an expensive organic grocery store in the US that has become a mecca for health freaks. It has become the most high-profile example of the unlikely movement for carrier bags that is sweeping high-fashion, as well as the secondhand market.

On Tuesday, an advertising campaign for the luxury brand Bottega Veneta showed the American rapper – and Rihanna’s husband – ASAP Rocky carrying an ersatz brown paper supermarket bag, which he filled with chard and orange chrysanthemums. Dubbed the “Medium Brown Bag”, it is made from suede-lined calfskin – and retails for £1,800.

It riffs on the department store chain Bloomingdale’s, which first launched its paper “Little Brown Bag” in 1973. Instantly recognisable, it became a signifier of an aspirational American lifestyle. A PVC version followed in 1995.There are various reasons for consumers buying into the trend via resold £10 paper Chanel bags on resale sites. Some buy them to display in their homes, the Gen Z equivalent of fine-bone china. Others use them to create an illusion of wealth – either in public or on social media. Instagram and Tiktok is awash with influencers carefully placing them in the background or being incorporated into footage of shopping hauls and “unboxing” videos – in which users dramatically undo ribbons and peel back tissue paper to reveal their latest purchase.

Some people buy real designer carrier bags in which theygive fake designer bags as gifts. Others may have bought a real designer item on a secondhand site and want the corresponding carrier bag to match. There are even TikTok hacks for turning a designer paper bag into a more durable bag by wrapping it in plastic.

In 2021, a study found that a group of 17 black-and-white paper Chanel carrier bags sold for £265. December is one of the busiest months, with Tiffany’s signature blue bags and Jo Malone boxes in particularly high demand.

Isabelle Szmigin, a professor of marketing at the University of Birmingham, says carrier bags are tied up with identity. “They have value and substance because it implies that you have some connection with that brand and that means credibility, especially on social media,” she added.

One eBay user, who wishes to remain anonymous, is a VIP customer at Harrods and started selling her old paper bags as a side hustle during lockdown. She says as a VIP she regularly receives purchases in limited edition carrier bags that differ from those given to general customers, making them particularly desirable.

Another user, Helen Pacey recently sold an empty Christian Dior paper bag and matching gift box that had originally housed one of the brand’s perfumes for £85. She said: “Demand for these type of paper bags really took off when the plastic bag levy was introduced. People now see them as a luxury. Many are embossed and tied with a ribbon. It makes you feel more special.”