Vintage Chanel handbags – the ultimate guide for buying secondhand designer

·9-min read
Photo credit: Christian Vierig - Getty Images
Photo credit: Christian Vierig - Getty Images

Loved by everyone from Jackie O and Brigitte Bardot to Alexa Chung and Katie Holmes, classic Chanel bags are some of the most iconic accessories out there. Valuable, too, which is why there’s a huge appetite for the vintage and pre-loved versions. And the market is growing: global searches for 'vintage Chanel bags' have doubled in the last year.

That stat comes as no surprise given that the RRP of new iterations has risen by 71 per cent since pre-pandemic times, according to the Handbag Clinic. But it's also because the industry is becoming more and more concerned about sustainability. While countless brands drop recycled and eco-conscious collections, experts are stressing that the most sustainable item is the one you already own. But if you still crave the dopamine hit shopping brings, you could buy pre-loved pieces instead – and Secondhand September is a great place to start.

Photo credit: Jeremy Moeller - Getty Images
Photo credit: Jeremy Moeller - Getty Images

So if you’ve been gearing up for a big purchase, like an investment handbag, it might be worth considering a vintage option instead. There’s something nonchalant about a pre-loved bag, imbued with the patina of past owners’ stories, already slightly worn and softened with age. By forgoing the box-fresh feeling, you can reduce your carbon footprint, ease your conscience, and save some money.

Photo credit: Dominique Charriau
Photo credit: Dominique Charriau

That’s not to say that a secondhand Chanel comes cheap. Like the ever-appreciating Birkin, maintained value tends to be a signifier of timelessness – which makes it even more important to buy the right bag. Luckily the rise of ecommerce makes that a lot of easier; because as romantic as sifting and thrifting at vintage stores and flea markets may seem, it doesn't come without risks. But now that secondhand sites such as Lampoo and Vestiaire Collective exist, and luxury e-tailers like Selfridges and Farfetch are stocking pre-loved items, buying authentic vintage bags just got even easier.

Still, it pays to prepared and make sure you’re clued up on getting the best deal (and spotting counterfeits). We’ve laid down the law in our helpful guide to buying a vintage Chanel bag.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

A brief history of Chanel flap bags

When you’re shopping for vintage Chanel bags online, it helps to know what you’re looking at. You may know the 2.55 to be the most iconic of the house’s accessories, but did you know how many iterations it has?

The original 2.55 debuted in – you guessed it – 1955. It was one of the first bags to come with a strap which enabled women to be hands-free rather than clutching the top handle of a framed bag or pouch. Frequently inspired by menswear, with a penchant for wearing it herself, Coco Chanel was already making waves with her fuss-free approach to design. For the first time in history, women’s clothes had pockets, were made from comfortable fabrics like jersey, and forwent uncomfortable boning and petticoats. The 2.55 was both chic and liberating, so it comes as no surprise that it became an instant icon.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

This diamond-quilted leather accessory had a chain strap (Chanel used to stitch chains to the hem of jackets and skirts to maintain the perfect drape) that floated within two rings, so it could double to go over-the-shoulder or slip through to create a longer cross-body look. The burgundy interior had a handy divider, as well as a secret zipped compartment, and there was a slip pocket on the back for stowing cash or lipstick. Because of these details, some described the 2.55 as a 'rebellious' bag – who knew storage could be a signifier of the cosmopolitan, independent mid-century woman?

The lock is your best bet on determining when your 2.55 was made – it was one of the first things Karl Lagerfeld changed when he became creative director of the house in 1983. He switched the original 'Mademoiselle' oblong twist-lock to the double 'C' style we all know and love, succumbing to the logo mania of the period (which, needless to say, proved successful). He also took on the leather-interwoven chain, sometimes used to bolster the original bags’ handles when supplies were running low, as a permanent feature. The quilted leather upper is often remembered in a diamond formation but matelassé and chevron styles soon followed, so it’s worth keeping an open mind when it comes to this detail. This re-issue is often referred to as the 11.12, or just the Chanel flap bag.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

Lagerfeld also introduced new iterations of this accessory during his stint at the French fashion house. His most famous designs are the Diana, created in 1989 for Diana, the Princess of Wales, and the Boy bag, named after Gabrielle Chanel's first lover, Arthur “Boy” Capel. Lagerfeld also changed the production methods of Chanel bags.

Lampoo’s Head of Brand Valuation, Erika Vecchiatti, told us: "Before 2008 the flap bag's hardware was made from 24 karat gold, bearing a typical hallmark that showed the kind of metal." It is key details like this which make research imperative to investment buys, and may sway you to buying vintage Chanel bags instead of pre-loved designs.

How to find vintage Chanel bags (and how to spot a fake)

It goes without saying that when sourcing vintage Chanel, only use reputable suppliers who have authenticated pieces. While it might seem obvious, the counterfeits industry – which is incredibly lucrative – has been going strong for half a century now, so many suppliers have mastered the art of imitation.

Some signifiers are easy to spot, such as your matelassé and quilting stitches matching up at the seams – or the logo is a good indicator, says Vecchiatti. "It should be embossed directly onto the lining or an attached leather patch and say either 'Made in Italy' or 'Made in France'." It's always worth looking at the quality of the lining (there should be no bubbling) and the brand stamp inside the bag. "This should be the same colour as the bag’s hardware," she adds. "But on a real Chanel, metallic leafing may rub off, change colour or almost completely disappear, with strong signs of use."

There are a few warning signs that may be less obvious. Tina Lipfriend, Founder of rental site Bag Butler, shares her top tips here:

  • Use your common sense: if the item seems too affordable, it probably isn't genuine.

  • Chanel quilting needs to be plump and full – it may still guide a positive authentication when deflated, but that doesn't mean it's still worth the price tag.

  • A vintage piece needs to smell right – in other words, it should not smell new.

The team at Vestiaire Collective also warns of modifications or signs of wear and tear that can confuse authentication processes. "If you buy a secondhand Chanel bag, it could have been repaired or modified by its owner. Therefore, it’s essential to base your judgement mainly on the quality of the leather and lining, on the weight of the hardware and straps."

Luckily, if you buy through the likes of Lampoo, Vestiaire Collective, Selfridges ReSell section, Farfetch or Cocoon, they have experts who will do this for you.

Are vintage Chanel bags more sustainable?

In the simplest terms, buying secondhand is always more sustainable. Aside from shipping, you automatically bypass the carbon generated from production by buying something that already exists.

"Chanel is a byword for luxury and, as such, often imitated," says Lipfriend, Bag Butler's founder. She also points out the wider impact this has on the planet. "It is crucial to ensure that you are paying for the real thing, not only so that you aren’t duped, but to prevent more counterfeits circulating. It's better for the environment: fakes inevitably end up in landfill. Chanel bags do not."

Lipfriend also recommends buying timeless colourways to ensure you get the most wears out of your investment. "Black will always be desirable and doesn’t ever look dated," she says.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

Where to buy vintage Chanel bags:

It used to be just Vestiaire Collective we would truly trust with such a big purchase as a Chanel bag. In recent years however luxury e-tailers like Farfetch and Selfridges have launched pre-loved departments; and in 2022, eBay introduced its Authenticity Guarantee. This year, Italian re-sale site Lampoo even launched a physical store on the King's Road in London, where customers can browse to buy or have their own unwanted items authenticated to then sell on.

It's worth noting that reputable re-sale sites are not always all perfect to look at. Most secondhand businesses work with third parties – intersecting only at the authentication and shipping process – so product shots are not necessarily professional. Rental and re-sale site Cocoon however buys stock outright and stores it in-house, as does Lampoo. Here, discover our favourite luxury resale sites, and everything we know about their processes for authentication.

Shop pre-loved Chanel handbags:

If you are not fussed about buying vintage Chanel specifically, this does expand your choice when it comes to searching for an investment handbag. Anything 20 years old or more is officially classed as vintage, so bags made from 2000 onwards tend be tagged as pre-loved instead. Either is a more sustainable than buying new, as you're reducing your carbon footprint and extending a luxury item's lifespan.

Rent vintage Chanel handbags:

At Bazaar, we always think it's wise to rent your dream handbag first before investing – you need to see whether the design works for your lifestyle. How does the size serve your day-to-day needs? Are the zip and pockets easily accessibly? Is it too heavy for the commute?

The same goes for a vintage Chanel. It might be worth renting for special occasions before taking the plunge – and on some sites, you might be able to make an offer on your rental if you fall in love with it. Cocoon has a wide array of Chanel bags, all in impeccable condition, to choose from. And it's bound to keep investing, since Chanel has accounted for over 25 per cent of all brand searches on its website in the past three months alone.

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