Lyudmila Bouzinova, 20, an economics grad student at Fordham University and recently booted contestant on the new cycle of America’s Top Model, was walking around University Place the other day carrying a camel-colored Le Pliage handbag by Longchamp. “They’ve been around a long time, but I love it,” she said. “I go to the gym with it, I guess. But I don’t use it as a handbag.”
Thirteen years after it was introduced to the American market, the eminently collapsible Le Pliage—which means “folding” in French—has saturated the streets of New York City as the practical shoulder bag of the moment: to be stuffed with gym clothes, schoolbooks, groceries, Evian bottles, Self magazines, important briefs, novels, four-inch heels, and whatever else it is women carry around all day. At some point in the past five years, it mysteriously overtook the Hervé Chapelier nylon tote, which served a similar purpose. Both are French. Both are available in a constantly changing seasonal variety of solid colors. Both are durable, and, at around $100 dollars, reasonably inexpensive—at least for the department stores that stock them. “They’re very handy,” said Monique, 32, a Park Slope resident recently spotted in the West Village carrying three—three!—Le Pliages over her shoulder. “You don’t have a car here most of the time, so you need a bag that can carry you to work, to the gym, casual life.”
Delfino, a boutique on the Upper East Side, sells both Le Pliages and Chapeliers, as well as its own popular line of nylon bags. “About four years ago, Hervé was number one, Longchamp was number two, and ours were number three,” said Harun Keskinkaya, the owner. “Now Longchamp is number one, Hervé number two, ours three.” He had no explanation, though MaryAnne Piccolo, a sales associate, pointed out that the Longchamps are the only ones that are totally waterproof.
Aggie Davis, a sales associate at Bloomingdale’s, agreed that Le Pliages far outsell Hervé Chapeliers these days, not to mention all other Longchamp styles, and show no sign of slowing. She added that the average Le Pliage customer is “probably 18 to 40. Well, actually, a lot of 16-year-olds have come in looking for them lately.” And so Longchamps currently enjoy a showy, spacious alcove near the Chloé and Marc Jacobs boutiques, while the Hervés, second-class citizens, hang on one paltry rack near the discount bags, next to a line called “Twelve”—clearly a very bad Hervé imitation.
‘They Even Know the Style Numbers’
Le Pliage is not about to succumb to a similar fate, insisted Olivier Cassegrain, managing director of Longchamp Boutiques.
A little histoire: The bag was first sold in the U.S. in 1994 but really took off around 1999, when Longchamp opened its first U.S. retail location on Madison Avenue (additional “brand recognition,” Mr. Cassegrain said). The most popular Le Pliage, he said, is the large tote with the long straps: style number 2724. (Mugger-wary New Yorkers are obsessed with straps, versus the Parisians, who prefer their Le Pliages backpack-style.) Longchamp has only ever advertised the bag in trade magazines, but in early 2000, a prominent editorial feature in InStyle nearly doubled sales of Le Pliage in the Madison Avenue boutique the month after it ran. Katie Couric was subsequently photographed with one of the bags in 2001, and boom! The best year for Le Pliages, Mr. Cassegrain said, was 2004, though they continue to trample every other Longchamp in terms of quantity sold.
“We have customers who come in and know exactly which one they want, because they have already several of them,” he said. “Sometimes they even know the style numbers! It’s funny, because style numbers are supposed to be something internal, but they hear us saying it, or they see it on the receipt.” And so Longchamp has recently begun selling a version of the bag with its style number, 1623, emblazoned in large fuzzy characters on the side (these sell considerably less well than the plain nylon bags, said Ms. Davis of Bloomingdale’s).
With its simple design, Le Pliage is very susceptible to knockoffs. And really: For a gym bag, who cares, n’est-ce pas? The company finally secured patents in 2006, Mr. Cassegrain said, and has been aggressively suing copycats ever since. These days, it’s harder to find knockoffs of Le Pliage on the street than it is, say, Balenciaga and Fendi leather bags, but when you do find them, they’re often … well, quite good. Save for the jumbled lettering on the gold buttons and the grainier feel of the nylon, they are virtual doppelgängers. All three uptown street vendors surveyed by The Observer, though, said that the Hervé knockoffs sell better (tourists!). “Those are hard to find,” said one vendor of his limited selection of faux-Longchamps.
The runaway success of Le Pliage has sent ripples through the luxury handbag market. “Nylon became a trend in the luxury market about a year ago,” said Elizabeth Kanfer, the fashion accessories director at Saks Fifth Avenue. “We definitely liked the idea of a sporty handbag. Tods had it, Prada obviously had it, and I think Miu Miu. But nylon coming out of Italy is expensive. So you’re not going to have the same Longchamp price point.”
And what of the It bag of recent years? “I think there are It shapes now,” Ms. Kanfer said. “Our customers are gravitating towards hot items within collections. But we’re seeing a movement away from the It bag, to be totally honest. People are seeking more individual handbags that suit their needs.”