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New York Social Diary: The Ghosts of Christmas Past

January 7th, 2020 |

Written by Barbara Hodes for New York Social Diary

Christmas is in the rear-view window, but the warm and fuzzy feelings remain. January is a wonderful time to explore all the things you did not have time to do in December. I have discovered several amazing places, including a museum show of an outstanding handbag collection. Handbags have many fans and signify different things to different people; sometimes status, sometimes membership within a certain group. They can flaunt your sense of humor, style, or aspirations.

The museum exhibition covers all the bases, while the other place I visited offers a luxury service that will free up your closet space all while pampering you, your clothes and accessories (yes, really!) It might just be the best place to stash some of your possessions to make room for all those wonderful Christmas gifts you just received!

The Kemerer Museum in Historic Bethlehem is featuring a bag lover’s dream. Ilene Hochberg Wood  is the owner of the bags. They are her passion, and only a small fraction of the over 3,000 bags she owns is exhibited here. “Purseonality” is a fascinating cross-section of the wide world of handbags.

Now, of course there are Hermes bags. Ilene used to feel that her husband was spending a bit too much on her when he bought her Hermes pieces, but she has since come to realize that they are an excellent investment. The red crocodile Kelly Bag, worth somewhere around $100,000 today, is probably the most valuable piece. But the small canvas and leather Hermes bag on the right (above) is pretty special, and one that I wouldn’t mind carrying.

The collection features inexpensive bags and also is so inclusive that there is an interesting representation of “fake” bags. The above bags are not. The Hermes Herbag was introduced in the 1980s. It resembles the Kelly, but it’s a bag that multi-tasks. The canvas body can be removed from the leather top, and replaced with a different color of canvas. A new model called the Herbag Zip is waiting for you at HermesMs. Hochberg Wood loves the LV bag in Epi at the back because it is a modern version of a 1960’s cutout handle bag, and because it is not like the other Vuitton bags shown in the museum.

There are some pretty amazing Vuitton pieces. Marc Jacobs introduced Vuitton to the idea of artistic collaborations, and the 2017 Jeff Koons Mona Lisa bag was one of many the artist has done for the brand. Richard Prince and Murakami have also done collaborations.  The red one is a Sac Triangle, and was originally designed to hold your knitting. The Speedy is covered in graffiti. It’s a real Vuitton bag found in Korea. A local artist bought it and covered it in raised paint, adding his touch to the piece.

Women wear bags to make a statement, allowing some of us to be intentionally wacky or to further express a different aspect of our personality. The Balenciaga graffiti bag is a signature of the brand. Delvaux’s take on graffiti, part of its L’Humour Brillant collection, is inspired by a MagrittePrada is represented by a silver handled bag from the early 2000s. Gucci’s 85th anniversary was celebrated with many limited edition bags; the Briddle Bit Hobo shown here is one of them.

The black travel case is a Mark Cross Rear Window bag. The firm made the bag specifically for the Hitchcock movie, and it was designed by Max Holzman. This case is from the ’50s, just like the film. The bi-color bag at the back is one Mr. Holzman designed for his own label, prior to working for Mark Cross. His bag continued to sell into the early ’60s.The tan Grace bag is more recent, and remains popular.

Needlepoint goes in and out of fashion. The pieces here are unique. The Bon Voyage bag at the back is a very early Judith Leiber bag, and looks nothing like any of her well known minaudieres. The reindeer travelling satchel is from the 19th century. The one that is the most amusing, and shows why the collection is so interesting, is a bag that someone in America made in the shape of a Speedy (but the creator needlepointed what must be her initials in place of the LV logo).

Anne-Marie is a mythic Parisienne hand bag creator. Her boutique was in one of the grand hotels in the city. VIP guests often got a bag as a gift, and other patrons commissioned bags. The “piano bag” has keys, the “cocktail bar” bag has a miniature rail and small bottles of booze, while another bag is an ice bucket full of lucite ice cubes and an ice tong as does the “Champage bucket” bag.  These bags were designed as collectors items and have remained so, inspiring many other handbag designers.

Cartier incorporates their signature jewelry styles into the design of the bags. The Trinity bag at top left has the interlocking three colors of gold echoing their famous ring. Plus another with jewels added on to the front. And then there is a wonderful bag with a Panthere “bracelet” handle.  A jeweled  Mermaid decorates another chic bag.

Drinks bags have been popular for decades.  The Kate Spade champagne bucket bag is a pop-ish version of the Ann Marie bags from the ’40s. The Fallen Angels bag is a modern Lulu Guinness piece, and is in the spirit of bags from decades before.

There are many bags celebrating games: Vegas, Bingo and a tiny tin bag with the Mets logo and baseballs. Ms. Hochberg Wood finds bags everywhere from flea markets to the Rue St. Honore, with online, local markets and yard sales thrown in. The collection is wide ranging and reflects her curiosity  and taste.

There are themed Telephone bags. The Dallas Telephone bags actually still works and can be plugged into old-style outlets.  Unhappily they are not internet connected, nor will they work on high speed connections. The pretty bag on the right is covered with miniature coiled phone cords.

The big safety pin hand bag was made by Inber, a NYC manufacturer, in the mid ’50s. It has a fun and surreal vibe. The smaller one is amusing, too. The jeweled bag was created in a “Martha Stewart” moment by Ms. Hochberg Wood. She had a metal bag covered in velvet that she decorated, or rather blanketed, with various vintage pieces. It’s a weighty bag! In fact, it’s so heavy it could deliver a knockout punch.

All of these bags were designed by Philip Treacy, the extremely creative hat designer to the Royals as well as fashionistas and style icons. While not well known for his bags, he should be. The images are approved by the Warhol Foundation, mixing art and commerce. Andy would approve.

Bags with travel themes are a fun part of the collection. Balloons, lists of cities and suggestions in needlepoint are only some of the many travel bags on display.

These are some of the incredible mixed media mid century plastic bags created by the artist O.E.L. Graves. He was an artist who had designed planes during WWII. He was known for watercolors, paintings and sculptures. His clients included movie stars and moguls. He worked in Palm Springs, and the bags were signed to the client O.E.L Graves Palm Springs. They are all one of a kind in more ways than one.

Bags in wood tend to be carved or shaped by hand. The two nude torso bags on the right were made circa 2000 by Timmy Woods, who works out of L.A. The long clutch is Ports 1961, and made of of very thin wood. The Love bag is lovely.

One of the most intriguing bags in the exhibit was made by Russel Bassett. A native of South Carolina, he ended up in Philadelphia, homeless. He used the skills he was taught at home and in the one room schoolhouse he attended, all the girls learned to use a hammer and a saw, and the boys learned how to sew. He scavenged his materials from construction sites and made wooden folk art bags, all lined in fabric he sewed himself. The pieces were sold in a shoe repair shop and a cart at the Philadelphia Airport. He was the subject of a documentary, and died in October 2019. The bags all come with a small booklet explaining his art. Hermes or Mr. Bassett? I would love to see the rest of the collection, as I think I have gotten hooked on handbags.

Visitors are toured through by a docent. You can book through the website, but the tours are frequent so you can drop in. Check out the hours before you go.

Kermerer Museum of Decorative Arts, 427 N. New Street, Bethlehem. Through April 30, 2020. PA.


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