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Luxury in the bag
by Leslie Kay Lim

French luxury brand Cartier is known for many iconic things - the panther motif, the Love bracelet and the Tank watch. But leather goods? Not so much.

This may change as the brand works to quietly expand its profile in the bag world. Last month, Cartier launched its Louis Cartier and Jeanne Toussaint leather bag collections in Singapore.

Named after the brand founder's grandson and his muse, who later headed the Cartier jewellery department, the lines offer smooth leather bags free of embellishment and defined by a strongly structured look.

This is not the brand's first time working with leather goods, but Cartier director of leather creation Marlin Yuson explains it is its first foray into the high-end spectrum of bags.

"It is the finishing and details of the bag that make it really high-end," says the Paris-based designer, pointing out details that are not readily visible, such as completely smoothed edges and reinforcements in the flap that prevent eventual creases.

Available in sophisticated hues like cream, burgundy and black with clasps made of black lacquer and obsidian, the bags are clocking in with a higher price tag too, ranging from $2,840 for a clutch bag to $6,900 for a chain bag.

There is also an $18,600 model made with crocodile skin and calfskin leather. The previous range of bags started from around $1,000 onwards.

The brand declined to share what percentage of sales leather goods are currently responsible for.

Ms Yuson says the bags are deliberately simple and graphic in style, without obvious Cartier logos or references to the brand's jewellery pieces.

"We wanted to avoid literal translations from Cartier jewellery. I think it would have been too easy, and a bit gratuitous," says the elegant 50-year-old.

"Leather goods should have a foundation that can stand on their own, which is very pure and graphic."

It is an evolution from Cartier's perhaps most recognisable bag so far, the Marcello, which Ms Yuson designed in 2007. Priced roughly between $1,000 and $2,000, the Marcello featured the Cartier logo squarely in front.

"I think the best compliment would be that someone sees the bag and thinks it is a beautiful bag first, before thinking of it as a Cartier bag," she says of the new collections.

For Ms Yuson, who has been with Cartier since 2002, designing a bag begins usually with the leathers themselves and imagining what kind of bag they would suit most.

The bag must be "light and practical", adds the American and French dual citizen, shaking her head with a smile as she describes how people never carry heavy or compartment-less bags, however beautiful.

In the designer's mind, the Cartier woman embodies an attitude that is chic with an edge, like legendary French fashion director Carine Roitfeld.

While others may see the brand as more conservative, it actually has an edgy past led by an unconventional woman, reveals Ms Yuson. The namesake Jeanne Toussaint, nicknamed The Panther, was also allegedly Louis Cartier's mistress.

The designer says in her journey so far with Cartier, she has helped to shape a graphic-ness to the look of the bags, while respecting and utilising different codes of the house when appropriate.

"I have free reign but sometimes have to be reigned in," she jokes.

While she has a lot of ideas, the fact that the brand releases major bag launches only every two years means her ideas have to be whittled down and scrutinised.

The designer, who began her career in ready-to-wear and worked at fashion brands including Salvatore Ferragamo, Polo Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein, says accessories are her true love.

"I've designed everything from umbrellas and hosiery to handkerchiefs and eyewear. I love the technical aspect of accessories and the fact that I learn new things all the time."

She has plenty more ideas for Cartier too. "In the future, I'd like to explore more sporty, casual and colourful collections. Still streamlined and elegant but less formal."

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This article was first published on August 1, 2014.
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