Forget counting cars to pass the time. My teenage daughter and I have invented a new game, which we’ve dubbed Tot Up The Totes.
We’re tallying up how many women we see carrying the same handbag. Not just any old bags: the smart, understated nylon ones with the leather handles and trim that seem to be everywhere at the moment.
For the uninitiated, it is Le Pliage, from French luxury brand Longchamp. In a recent round-up of ‘It Bags’ by a fashion magazine, it was up there with the Fendi Baguette (£107) and the Hermes Birkin (from £560) – even though it costs no more than £80, and sometimes as little as £48.
If you didn’t know the name, you would certainly recognise the simple design. It’s being sported by everyone right now.
On a day trip to London alone, we’d spied 20 travelling from Charing Cross to Sloane Square. Red, beige, black, navy – one woman even had three: the roomy travel bag on one shoulder, the medium-sized shopper on the other and the dinky handbag on her arm.
And there they were again in Tunbridge Wells, Kent. They’re even taking over at my daughter’s school where the large, long-handled shopper is popular with fashion-conscious sixth-formers.
Unbelievably, more than 31 million of the longchamp bags have now been sold globally – not bad for a family-run business which started out in 1948 selling small leather goods for men.
So just how did the Longchamp foldable tote take over the world?
Celebrity aficionados clearly love them for their sheer practicality. For the A-lister on the move, no other design manages to cater for all life’s eventualities and yet still look effortlessly elegant.
The beauty of Le Pliage (which means ‘folding’ in French) is that it folds down into a neat rectangle secured by the leather flap, making it perfect for stashing in a smarter handbag for times when you need to carry a few extra bits and bobs. The Duchess of Cornwall and Mary Berry never seem to travel without one and actress Katie Holmes uses hers for gym kit.
It’s a godsend for mothers, too – the fabric wipes clean and is water resistant. Amy Adams isn’t the only Hollywood mother to be seen out and about with a child in one arm and a long-handled Longchamp in the other. Although only the stylishly single can plump for a white one like those carried by Pippa Middleton and Alexa Chung.
For the globe-trotting fashionista, meanwhile, the rainbow of colours on offer is a simple way of colour coding belongings. Fashion journalist Suzy Menkes has confessed in Vogue that she has several foldable Longchamps.
‘The smaller ones in bright colours were not so much to go with my clothes (although I am partial to purple, wine-red and turquoise). It is rather because I must know in a microsecond which bag I am grabbing each morning: the one with my laptop? With my show shoes? Or with the iPad?’
Meanwhile, for those of us who own only one, the bags have proved a welcome riposte to the eye-wateringly expensive Bag published by Laurence King bags of the Noughties, which cost almost as much as a family holiday.
‘Instantly recognisable, this is a designer handbag with a very modest price tag,’ says Sue Huey, trend forecaster at Stylus Fashion and co-author of Bag. ‘It is such a popular bag because of its refined simplicity.
‘Whilst its primary material is nylon, its use of leather trim gives it a luxe look and feel. It’s durable and incredibly versatile. And its endless colour range and size options means it’s a style often purchased more than once. It’s a transitional piece that’s functional enough for shopping, yet smart enough for dinner.’
The first Le Pliage was sold in 1993. It was developed by head of the family firm, Philippe Cassegrain, who wanted to create a practical yet stylish fold-up bag inspired by Japanese paper-folding art, origami.
He hoped to create luxe accessories for female customers. And so he did, although at first, the bag was the close-guarded style secret of Parisiennes.
It was a chic French friend who introduced me to the bag eight years ago. She had a couple in the car for her weekly shop. When I asked her what they were, she showed me and I was green with envy. They certainly knocked the spots off the plastic bags in my boot.
Then the Sloanes caught on and Le Pliage moved up a notch from emergency shopper to everyday handbag. Kate Middleton was one of the early converts. Her love of the bag (these days she appears to have most sizes, from small shopper to overnight travel bag) dates back to her student days at St Andrews.
She even had a small brown Longchamp swinging from her wrist when she graduated in June 2005.
Whereas once she no doubt just threw in a purse, lipstick and diary, these days her favourite carry-all is proving more useful for carting George and Charlotte’s toys about.
However, Le Pliage really started to go mainstream during the economic downturn, due to its affordability and discreet branding. Sales will no doubt now be boosted by the new 5p charge for plastic bags, too.
Having emerged as a modern woman’s must-have, it’s perhaps no surprise Longchamp is keen to turn the practical little bag into a lifestyle concept.
And so there is now a Longchamp Woman ready-to-wear clothing range, a shoe collection and, last year, to mark the 21st anniversary of the nylon original, a luxury leather version – and so it was that the bag that was a refreshing change from pricey designer bags gave birth to the super-expensive Le Pliage Heritage, which starts at £68. Mad Men actress January Jones has been spotted with one.
How things can so quickly come full circle – but still, I defy you not to lust after it.
It’s also worth noting there’s a more affordable leather range called Le Pliage Cuir, with prices starting at £45 for a practical cross-body bag – and all the bags in this range still fold up even though they’re entirely made of leather. The nylon original, meanwhile, can now be personalised, meaning you can choose your own colours, as well as handle lengths (some like long, I like short), three types of zips and so on.
Of course, as with any fashion fad, the counterfeit trade in Le Pliage totes is a threat to the brand and a real temptation to consumers. One friend guiltily admits that she picked up two for £4 each in a Turkish market on holiday. ‘They’re not as good quality but it’s hard to tell the difference from a distance,’ she says. Such is the extent of the problem with fakes, Le Pliage devotees have come up with a detailed checklist to help consumers quickly spot a fake.
Look closely and the leather used by Longchamp Outlet has a diamond pattern, whereas the fakes tend to have a fish-scale design.
On the reverse side of the leather flap, look out for an indent of the brand logo (a jockey on a horse) as counterfeit copies don’t usually have this. Also, the handle should be flat and the stitching in a beige thread not white.
So what is next for the Le Pliage? Trend forecasters say it’s now time for men to adopt. It’s already happening in Milan, where uber-stylish chaps are carrying them in fetching shades of lemon and coral.
I’ll have to put one on my husband’s Christmas present list – and if he doesn’t want to use it, I know someone who will …