Cyril Pigot-Kessler: Handbags as Artworks
Nowadays, handbags are treated like works of art. They are sought-after collectors’ pieces; some fans chase after a rare example for years on end. Large auction houses even have departments dedicated to auctioning these leather treasures. The prices they reach are astronomical. If that makes your mind boggle, then you should have a chat with Cyril Pigot-Kessler.
When Pigot-Kessler talks about handbags, his eyes light up. You may find that somewhat unusual, bearing in mind he’s a man. But he isn’t just any old man talking about any old handbags. He is a vintage and accessories expert at the prestigious auction house Christie’s. You can show him (apparent) treasures and ask for his expert opinion: masterfully crafted shoes, bags, scarves. For our interview he’s brought along a selection of handbags that will be going under the hammer at the next big auction at Christie’s in Paris. It isn’t a question of taste, explains Pigot-Kessler, but the craftsperson’s “real savoir-faire”.
On the basis of the stitching, for example, Pigot-Kessler can tell whether the craftsperson was right- or left-handed. But it’s not possible to identify a bag maker by a bag’s workmanship the way you can assign a painting to a painter. Instead, the artisanal ateliers of Hermès, Chanel and Louis Vuitton can be compared to Renaissance workshops like Raphael’s. “The artisans realize ideas by designers and artists, but they take a back seat behind their work,” says Pigot-Kessler. The brands are not keen on publishing their craftspeople’s names and hardly any photographs of them are published. That’s not without reason: for the ateliers of the various fashion houses those artisans are simply irreplaceable – and their skills are highly sought-after. Which is why discretion is essential.
The crafts themselves have barely changed since the ateliers were founded. The work is still done by hand, using the same tools and the same skills. And it’s that needlework that makes it possible for experts to identify whether a bag is genuine and where it was made. The designs and products of course change over time, even though fashion plays a minor role. “We’re talking about luxury,” he explains, “That goes far beyond what’s fashionable. People who invest in luxury want something that will last.”
The magic of art, craft and nature
Perfectly made bags pay homage to nature. Pigot-Kessler picks up a pink Birkin Bag in crocodile leather. Immediately a Christie’s employee rushes forward with a bag of white cotton gloves. After about two minutes of careful handling, the bag is open and Pigot-Kessler’s enthusiasm is palpable. “This pink is not just pink,” he explains, “it’s very rare because it has a slight blue shimmer. It’s a shade of blue. If you put something pink next to it, you’ll see just how blue the pink really is. It reflects blue light. It’s as though the bag has several colours. That’s the reason why I’m crazy about these bags.” Pigot-Kessler points to the small dots on the scales of a crocodile leather bag: they aren’t mistakes but natural perfection, so they must still be visible after the leather has been dyed. “A bag like this combines the magic of art, craft and nature. That’s what makes it so vibrant,” says the expert.
Another reason for the fascination that the ateliers arouse is their long tradition of collaborating with artists. That is what gave rise to their legendary designs and is how the boundaries between antique, practical object and artwork became blurred. “These bags”, says Pigot-Kessler, “are more a work of art than of craft.” Like the Micro Kelly by Hermès, an absolute collectible. Or pieces made of lizard skin, which are no longer produced. Or the 1991 Mini Constance. “And if you find an art deco clutch in your attic from 1925–30,” raves Pigot-Kessler, “with a little clock on it – they are drop-dead gorgeous!” Either guard them like long-lost treasure, or auction them for a fortune.