Way before bamboo cutlery and clothing were a thing, the humble and hardy material had already claimed its place firmly in the fashion arena.
The year was 1947. The world was making its cautious way out of the Second World War, and Guccio Gucci – founder and fashion designer of the House of Gucci – found himself challenged by a shortage of leather. He turned to bamboo – a material readily available and imported from Japan at the time – and found a way to heat it, bend it, treat it and lacquer it into beautiful handles for bags made of pigskin leather.
The exotic-looking bags were hailed by fashion critics as artisanal and innovative, and loved by women for their practical size and eye-catching bamboo detail. When the bag was featured in the film Viaggio in Italia in 1954, carried on the arm of actress Ingrid Bergman, the “made in Italy bag with the bamboo handle” became an instant hit – and the Gucci Bamboo Handle Bag was born.
In keeping with its handcrafted status, every bamboo handle is different, but they are all born of the same meticulous process. Only the most perfect and unblemished pieces of bamboo pass the inspection of Gucci craftsmen to be made into bag handles; the bamboo is softened and heated over open fire to mould them into the semi-circles, then coated in several layers of lacquer, and finally “toasted” to achieve an artistically burnished finish.
Top clients around the world were once offered the opportunity to customise their Gucci Bamboo Handle bags with exotic skins such as snake, crocodile or lizard, but this service has since been discontinued – making such customised bags even rarer collectibles.
Opening their coveted wardrobes to A Magazine as Gucci relaunches its Bamboo Handle bags as Ingrid 1947, these three collectors share how they started on their own Gucci Bamboo Handle bag journeys, and what it means to be a bastion for their artisanal creators.
Lotus Soh, Socialite
Always meticulously turned out, not only with her style but also her manners intact, Lotus is a familiar face on the society circuit. The petite and fashion-conscious lady never leaves the house without hair and makeup done – “Yes, I do sometimes even wear platform wedges with jeans when I go to Newton Hawker Centre!” she shares with a laugh – and always appears photo-ready.
To her, a handbag is a fashion necessity that completes a look. “It shows someone’s personality more than jewellery does, because it’s about how you wear the entire outfit.” With an eye for detail and perfection honed from years of fashion, jewellery and accessory purchasing, she says the first thing that catches her attention when buying a bag is its colour, then shape.
Out of her overflowing, temperature-controlled and colourful wardrobe where she pulled out not two, not three but 10 Gucci Bamboo Handle bags for our shoot, a multicoloured snakeskin version stands out. There is also an ostrich skin bag in Lotus’ favourite turquoise colour, and a boutique-worthy variety of other colours to round out the group. Most of her collection are exotic skin versions, and she tells us she prefers waiting a few months for these orders rather than buying off-the-shelf bags which anyone can own.
“My Gucci Bamboo Handle bags are just the right size for me,” she adds. “They look small, but they’re very roomy and can fit many things. Plus, they can go easily from day to night, which saves me the hassle of changing bags when my social calendar is too busy.” Thinking back, she says regretfully that her very first Gucci Bamboo Handle bag was purchased around 50 years ago, and she gave it away when she thought it went out of style.
“Now that I have embossed some of the bags with my name, I guess I can’t just give them away!” she says with a laugh. “I will give them to my daughter or granddaughter instead.”
Karen Soh, Medical Director Singapore, Laser Clinics Asia
When we peek into Dr Karen Soh’s made-to-order crocodile Gucci Bamboo Handle bag, we see the initials “K. Siow” embossed within. The initials are not only a reference to her married name, but are also the initials of her daughter Kayleigh – to whom Karen intends to pass the bag when she’s ready to use it.
“Passing on to my daughter a handbag which I’ve used, cared for and which has served me well, is quite meaningful to me,” says Karen. She reasons that clothes and shoes may not fit, either figure- or style-wise, when she is ready to share them – but a classic design like the Gucci Bamboo Handle bag, which also has a story behind its creation, adds to its legacy as a fashion heirloom.
Both of Karen’s Gucci Bamboo Handle bags are custom-designed exotic skin versions. Her first, the dark brown crocodile version, was ordered in Paris at Gucci’s Rue di Rivoli store some 15 years ago. “I had to wait six months for it to be made, then fly up to Paris again to collect it. I still remember the excitement of seeing it for the first time!” she shares, adding, “The bag is very practical, roomy, and its convenient clasp-flap design makes it so easy for me to access my things inside.”
Speaking of roomy, both her Gucci Bamboo Handle bags are in the large size that she prefers. “Somehow, I like my bags to be of a certain size,” she says. “I don’t really go for tiny bags that can’t fit much in them. I also don’t have a penchant for logo-ed designs – with the exception of this (she gestures to her jacket for the photo shoot) which I bought at Gucci Garden on a recent trip to Italy.”
Karen travels with her precious bags, too – sharing that she would plan her outfits and accessories so that “we will look good in our travel pictures which are keepsakes as well!”. Having taken different bags on her trips, she shares with a wink that she now knows very well which bags are better made than others – and it’s not about the brand or price. “I really ‘use’ my Gucci Bamboo Handle bags, yet they are so low-maintenance and sturdy. I think that says it all, about why I choose to hand these down to my daughter!”
Ashley Woo, Director, BioAcumen Global Pte Ltd
Ashley Woo breezes into the room like a petite dynamo with her blunt-cut bangs and acid yellow outfit, greeting our crew with a chirpy, “Hello!”. Her all-black Gucci Bamboo Handle bag, slung across her body, is offset by the bright colour to stand out even more. She plops down onto the sofa and brandishes another of her limited edition
Bamboo Handle bags, this one from Gucci’s 100th anniversary Aria Collection – a mini and vibrant iteration in stark contrast to the ombre bag but very much in keeping with her cheerful personality. “It was too cute and hard to resist,” she sighs in mock surrender.
“I’m not someone who buys what’s trendy. I like to look for something unique,” she adds. “I’ve recently put in an order for a custom bag in horse hair – I can’t wait to collect it!”
For someone who only recently started her Gucci Bamboo Handle bag collection, she is an engaged client who knows clearly what she wants from her custom design. “To me, the Gucci brand is flamboyant, not cliché, but an Italian heritage kind of loud,” she shares candidly. Before the pandemic, she had travelled “many times” to Italy, but it was in Singapore that she made her first Bamboo Handle bag purchase from Gucci after first being a ready-to-wear fan.
Confessing to being a magazine junkie from her school days, Ashley says she used to spend all her pocket money on fashion rags. “That was where I learned about brands, trends and styles,” she shares. Today, the Instagram native professes that social media is where she gleans ideas and keeps up to date with her penchant for fashion.
Explaining her choice of the all-black Bamboo Handle bag, she says chooses handbags for functionality and flexibility of style. “Especially with a very colourful outfit, sometimes I just want something more classic to go with it.” Her fashion choices are dictated by her moods: “I can be sort of rock-y with a skirt, but on other days I just like an edgy pantsuit. My handbag accessorises the look.
“When younger, I used to go for those bigger, more hobo type of bag because it was cool at the time. Now it’s still cool, but we don’t really have many things to carry around, so there’s no point!”