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Denim Bayswater, £650, Mulberry
Remember how simple life was when there were just a handful of It Bags - the Fendi Baguette, Dior's Lady Di, anything quilted post-1983 by Chanel (ironically, the most covetable Chanel now is the classic 55, designed 30 years earlier) or a cylindrical tote by Louis Vuitton in the classic monogram fabric?
Then every designer on the planet created an It Bag, making it not only impossible to choose, but impossibly expensive, since each one cost a stratospheric sum that was all about status rather than quality or materials. Gradually, aesthetics took second place to gargantuan logos, chains, padlocks, buckles, bows and - possibly, hidden among all the luxuriant fringing - a small kitchen sink.
Then, just when it seemed bags couldn't get any vaster or more ludicrously over-embellished, along came the recession, and suddenly the overblown It Bag was horribly passé.
And while it may still be fine to own a bag by Mulberry or Smythson, there is a slew of high-street names selling bags which are desirable, well made and affordable. What's more, they may inspire "I love your bag"-type compliments from even the savviest handbag hound, since there are so many designer bags that only the accessories editor at Grazia can tell an M&S from a Miu Miu.
V River Island and Zara are the high street stars for fabulous bags at under £100. River Island's current collection includes a vintage-inspired, navy-and-white striped frame bag with tan handles at £39.99; a strappy black and white tote at £34.99; a designer-esque white ruched tote at £39.99 and some very on-trend bum-bags, including a studded one at £24.99. Zara has gone for slouchy shapes - a sumptuous mushroom bag in suede with leather handles and straps, and a light tan one with a flap, tassle and plaited strap, both £69. Marks & Spencer can be hit-and-miss, but their range includes a pretty, ladylike frilled bag from Per Una at £25, a bold animal-print tote with studs at £35, and an animal print bum-bag with tan straps. Jane Norman has some pricey looking bags this season, too, including a stylish tan tote with studs at £28.
£150 to £350
V Reiss and Karen Millen are the stand-out names in this price range. Reiss has just opened a stand-alone accessories shop in Great Titchfield Street near Oxford Circus, dripping with desirable totes, handbags and clutches, many of which could hold their own against a Prada or Gucci. Covetable summer bags include a woven drawstring shape in nude at £195, and a drawstring bucket bag in snake at £245. Karen Millen has some delicious bags for spring, including a slouchy tan eyelet one at £185, and a roomy tote in yellow patent, £150. A classic take on studs, the season's de rigueur trim comes from French Connection, with a roomy, double-handle structured tote in black suede at £160. John Lewis, House of Fraser and Fenwick are good hunting grounds for bags in this price range, too, stocking Lulu Guiness, Coccinelle, Fiorelli, Tula, Radley and DKNY - labels which all produce on-trend bags that won't overstretch the plastic.
Upwards of £500
V Recession or not, if you want to spend more than £500 on a bag, you would have no problem doing so. While even the most recherché designer label can no longer truthfully claim there is a "waiting lists" for a style (if , indeed, they ever could) the market for pricey bags is buoyant, the splurge justified on the premise that it is an investment. The Mulberry oversized Beatrice Hobo in mushroom (£795) emphatically qualifies in this category, being timeless as well as irresistible, as does a slouchy Marni bag with eyelet detail in pale caramel (£840 at Browns). And then there is the multi-colour python bag by Zagliani, also at Browns. While unconscionably expensive at £1,870, it would match everything, is appropriate for summer and winter, daytime and dining out. And if you used it every day for 10 years, it works out at less than 50p a wear. But the enemy of investment buying is boredom. So unless you have an ennui threshold as tall as the Heron Tower, don't delude yourself. Buy cheap, buy often…