Not my bag
My dirty little unfashionable secret.
We run out of small talk as we wait for the movie star to arrive.
I ask if anyone wants coffee, and survey the side table. There’s a platter of smoked salmon, another of cheese and cold cuts. Baskets of muffins and bagels are flanked by ramekins of jam and cream cheese, none of which will be touched. No one eats in LA. They do, though, have meetings, and my colleagues and I are here to do just that, with a famous actress who’s just signed on to do an ad campaign with us.
As I pour my coffee, the actress walks in, looking even sunnier and prettier than she does onscreen. She, like the muffins, is flanked, but not by cream cheese and jam. A manager and agent stand on either side of her, one looking bored, the other annoyed.
The actress surveys the teas and seems troubled.
“Is there no ginger tea?” she asks, and the room stops, as if we have all let her down. I stare at the table, as if to divine some, when, magically, a little basket of the desired tea is brought in by an assistant. The actress smiles and all is not only well, but million-dollar well.
Everyone stands as we shake hands. The actress wears a white t-shirt, jeans and ballet flats, and I feel overdressed in the pretty shift and pointy mules I spent a fortune on.
I make my way back to my chair, when the annoyed-looking agent slips into it. It would seem peevish to say “that’s my seat,” so I linger for a second. She either doesn’t notice my notepad and water, or doesn’t care. I’d bet on the latter. As I take a new seat, she ducks to place her handbag in the spot where mine sits. I hear the plunk of leather on leather.
“Who’s is this?” she asks, holding my bag aloft.
“Mine,” I confess, as if I’d parked on her lawn.
She eyes it, squinting in a way that makes me nervous.
“Is it Mulberry?” she asks.
This moment is bad for two reasons. First, I have no idea what Mulberry is. Second, my bag is from Club Monaco and I know those two words won’t impress this crowd. I think it’s pretty, and reason that the agent must like it too, or she wouldn’t be asking about it. She stares at me, waiting for an answer and suddenly it seems that whether or not my bag is Mulberry is of critical importance to everyone at the table. In a sudden paranoid moment, I wonder if she means “Mayberry,” as in the small town where The Andy Griffith Show took place. Could this be some bitchy way of making fun of my bag? Like, “oh, that’s so Mayberry?”
I hear myself say, “I don’t think so,” which makes almost no sense.
Everyone looks confused and my colleagues eye me, because, clearly, I’ve just brought the group average down.
The agent passes my Not-Mulberry to the person next to her as if it’s a dead rat. It’s passed down the table, until my satchel of shame reaches me. I place it at my feet where it belongs.
I hate handbags.
Or, at the very least, I don’t understand them. But I do know that they’re used as a gauge of style, power, and success. And since I’m bound to go to more meetings with scary agents, I need to up my game.
My friends, especially my work friends, seem to understand what I don’t. They show up with new bags draped over their shoulders or tucked into the crooks of their arms, and I never notice. Until others do. And then I smile and try to say the right things.
One day, my friend and work partner Jackie gets a new handbag. I notice it, not because of the bag itself, but because of the way she sets it down. She places it. Like a beloved baby. And gives it a little tap.
“Is that new?” I ask.
She looks sheepish. “I had to,” she says. “I decided it was a present to myself.”
I nod as if I understand and I so wish I did. If it were a dress, I’d get it. Dresses are on you - they touch your skin - you sashay around in them. Handbags, as far as I can tell, are good for two things - entering rooms and leaving them. At those moments, tucked into an armpit, or clutched in a well-manicured hand, gorgeous bags make major statements. But, in the time between, it seems to me, these coveted handbags simply sit, like pretty bores, with nothing to say. They take up space on entry tables or chairs. Some perch on little stools in restaurants, like well-behaved French children.
Jackie loves good handbags and takes care of them in a way I truly admire. And she looks so happy. So I tell her the truth.
“You totally deserve it. And it’s gorgeous.”
It is. Even I can see that. Its cream-colored pebbled leather is fine and rich, and its gold metal accents look quietly expensive. I love Jackie’s style, and in truth, I think I mimic it. I spend more money than I should on the little black dresses, gold chains and suede boots that we’ve both adopted as uniforms. But when it comes to bags, I barely know a Hobo from a Birken.
By afternoon, Jackie’s bag has visitors, as if she’s adopted an adorable rescue dog.
“I heard you got it,” a friend sing-songs as she approaches our work area.
“Oh my god, I’ve been coveting that exact bag for months,” says another.
“Let me see it on you,” a third says.
Jackie hoists it to her shoulder and I have to admit - she looks chic, confident, put together. Successful. Which she always does. And the bag completes her, the way beautifully-painted shutters complete a house.
Cries of “perfect!” and “love!” fill the air.
I smile and echo their words, in what I hope is a convincing manner. How is it that they all seem to know so much more about this than me? I’m pretty sure I look as fashionable as they do. And I’ve read every issue of Vogue for the past ten years. And yet. My shutters make me shudder.
Over the years, I upgrade from Club Monaco to Coach, but I impress no one. Jackie and I no longer work together, and I miss her. She’d be nice about my Coach, despite the curtain that hangs between it and the bags in first class.
One day, at a client meeting, a stylist walks in and the room stops.
“You got it,” says one client with an approving smile.
The stylist closes her eyes and nods with a guilty smile. “I had to,” she says.
“Actively worshipping you,” says another client, and I say “same here,” wondering if they can tell I’m lying.
That night, I have drinks with my most successful friend and tell her about it.
“What kind of bag was it?” she asks.
“I have no idea,” I say, “and that’s part of the problem - I don’t know one bag from another.” I take a sip of my drink. “I mean, my favorite bag is from Cos and I love it,” I say, adding that I’m never sure whether Cos is pronounced with a short or long “o,” but she isn’t listening.
“Look,” she says, “You need a good handbag. Not this Cos thing, I’m sorry.”
“But why?” I ask. “Why do I need to spend all this money on something I don’t care about?”
“You know what?” she says. “I deal with the same assholes you do.”
“Your assholes are bigger than mine,” I say and she acknowledges this truth, but continues.
“When I have a meeting with a big muckety-ass, I doll up, and walk in with my big-ass Balenciaga. And, let me tell you, I plop that damned thing down, and they know they can’t mess with me.”
I’ve never plopped. And I’m filled with admiration; and not just over her ability to say “ass” after almost every word and make it sound good.
“And they know this from your bag?” I ask.
“They know it from the way I carry my bag,” she says. “With the confidence of someone who’s earned it. Someone they can’t push around.” She lets that sink in, and then adds, “You’re a big-ass creative director. You deserve a big-ass bag.”
This is the first time I (sort of) get it.
“God. My mother never taught me handbag stuff,” I say.
“Your mother was a teacher,” she says. “She didn’t need this bullshit.” Her voice softens. “But you do. And this is where your friends come in.”
The next day, I corner my most fashionable friend at the office. She has the kind of quiet chic that’s so subtle, you might miss it, if she weren’t so beautiful.
“How do you do it?” I ask. “The shoes, the bags, the clothes…”
“You mean, how do I afford it?” she asks, and I’m relieved by her frankness. She smiles with a tenderness I’ve never seen, tucks a strand of shiny black hair behind an ear, and tells me her secrets. Her Hermes handbag? She snorts a little laugh. The Real Real. Half off. The dress she’s wearing is from The Outnet. And her boots? “Sample sale.” Oh, and her hair? Keratin. She gives me the name of her person.
I scribble notes like an eager college freshman. Buoyed, I ask other women for help and their generosity floors me.
One friend tells me how to track sales. Another gives me the name of a company that makes Chanel knock-off’s so good no one can tell. I jump in. And little by little, I learn my way around.
I still don’t exactly get bags, but I buy one, for a third its actual price (thank you, Real Real!) It’s not exactly big-ass, but it’s not small-ass either. And I have to admit, I feel good as I march through the lobby on my way to a client meeting.
I get into the elevator, thinking about my upcoming Plop. Will I stop the room when I put it down? Will I give a guilty little smile and say “I just had to?” There’s a gentle tap on my shoulder and I turn to see a young woman.
“Your label is sticking out,” she says softly. “I mean, in case you want to know.” I meet her kind eyes. And there it is. The generosity of a woman who won’t let another go out into the world not looking her best.
Women watch out for each other. Maybe it’s because we know how it feels to walk down the street with a skirt stuck into the strap of a handbag. Or to have one of those stupid hanger loops sticking out of the neckline of a dress. Or lipstick on a tooth. Or a piece of lint on a boob.
Or maybe, it’s because we know what it is to stand in front of a roomful of people who judge us, not only by what we say, but by how we look. And we want to protect each other.
Once, Jackie and I presented a big campaign to a roomful of important clients who were not impressed. During a break, she steered me into the bathroom and told me to lift my arms. The horror of the meeting was right there, staining my lovely celery-colored silk dress a very dark green below each of my arms. Jackie grabbed paper towels and swatted my armpits with the fierceness of a mother who doesn’t want her child to be made fun of. And then smiled, with the tenderness of a friend.
“Just keep them down,” she said softly. “I’ll hold the boards up.” She looked me in the eye and added, “You’re doing great out there. And you look pretty.”
Women who look out for each other are the best. And they tend to show up when you need them.
For every “Is this Mulberry” there’s a “your label is sticking out.”
For every woman who takes your seat, there’s one who tells you her shopping secrets.
And for every time fashion is mean, there’s a stylish friend who’s willing to swipe at your armpits with paper towels.
I tuck my label in.
And smile at the woman in the elevator.
She’s holding a little handbag and nothing else - no computer, no presentation materials. Her slightly too-put-together outfit screams “interview.” I tell her she looks great.
And then add that I love her handbag.
It’s kind of a lie, since I still don’t really care about handbags. But I want to say something nice, and it would be weird to say the real truth.
Which is that I love her.
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