Rue Cambon, Paris: the site of the first shop opened by Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, that pioneer of fashion who combined unparalleled chic with uncompromising practicality. Her most famous bag was the 2.55, replete with hidden pockets, useful compartments and the first real shoulder chain to be used in stylish circles.
In the same Paris street this week, the Saudi princess Reema Bandar Al Saud revealed her fourth collection of bags under the name Baraboux and although she would demur from such a comparison, there’s something of the same spirit in her collection.
These are not the gem-encrusted fripperies that one might expect from a woman of exalted birth. Quite the opposite: Baraboux offers bags honed from years of travel, formed in a self-confessed “OCD” mind, that offer everything that a modern woman would need in a bag, but with a healthy respect for beautiful, crafted design.
Each of the totes and travel bags, which are made in Florence, features neat pockets designed for the modern accoutrements – two phones, business cards, a space for an iPad or tablet, and so on – as well as a slender envelope-shaped “pochette” that neatly slots into the top as a useful pocket for the day and slides out as a glam clutch for evening. They come in everything from canvas to snakeskin to sequins: the same functional approach for women of very different tastes. This is, says Princess Reema, a tribe of sorts.
“It’s the tribe of the mobile woman. We all have very different lifestyles and different quirks, but every woman wants to access her phone easily, every woman wants to be able to downsize and upsize without having to carry 100 things, which is where the idea of each of these totes comes in. This works if you’re an executive, it works if you’re a mum, it works if you’re travelling ... It’s a modern toolkit for a chic woman. And we’re all neo-nomads. We’re going from home to the office to school with the kids, on a plane, to a different city.”
Princess Reema is as much a bag engineer as a designer – and this season, the stylist, journalist and all-round fashion darling Caroline Issa took charge of the style, creating what Princess Reema says is the first Baraboux collection that she has felt is completely coherent, inspired by the colours and graphic shapes of the artist Mondrian.
“I’m the creative director,” she explains, “so there are the thoughts that come into my head and then phenomenally talented people who interpret that to make it make commercial sense.”
However self-deprecating that description, though, it’s Princess Reema’s character that comes through, with the commercial sense of the woman who operates Harvey Nichols Riyadh; the intense attention to detail of a childhood stationery obsessive; and the practical experience of a constantly travelling businesswoman and mother of two. Her background made this enterprise almost inevitable.
“Everybody on my mother’s side is a little bit OCD. We straighten things everywhere we go,” she says. “And growing up, we were based in Washington DC, but we basically lived out of a suitcase, because my father kept us very firmly rooted back home, so any occasion that happened, a wedding, a celebration, we were on the next flight out. We saw a lot of the world and my father’s background was military, so it taught us punctuality, organisation and the idea that you take with you what you need.”
She also draws on the Bedouin tradition for her designs, but in function rather than style.
“The Bedouin tribes would only take what they could carry and what was useful to them. If it didn’t fit into those two categories, they left it behind. Women do the same thing.”
She does, though, resist any attempt by others to categorise Baraboux as a “Middle Eastern” brand.
“Am I a ‘local’ designer? I don’t think so: I’m the creative director, and I work with an Italian lady and produce in Italy. So where do I fall in the world?” she says. “I happen to be from Saudi, I happen to be Middle Eastern, I happen to be a woman, I happen to be a mother – there’s a lot of ‘happens’ – which one would you like me to be?
“If people want to put me or any other Arab women into a box, there are plenty of boxes you can put us in, but it doesn’t mean we’ll be happy to sit there, because you know what? I’ll make my own box.”
Has she reinvented the wheel? She readily admits that she hasn’t, but for those used to rummaging in bottomless handbags or struggling to fit both a phone and a lipstick into a clutch, her approach is a reminder that women don’t need to suffer bad design in the cause of femininity.
“It’s small innovations to make a woman-friendly product line,” she says. “We just made things a little bit better.”