Friday, February 27, 2009

Fashion DNA: Gucci Bamboo

I'm always interested to see how those at the helm of today's great design houses employ the motifs and signature materials of the brand's past. Karl Lagerfeld famously sketched out the handful of emblems that inform Chanel, including the camellia and the cross-backed Cs. I've talked earlier on this blog about Celine's linked chains.

Today, the spotlight is on Gucci, which has made bamboo a signature element of its bags since 1947, when founder Guccio Gucci first used it as a handle on a leather purse. The question: why would a Florentine saddle purveyor employ a material far better known in the Far East as a decorative element?

Initial digging around the internet doesn't yield much. I suspect there's a good story here (fashion historians get on it!). The little I've found: bamboo's natural beauty, ready-finished natural state, low cost, pliability, and extreme strength means it can be used for pratically anything. In Scandanavia, for example, bamboo has been used for ski poles. In the Far East, stouter versions of the grass are used as scaffolding in construction. Centuries ago, Hindu royalty boasted their rank through the length of the bamboo handles on their umbrellas. In Bangladesh today, 73% of the population lives in houses made of bamboo. You can fish with it, walk on it, wear it, tattoo with it, even eat it: bamboo shoots are tasty, and not just for pandas.

But back to the question. How did Guccio Gucci first hit on the idea of using it as a handle for fine handbags? A guess: at some point, maybe during his formative stays in London and Paris, he saw some Japanese Ikebana baskets, which make an art out of woven bamboo strips and gracefully curved bamboo handles. These would have been displayed as art objects in Europe with "Japonisme", the love affair with Japanese design, that swept through the capitals in the early part of the century. And so a signature emblem was born. Maybe.

As for the practicality of bamboo handles on bags, there's a hilarious discussion on the subject over at The Fashion Spot. The upshot: beautiful but unyielding bamboo and fashionably bony shoulders do not get along! The moral: as long as you're not a panda, a little bite of bamboo goes a long way.

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