Originally Posted by New York Times Big Pockets, No Pants
By Penelope Green
Published: November 22, 1998
HERE are some of the things you can fit into Helmut Lang's holster bag, though not all at the same time: a Penguin paperback, a rolled-up decorating magazine, a reporter's notebook, a cellular phone, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a box of Uniball pens, a banana, your hand. (It will not hold a newspaper or a legal pad or a can of soda or a laptop computer.)
The bag, which is made of thin cotton, straps around your waist with a wide Velcro band and around your left leg with a slim little cord. You step into it like a pair of pants, and it hangs loosely on your hip like a tool belt or a gun holster.
It is an extraordinarily useful piece of equipment, especially when worn in conjunction with one of Mr. Lang's belt bags -- or try two! -- and his arm pouches, which are the size of cigarette packs and fit around an arm with wide elastic bands.
When all these bags are deployed around your body, with your stuff nicely distributed among them and easily accessible, you'll look a bit odd, like a gun-packing waitress on Rollerblades, but you'll be functioning in some sort of perfect ergonomic zone.
You might feel like the narrator of Nicholson Baker's book ''The Mezzanine,'' full of the self-importance that comes from needing all the things that are contained in all the pouches. ''Of course, that was the principal reason you needed little bags,'' Mr. Baker writes. ''They kept your purchases private, while signaling to the world that you led a busy, rich life, full of pressing errands to run.''
Mr. Lang's holster bag, which will go on sale early next year, is one of a number of utilitarian ''body'' bags -- that is, bags that are worn strapped to the body like vests or belts -- being made by a number of designers right now. Bottega Veneta makes a holster vest bag in white deerskin that fits under a jacket or shirt. Miu Miu, Prada's secondary line, has a canvas vest bag, as well as a waist holster bag; Prada itself has belt bags. Dolce & Gabbana have both vest and waist holster bags. Missoni and Ann Demeulemeester make belt bags; Versace, wrist pouches.
The fact that these designers showed these sorts of bags at exactly the same time -- during the recent shows of their spring collections -- feels like one of those fashion conspiracies. It's as if all the designers had a meeting one day and said: ''O.K. guys, forget cargo pants. This year, we're gonna make pockets. Just pockets this time. Cargos without the pants. Get it?''
(Presumably Ralph Lauren missed this particular meeting, and that is why he will soon be alone in selling silk Shantung cargo pants and bikini underwear with cargo pockets.)
Last year's conspiracy, the great cargo pants hoax, roped in most of the garment industry, from Chanel to Baby Gap. One friend said wickedly, ''Babies need cargo pants -- they have a lot to schlep.'' The New Yorker ran a cartoon last summer with the punch line: ''You don't get an office. You get cargo pants.'' In its current catalogue, J. Crew offers cargo pants with the line, ''More than an attitude, they're pants with drawers.'' If cargo pants were last year's metaphor for contemporary culture, which is increasingly nomadic and equipment-dependent, then body bags are the inevitable follow-up act.
''It's very American, this carrying tradition,'' said Richard Martin, director of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The companies whose bags look most alike deny collusion. ''It is the designer's job to feel the needs of society, and this time that is what we felt people wanted,'' Stefano Gabbana said in a faxed answer to a question.
''Those ideas weren't forced,'' said Laura Moltedo, the president and creative director of Bottega Veneta. ''They made sense to us.'' Miuccia Prada declined to be interviewed for this article. Mr. Lang said he has been making the bags for sale in Japan since 1996.
Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president for fashion direction at Bloomingdale's, chuckled at the idea of a fashion conspiracy. ''That's the mystery of fashion,'' he said, ''I really do think these things are in the air.'' Mr. Ruttenstein sent a buyer to Asian factories in the weeks following the Helmut Lang show; he hopes to have a Bloomingdale's label line of body bags in his stores by February. ''I hear that somebody in London is making them for immediate delivery,'' he said.
Does it matter who was first? Who knows? What is true is that because high fashion right now is directly inspired by what young people are doing, as it was in the 1960's and 70's, the idea of something's being ''in the air'' is more concrete than it sounds. Young people (do they know that entire retail empires hinge on every stylistic twitch?) start little trend fires -- cargo pants, surf T-shirts, messenger bags -- and fashion smells the smoke and alters course, searching for that all-important street credibility.
''Post-modern theorists see the elusiveness of authenticity as the fundamental crisis of our age,'' Ted Polhemus wrote in his 1994 book ''Streetstyle'' (Thames & Hudson). Put another way, fashion purveyors are looking for the right to boast, My stuff is realer than your stuff.
So who's making the real thing these days? Where is ground zero for the strap-on pocket? It may be in London, at the Soho gallery and clothing shop run by Vexed Generation, a four-year-old British group that makes witty urban ''war'' gear -- fleeces with Ninja hoods, parkas made with heavy nylon to deflect flying glass shards and pockets big enough to stow a gas mask and, most important, very distinctive body bags. Among the globe-trotting fashion pack, the stuff is all the rage.
''Our thing initially was to make clothes in reaction to the erosion of civil liberties in Britain,'' said Adam Thorpe, 29, who runs Vexed Generation with his partner, Joe Hunter, 31. ''We wanted to parody British police riot gear,'' he said. Still, the protective nylon was real enough, as was the kidney and crotch padding in the group's pants and parkas, which were manufactured and worn initially, Mr. Thorpe said, by friends who ran a relief organization in Sarajevo.
It used to be that well-educated young people with something to say made paintings or staged performance pieces. Now, it seems, they make clothes. Vexed Generation's outsider status bloomed in a gallery space, where the group formed a loose collaborative of artists and musicians, selling clothes and showing art. They also made one extremely desirable bag: a well-padded, boxlike backpack with a strap that runs diagonally across the chest. (You can find it in Manhattan today at a new store, Nylon Squid -- another British import.)
''Everyone ripped it off,'' said Katherine Betts, fashion news director of Vogue. ''We wrote about it last June, and in the same issue Miu Miu had an ad with the identical bag.''
The second bag Vexed Generation made was a vest bag called the Vexed Shopper -- ''a combination bulletproof vest and shopping bag,'' as Mr. Thorpe put it. It's a smart-looking bag, heftier than those you'll soon be seeing when the designers' spring collections hit the department stores, but instantly recognizable.
Authenticity on this side of the Atlantic is currently making its home on Elizabeth Street, east of SoHo, where you can buy any number of body bags. Wander into Orfi, a store whose name stands for Organization for Returning Fashion Interest, and you'll find pockets tucked into scarves and four different kinds of belt bags.
''Fashion is the outward pimple on the face of everything that we're up to,'' said Scott Kruger, a member of Orfi. Orfi is -- guess what? -- a loose collaborative that includes Mr. Kruger, an architect; Don Hearn, also an architect, and Ana Gonzalez, a philosophy student turned clothing designer. Mr. Kruger said he and his partners were interested in poking at ''existing norms, good or bad.''
Orfi makes street-inspired men's and women's clothing, which means a lot of cargo pants and pea jackets and garments made of packing cloth. A few weeks ago, Mr. Hearn was down in the store's workroom, fooling with a prototype for a new vest bag, which looked like a photographer's equipment vest and a little like the military jacket Mr. Hearn had brought in for inspiration.
Maybe it doesn't matter who made the first body bag, or the ''realest'' body bag. Perhaps what we're seeing is the death throes of the status pocketbook. In any case, how refreshing to note a trend in bags that you can't see too well, that are purely utilitarian and that cost less than $500; Helmut Lang's holster bag, for instance, will retail for about $155. Kelly bag, begone!
''We are moving away from the bag as fetish object, I think,'' Mr. Kruger said.
But Ms. Betts of Vogue is not so sure. ''I think people are just going to fetishize these little bags,'' she said. ''People will fetishize anything you put in front of them. Anyway, soon it's not going to be about bags anymore. I just saw the spring shoe collections, and you know the way there was this handbag mania last year? Well, now it's going to be shoes, the weirder the better. Some of them are so weird they don't even look like shoes.''
Are you ready for it? My shoes are weirder than your shoes.