Behind the Bao Bao

Behind the Bao Bao

Described as “a perennial favourite among architects and designers” (Dezeen), the shiny, multifaceted Bao Bao bag is one of the world’s most distinctive and mysterious handbags.

Chances are you’ve spotted one sparkling in a store window in Tokyo or Hong Kong, or seen one draped around a shoulder while you were travelling, once.

Or perhaps you’ve heard about the months-long waiting lists for these creations in New York and Tokyo, or read about entire Issey Miyake stores selling out within days of receiving new Bao Bao collections.

To the outsider, it’s almost like these bags are laced with some secret, delicious drug. 

And while it’s nigh on impossible to explain the ethereal wonder of champagne to someone who hasn’t tasted it yet, one can only try.

Created by fixing small triangles of multi-layer polyvinyl and jersey to mesh fabric, the Bao Bao bag is both an experiment in conceptual design and a fashion statement.

The work of one of the most influential designers of the century, Japan’s Issey Miyake, the premise of the bag’s design is simple: “shapes made by chance.” The idea is that the Bao Bao’s interlocking, geometric design allows it to transform and change as it moves, is filled up, and is put down.

Conceptually, the Bao Bao pays tribute to architect Frank Ghery, who explored ‘shapes made by chance’ in building design, and adapted this concept into the handbag’s namesake: the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.

The first ever Bao Bao was released on the catwalk as the ‘Bilbao bag’ alongside  Issey Miyake’s signature Pleats Please collection. The response was swift and sure. This was something the design world had never seen before, and they loved it.

Miyake has dedicated his life to experimenting with fabric and construction.  His design philosophy centres around the idea of only ever using one piece of cloth, and his 1999 APOC collection (an acronym for A Piece of Cloth), was just that: whole garments made from single pieces of cloth that had been modified – but not by cutting or sewing.

”I expect the people who own my clothes to discover for themselves where and how to wear them. My design is no design,” Miyake famously said in a 1983 New York Times interview. And the same can be said for his Bao Bao bags.

There’s a reason Bao Baos are made from water-resistant polyvinyl and polyurethane.  Following the design mantra: “roll it, fold it, lay it down and hold it”, Bao Bao bags are like 3D origami puzzles that have been designed to both withstand and transcend everyday use – whether its owner is travelling, working, or sipping champagne.   Each prototype is thoroughly road-tested by Issey Miyake staff before going into production – which means the Bao Bao is both feat of both artistic ingenuity and practicality.

But the reason the Bao Bao has been heralded as such a conceptual triumph is because it is the ultimate definition of ‘one-of-a-kind’. Every time a Bao Bao is worn, Issey Miyake proves that this design is necessarily unique – and always will be.

First released in 2000, these bags are now fiercely protected by the Issey Miyake brand.  New collections are shown biannually at Paris Fashion Week, and special edition colours and styles are created exclusively for carefully scrutinized international stockists.

Like clay in the hands of a sculptor, the Bao Bao’s shape and composition is entirely at the whim of their owner - which makes everyone a potential artist.

Or everyone who can get a taste of one, at least. 

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Issey Miyake's continuing collection is available now in very limited quantities.