Meet the Women Defiling their Designer Bags with Punk Rock Patches
“Everyone is very surprised that I would dare graffiti a $1,000 bag,” says Claudia McNeilly. “It’s kind of fun when somebody gets worked up or is a little bit offended.”
Claudia McNeilly got her Louis Vuitton Neverfull as a gift, but there was something about the designer carryall that made the 25-year-old food writer feel self-conscious. The iconic monogram was too popular for her taste. Creative by nature, she slapped some embroidered patches onto the bag: a Casper the Friendly Ghost one with “Ready to Die” on it and another with the word “Hangry” written in spidery heavy-metal script. McNeilly didn’t feel like she was ruining the bag; she was excited to be customizing it “into something a little more original.”
In the past, marijuana leaves and Grateful Dead dancing bears were stitched onto hemp messenger bags, but now fashion-forward patches are landing on the kind of purses you hear about in a Kreayshawn chorus: Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Fendi. Intentionally marring one’s pricey purse may seem scandalously indulgent—and it is—but it also reflects the value the fashion world places on self-expression. Each patched-up look has an inimitable quality; no matter how wide the trend spreads, everyone still ends up with a unique bag.
When Alessandro Michele revamped the Gucci aesthetic from glam to granny chic, he took his vintage-inspired Dionysus logo bag and stamped it with flowers, butterflies and snakes. The brand later introduced a service where people could customize their own bags, and, most recently, Gucci’s Spring 2018 collection featured a vintage-inspired tote emblazoned with a giant fluffy poodle patch. Coach has released bags and coats that feature vintage NASA-inspired patches as well as the new in-store Coachify experience. If you’re not interested in patches, artists like Serviced by E will paint a portrait of Mickey Mouse, Garfield or Pokémon on your cardholder for $635. Georgia-based Michele Ma Belle takes vintage Vuitton and Gucci bags and transforms them into Western fringed wonders with charms and tassels.
This counter-cultural patch revival is popular now, but the trend is reminiscent of ’70s punk. In case you didn’t grow up listening to The Clash, plastering patches on a designer bag is basically the bougie version of a “battle jacket”—the term for those cut-off weather-beaten leather or denim jackets customized with studs, cracking paint, silkscreened patches and safety pins. These patch-encrusted husks remain one of the most enduring visual symbols of the punk movement.
Los Angeles-based costume designer Alison Freer has gone to great lengths to ensure that her pricey bags are perfectly imperfect. “I love designer bags, in theory,” she says, adding, “They do seem a little precious, which is the opposite of my personality.” To give her bags a bit of an edge, Freer has personalized them with spray paint and patches. She even put one through a washing machine cycle. She says her Franken-bag creations—which she affectionately calls her “trashball handbags”—dial back a bag’s luxury vibe. “I carry them every time I’m wearing something I think is too prissy,” she says.
When Virginia Chamlee, 32, a communications professional from Jacksonville, Fla., noticed the patch trend happening on the runway, she retrieved a Louis Vuitton Speedy bag that was at the bottom of her closet and started applying new and vintage patches she had found online or collected while rummaging through antique stores and garage sales. The bag, which was a hand-me-down from her grandmother, was in rough shape. Chamlee covered the holes and blemishes with patches and suddenly it was stylishly street-worthy.
If slapping grungy patches on a purse that cost more than a month’s rent sounds like an act of teen rebellion, Freer is the first to admit she fits the bill: “I’m forever 18, trying to horrify my mother.” Ostentatious purses tend to telegraph wealth, but the patches change the message.
McNeilly, meanwhile, gets a kick out of the condescending looks her bag sometimes draws. “Everyone is very surprised that I would dare graffiti a $1,000 bag,” she says. “It’s kind of fun when somebody gets worked up or is a little bit offended.” Besides, what could be more punk rock than that?