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The Hottest Handbag in Paris Comes With a Story

By Sara Lieberman

09.10.19

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Polène, the company behind the Numéro 1, has won the hearts of Parisian women with careful craftsmanship and understated style.

Courtesy of Polène

Polène, the company behind the Numéro 1, has won the hearts of Parisian women with careful craftsmanship and understated style.

The latest “It Bag” in the City of Light has a pedigree that goes back generations.

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The first time I saw it, I’d stumbled upon a crowd of women overflowing from a small shop down an ivy-covered passage. The shop had not so much as a sign or a business card to identify it.

Next, I saw it on someone’s lap in the metro, its structured shape and textured leather elevating the otherwise scrappy surroundings.

Then, I noticed it resting in the basket of a bike, its strap twisted around the rider’s wrist.

Two days later, I spied it hanging on the back of a chair at a wine bar, tempting me with its folded front flap in soft suede.

What is this handbag? I wondered. And why is everyone in Paris carrying it but me?

Unlike those of most French luxury brands, this handbag does not have a defining detail: no Chanel-like insignia or Vuitton-like pattern. Yet it’s easily recognizable all the same. What’s more, it’s produced at the same Spanish factory as some of the most prestigious brands—from Saint Laurent to Hermés—but, at $420, costs a fraction of the price. 

The company behind the bag, Polène, was founded by Mathieu, Antoine, and Elsa Mothay, three siblings whose great-grandfather Léon Legallais launched the famed French brand Saint James (known for the iconic striped marinière shirts favored by Picasso, Andy Warhol, Kurt Cobain, and Audrey Hepburn).  The new brand’s values esteem not just design and shape but craftsmanship and direct-to-consumer sales, too. 

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“Beginning with my great-grandfather, it is a family tradition to produce high-quality pieces that age well,” says 35-year-old Mathieu, the eldest of the trio.

Perhaps this tradition explains the extensive research that went into the crafting of the now-iconic silhouette, dubbed the Numéro 1 (plus the fact that, despite their pedigree, none of the Mothays had ever worked in fashion or owned their own business before Polène launched). Following eight months and 25 different design prototypes, Numéro 1—and a mini version with a chain strap and a polished gold clasp—is their best seller. The bag comes in a rainbow of shades and a variety of textures, from crocodile in a bordeaux hue to full-grained calf leather in a more subtle sand color. Unfolding like a work of wearable origami, the bag features an outer pocket (perfect for a passport) and three small inside compartments. 

“It’s really simple and subtle, just like Parisians,” says Mathieu.

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So far, Polène has released seven styles—from a double-pocket purse to a straw bucket bag that chic celebrities like fashion editor Carlotta Oddi and food writer Mimi Thorisson have been seen toting from market appointments to, well, the actual market.

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Their second most popular design, the Numéro 6—the one Elle France dubbed the sac de l’été (bag of the summer)—is a not-quite-full-moon-shaped wristlet. This season, the company updated the design by attaching it to a belt, creating the most fabulous fanny pack ever. It comes in an array of belt-appropriate colors like camel, cognac, black, and burgundy. A price tag of $270 may seem steep for something that fits hardly more than one’s phone and a lipstick, but each piece is made entirely by hand. In fact, artisans can spend up to 18 hours on a single bag.

This careful process explains why some styles and colors are often out of stock. And although all the big department stores—from Le Bon Marché to Galeries Lafayette—came calling only months after the launch, Polène decided not to work with third-party retailers. So there’s only one website to visit when you can’t wait any longer for that glorious red statement bag or want to see the new design on deck for an October release. 

After the bag seemed to stalk me for a while, the tables turned and I started stopping by the new boutique in the Marais almost weekly. (I think the security guard started to get worried.) Following some deep deliberation that included my texting photos of color options to practically every friend in my favorites list, I went with the trio blue crocodile. I have now officially joined the ranks of Parisiennes traipsing around town with that irresistible “bag du jour.” 48 Rue Sainte-Croix de la Bretonnerie, 75004 Paris 

>>Next: Plan Your Trip With AFAR’s Paris Travel Guide

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