Are Handbags the New Stocks?

Luxury fashion has long been a focus of collectors, but thanks to inflation, average shoppers are diving into the secondary market—and Gen Z is investing heavily.

Vintage Chanel Backpack
Me and my Chanel backpack on the streets of New York Fashion Week.
(Image credit: Tyler Joe)

Like many Americans over the past two years, I’ve started to seriously consider purchasing real estate. While the current inflated market may not be the ideal time to actually buy, dipping my toe in the home-buying waters spurred me to get in sturdy financial shape and to understand the process of putting in an offer. While examining my personal finances and assets, a realtor’s eye roll–inducing question loomed in the back of my head: “What else can you do to sweeten the deal?” What she meant was: How much more could I offer? Or would I be able to cover closing costs on the seller’s side? After crunching the numbers (yet again), I threw my hands in the air and said, “What else can I do?! Offer the seller their choice from my handbag collection?” 

And then I thought: Maybe I could. While I didn’t go as far as printing out a PDF of my options, I did take a look in my closet to see if there was anything I could get reappraised for possible resale. My eye went straight to one of my luckiest finds: a '90s-era Chanel backpack in black and gold, which I purchased from TheRealReal in 2012.

A special bag like this, of course, comes with a special story: A friend had just started working for the company and invited me to a launch party in their new office. As a guest, I received a $250 credit as a party favor. (Generous! For context, it was common for early members to receive a $100 credit for referring friends.) Credit in hand, I was encouraged to check out the inventory on display. I stopped in my tracks at this bag. My job then was assisting a celebrity stylist, and '90s Chanel was a major source of inspiration in our work, which made it all the more covetable. I checked the tag with a lump in my throat: $700. I was floored! It was in excellent condition! Clutching her like a baby in my arms, I went straight to the checkout. Call it luck or call it fate, the total amount I paid for my first Chanel bag was $539.00—about the amount I had in my checking account at the time.

People are turning to the secondary market to keep up with demand, and we’re seeing prices totally skyrocket from that.

I spoke to Liz Sennett, senior valuation manager at TheRealReal, to find out what my lucky find is worth now, nearly a decade later. The conversation felt part Antiques Roadshow, part Pawn Stars, but I shook that icky feeling off right away—this is Chanel we’re talking about. And a Chanel bag is a serious investment. “Even if we had this conversation a year ago, it would have looked different today [based on] how Covid has impacted the manufacturing timelines,” explained Sennett. “People are turning to the secondary market to keep up with demand, and we’re seeing prices totally skyrocket from that. You’re looking at a list price from $4,500 to $5,000. Your consignment value—or what you take home—would be $3,150 to $4,000.” Whoa, talk about a plot twist. “You’re looking at a 450–500 percent return on your investment, which is pretty incredible,” Sennett told me.

If I was in a hurry to turn a high-ticket item around, like, say, trying to “sweeten the deal” on a real estate offer, TheRealReal enables me to do so. For certain high-demand items, like Chanel, watches and fine jewelry, or collectible sneakers, TheRealReal has a “Get Paid Now” option for sellers; it can be sent in the form of a direct deposit or store credit within 48 hours, which cuts out the waiting time of traditional consignment, but also cuts your take-home amount by about 20 percent. “If it’s that super classic Chanel, it’s selling really well right now. Whether it’s from 2021 or 1992, it’s selling really well,” says Sennett. With Chanel's recent price increase of their classic flap style, the return on the investment of a new bag may be even higher than expected. But, according to TheRealReal’s 2021 Luxury Resale Report, the piece doesn’t necessarily have to be straight from the boutique. Gucci’s 2020 re-release of the Jackie bag invigorated vintage sales of the same style—with prices up more than its modern counterpart.

I don’t see myself as a fashion collector. It goes without saying that as fashion editor—with access to sample sales, brands’ holiday gifting, and a general enthusiasm for shopping—I have been lucky to accumulate a great collection of designer accessories and clothing over the years. But when I think of fashion collectors, my mind goes to sneakerheads who wrap their shoes in plastic or fashion archivists who keep their vintage purchases in storage for museum shows. I love to wear and enjoy my pieces, but also keep them in great shape.

chanel backpack

The backpack hanging out in my current home.

(Image credit: Julia Gall)

eBay’s vice president of fashion, Charis Marquez, acknowledges eBay’s OG history as a collector’s resale haven, but debunks the idea that this collecting club is limited to a certain kind of shopper. “We really are about collectors and enthusiasts. And now with Gen Z, it’s really about investing. Not like when I was younger, when I just liked a bunch of purses, so I got a bunch of purses and didn’t really care about what happened to them and just wore them when I wanted to show off,” says Marquez. “Gen Z is really thinking of [resale] as an alternate asset class.”

Admittedly, eBay was never my first choice when it came to shopping fashion. It felt like a destination to find something very specific (a friend’s eBay score of Phoebe Philo Celiné runway sandals come to mind), or, at times, the offerings seemed too widely spread, leaving room for price discrepancies or inauthentic product. In 2021, the company launched Authentication Guarantee in an effort to assuage skeptical shoppers. Says Marquez, “To just ensure and take out all of the drama, go with the authenticity guarantee. You can do your research, but we’ve already done it for you.” Ok, eBay, I see you.

Gen Z is really thinking of [resale] as an alternate asset class.

The platform’s legacy as the pioneer of online resale gives it clout among collectors, but in the last decade, major comparison shopping options have arisen for savvy fashion investment shoppers. The competition arms them with negotiation ammunition—or the option to take their business elsewhere. Sarah Davis, founder of resale platform Fashionphile, says it’s easier now to invest in designer fashion than ever before. The barrier to entry is super low, thanks to the resale boom. “There is literally no brand that you can’t get for under $500, which is such an exciting thing. Something at that level has been carried a few times already and can still have a full life.” In 2012 when I purchased the aforementioned Chanel backpack, consignment and resale were not nearly as widespread as they are now. And, frankly, it was still quite intimidating. Online platforms like TheRealReal, Fashionphile, and ReBag have made it much easier for first-time designer shoppers to research without the pressure of in-person interactions. It begs the question, Where were these sites when I was the fashion intern on a budget?

I also believe my youthful mind wasn’t programmed to think about long-term fashion investments; the Chanel deal was a happy accident. Disposable fashion like Uniqlo, Zara, and American Apparel were ways for me to “look the part” on set as a stylist’s assistant with simple but trendy silhouettes—perfect for blending into the background. However, I probably spent $500 on such clothes, which never carried me further than a year or two, instead of thinking about how that money could have been spent on a better fashion investment. Here, there is a generational divide. Davis notes this trend in her customer data. “Our average order value for the 18–24 age group is $1,675 right now. These folks are not in their final careers, they’re still in college or in entry-level careers. The sustainability [aspect] is important,” says Davis, referencing Gen Z’s motivation for shopping consignment, “but the fact that it’s something they can get their money out of and there’s resale value is an important factor.” Damn. I really slept on that at the time. But, it’s not too late for any shopper to switch gears. Davis encourages a more mindful approach. “The number one question when buying a car is: What is the resale value of this? I’ve seen more and more in our world that people are buying what we sell with resale in mind. I think that’s even truer for the younger customer.”

chanel runway

A Chanel runway model from 1994, presumably from the same season as the backpack in question. 

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Watch enthusiast Brynn Wallner agrees. The Sotheby’s alum was charged with creating content for the watch sector of the famed auction house as a way to draw in first-time collectors at that entry-level category. The experience sparked the idea for Dimepiece, an Instagram account and online journal celebrating women who love and wear watches. Since starting the account, Wallner has noticed younger followers becoming “first-dimer-s” (as Wallner lovingly calls those new to watch owning). “Kudos to the younger generation in general for being more sustainability-minded. When I was their age I was just wasting money buying stuff at Forever 21 and Zara, because I wanted something cute to go out in,” says Wallner. “Thrifting wasn’t as in vogue as it is now, and I was just wasting money on things I would throw away six months later.” Same, girl. What was I doing back then? “This generation is already equipped to look at items as investments, especially when it comes to watches. They have the consumer mindset that [watches] are made with care and that there’s a reason why these items are so expensive and it’s a precious item that you can keep forever and you can give it to your kids one day.” Like a classic watch, my Chanel bag feels like one of those pieces. It’s nearly as old as me and I don’t see it ever going out of style—or out of value.

Kudos to the younger generation in general for being more sustainability-minded. When I was their age I was just wasting money buying stuff at Forever 21 and Zara, because I wanted something cute to go out in.

Serena Morris, founder of another fashion fanatic Instagram account @shes__underrated, a compilation of “fantasy looks inspired by our most underrated muses,” focuses primarily on Y2K fashion and says that nostalgia is a major factor in investment fashion purchases. “I think the investment is based on heartfelt, meaningful moments, because [shoppers] are identifying [the items] with the people who helped shape them as individuals,” says Morris. “It’s an investment because those things are timeless and the moment is timeless. There’s a reason we keep going back to specific eras. It’s fashion nerdism.” She’s right. As my first Chanel bag, this backpack from the '90s gives me the warm, fuzzy feelings brought on by images of iconic supermodels prancing down the runways, dripping in an excess of gold and leather chains. For my younger self, that was fashion heaven! A friend pointed out that Naomi Campbell carried this exact bag in the cult classic fashion documentary Unzipped. “Maybe it was hers!” he teased. Maybe. The thought added a layer of mystique, but also a nagging personification to the bag that makes it even more difficult to part with.

Will I sell the bag? I honestly cannot decide! The design holds cultural significance as well as personal nostalgia for me, and I do try to wear it often. There aren’t many other assets you can say the same about. While I find comfort in knowing the bag is there for me as a source of financial assurance, the thought of parting ways with it does make me sad. Sennett, my valuation expert, gave me a glimmer of hope about that: “It’s not like you’re saying goodbye forever, if you want it a couple of years down the road, you can always find it again on the secondary market.”

Julia Gall

Julia Gall is the former Style Director at Marie Claire, covering all things fashion, as well as styling tips, wardrobe upkeep and sustainability. Check her out at @juliasgall.