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LONDON — One year on from the COVID-19 outbreak, it looks like optimism, bright colors and bold fashion statements are making a return across this season’s virtual fall 2021 accessories showrooms.

Last year’s lockdowns and new work-from-home lifestyles might have wiped away the need to carry bags or wear shoes — let alone high heels — but global vaccine rollouts and the promise of an open world later this year have given the accessories market new energy.

Designers looked at ways of incorporating the comfort women have become so accustomed to with a heftier dose of glamour; they experimented with new shapes and silhouettes, and delved into new categories. The good news is that they are doing it all with a greater social and environmental awareness and beginning to introduce eco-friendly materials into accessories design, from recycled nylon to apple leather.

“People want a return of excitement and variety to their daily lives and this will surely extend into their wardrobes. The pandemic has naturally made almost everyone more cautious with their purchases, but we are confident 2021 will see a return of assurance in the fashion forward,” said Harrods fashion director Lydia King, pointing to the party-ready platforms and heeled boots seen across the Givenchy, Versace and Prada runways over the course of the last two weeks.

Shoe designers are certainly ready to bring back high heels. Designer-of-the-moment Amina Muaddi recently shared a tongue-in-cheek campaign offering an “after lockdown course” on “how to rock high heels again.”

“It has been quite a surreal year for the whole world and my approach to footwear has been a bit more practical. However, the love for heels has never disappeared. Everyone is absolutely craving some statement heels after such a quiet 2020. I know I am,” said Malone Souliers founder and creative director Mary Alice Malone, who added a stronger dose of femininity into her fall 2021 line, with oversized bows, heeled mules and a standout pair of blue python-effect heeled boots.

Italian label Paris Texas said the appetite for high heels and all things sparkly never waned — its stiletto heels remained a bestseller throughout the first lockdown, while its crystal-heeled boots launched last spring sold out within a week.

“The Paris Texas woman continues to look for sexy styles, this is our brand DNA and we haven’t swayed from this. Women still want to feel feminine and sexy and once this period will be over women will be desperate to go out, have fun, feel free, dress up and feel super feminine,” said the label’s creative director, Annamaria Brivio, who dialed up the glamour even further for fall 2021 with metallic-tinged Western-inspired boots; fierce needle heels, and over-the-knee styles in shocking pink.

“We think that boots will be big next fall — and not just ankle boots, but knee-high boots and even over-the-knee boots. But we also believe in the return of revenge heels,” said Valentina Ignatova, chief marketing officer and cofounder of contemporary label By Far, which also offered chunky platforms, lace-up sandals and pumps for next fall — all featuring fuss-free, midheels. “A desk-to-dinner look will be more relevant than ever and the easiest way to make the transition seamless will be with a fancy accessory.”

Paris Texas fall 2021

Paris Texas, fall 2021  Courtesy of Paris Texas

No one knows fancy accessories better than shoe maestro Christian Louboutin, who continues to play with the world of virtual reality. For fall, he created a virtual Loubi airplane — it had plush red velvet chairs, stylish stewards and extra leg room — and reminisced about the golden age of travel with decadent, optimistic shoes, from his signature So Kate pumps featuring tarot card prints, to Mary Janes featuring pastel pink gingham patterns and strass heels.

For Neous’ Vanissa Antonious, who has made a name for her label’s minimalist flair and clean, architectural lines, it was all about melding comfort and sensuality, with new pointed-toe mules, sculptural kitten heels and strappy sandals.

Fall 2021 Louboutin presentation

A style from Christian Louboutin’s fall 2021 presentation.  Courtesy of Louboutin

“My intuition and emotions always lead the way. I think we are ready to feel sexy again, not in an overly revealing way but in a seductive ’90s tone. I feel we are all craving the desire to feel alive again, to be seen and noticed. This has different meanings for everyone but for me in footwear it may mean higher heights, strong silhouettes and strappy styles. We will all crave practicality by day, but perhaps be dressing for a ’90’s rave in stilettos by night,” said Antonious, who launched her first line of handbags last summer to great response at retail.

She is now expanding the range with a new tote and belt bag.

Neous fall 2021

Neous, fall 2021  Courtesy of Neous

“There is still a hunger for newness and beautiful products out there. We haven’t seen a decrease in sales as a business, actually the opposite,” added Antonious.

When it comes to the handbag sector in particular, there was a “stick to what you know” approach, according to Harrods’ King, with shoppers playing it more safe and favoring familiar names and classic styles.

“We noticed a shift away from trend-driven items and into more luxury product. Customers used this time to finally invest in their ‘forever bag,'” said Libby Page, senior market editor at Net-a-porter.

But some contemporary labels, such as Neous, managed to sustain interest in their bags — and now an appetite for a little less practical and more fashion-forward styles is making a comeback.

It’s why Athens-based Marina Raphael introduced mini iterations of her signature Riviera tote bag, featuring bold red leathers or decadent feather embellishments.

“People want to feel rejuvenated, and what better way than to start with dressing up for any occasion,” said Raphael, adding that when the world opens up, people will want to feel free and carry less, hence the “high demand of mini all-day bags.”

Other contemporary labels keeping customers interested in their bags include Kassl and Nanushka, which also have a ready-to-wear offering.

“Their collective cult following in rtw has certainly helped them gain legitimacy with our customers for bags and accessories,” said Harrods’ King, adding that the initial hype is sustained with “enhanced offerings” every season.

Marina Raphael Fall 2021

Marina Raphael, fall 2021  Courtesy of Marina Raphael

Mytheresa’s fashion buying director Tiffany Hsu pointed to another range of buzzy labels that have been building solid accessories offerings that complement their rtw, from Swedish favorite Toteme to Magda Butrym and Alessandra Rich.

As long as the product that these brands offer is relevant, it doesn’t need to be a heritage brand for customers to buy into them,” said Hsu.

As the bonus of having a 360-degree product offer becomes more evident, a number of accessories brands are planning to delve into rtw, including Korean-based gu_de, which made a name for its structured mini totes, and Elleme, the Paris-based label that was among the first to offer stylish bags at sweet-spot price points.

Except from new styles, designers experimented with new fabrications, from less toxic leather to crochet and recycled fabrics — in response to the urgent need for more sustainable production.

The new Roger Vivier sustainable sneaker, Walky Viv

Roger Vivier’s new sustainable sneaker, Walky Viv. 

Paris Texas produced its first pair of vegan leather boots in response to buyer and consumer demand; Istanbul-based Manu Atelier reworked their popular Cylinder bag in raffia; Medea produced totes featuring nontoxic, metal-free leather, and Roger Vivier presented the Walky Viv, a sneaker-boot hybrid featuring recycled canvas — which marked the brand’s first foray into sustainability.

There were more firsts throughout the month: Coperni’s bags made from apple leather; Pierre Hardy’s range featuring recycled materials and produced on a made-to-order basis only, and Christian Louboutin’s collection of boots made from upcycled denim, in partnership with Selfridges’ Project Earth.

Bag designers are also becoming more at ease with choosing fabric over leather, which makes for more eco-friendly options.

“It’s also the perfect blend of comfort and experimentation. This had begun even in previous collections with the likes of Bottega Veneta Wardrobe 1 [and] it’s clearly compounded with Prada’s jacquard Cleo bags and Chloé’s cashmere embellished leather goods,” said King.

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