Ross Giblin / Stuff
Whirinaki Whare Taonga director Leanne Wickham with Gucci’s The Jackie Bag.
A fascination with Princess Diana has made Upper Hutt the unlikely location for a prestigious exhibition of valuable handbags.
The bags, some worth thousands of dollars and made famous by Princess Diana, Jackie Kennedy-Onassis and Grace Kelly, are on display at Whirinaki Whare Taonga.
Carry Me: 100 Years of Handbags features over 50 iconic bags from the last century. Held in private Italian collections, the exhibition will not be seen anywhere else in New Zealand.
Many have become classics thanks to the fashion icons who wore them. Those on display are all originals, but are not the bags belonging to the celebrities themselves, being too valuable to visit.
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Whirinaki director Leanne Wickham said the Upper Hutt exhibit was partly inspired by her childhood fascination with Princess Diana.
“She was my Lady Gaga, she was the early ’80s woman I looked up to,” Wickham said.
After Princess Diana died in Paris, Wickham went to an exhibition of her dresses at the Michael Fowler Center and was transported back to her childhood.
“I just said to myself that if I’m ever able to do something like this, I’m going to do it. When I discovered this exhibition which was about Lady Diana and all these other very chic ladies, I thought it will have that same sense of elegance and glamor that we would like to bring to our audience.
The collection was displayed in a Finnish museum and was never intended to be visited, but Wickham’s connection to an Italian curator – Dr Alex Susanna of Expona – enabled him to seize it for Whirinaki.
“I’m still a bit in disbelief that this is actually happening. We’re very, very excited,” Wickham said.
With freight delays due to the pandemic causing delays in exhibits entering the country, she said they were looking for something that would be guaranteed to get here.
“Ocean freight was out of the question, things were just starting to get delayed. It was so hard to organize anything,” Wickham said.
“But the beautiful thing about this exhibition is that it arrived in boxes on a plane, because they are very small.”
More than just a fashion, the exhibition is a commentary on the evolutions of society over time. It’s no surprise which bag is Wickham’s favorite – the Lady Dior, named after Princess Diana. She also loves the story behind it.
While the First Lady of France was looking for a gift for the princess, Dior offered her her Chouchou bag.
Princess Diana was seduced by the bag and was often photographed with it, and it became the Lady Dior in tribute to the princess.
“It kind of embodied his character. It was beautifully done but it was really down to earth and incredibly practical,” Wickham said.
Gucci’s Jackie bag has a similar story – originally named Constance before US First Lady Jackie Kennedy-Onassis was seen carrying it. It became an instant hit.
Actress Grace Kelly made the Hermès mailbag famous, with the French fashion house nicknaming her bag the Kelly, after she used it to hide her pregnancy from the paparazzi.
Other iconic handbags in the collection include the Fendi Baguette made famous by Carrie Bradshaw of Sex and the City, Crystal Egg by Judith Leiber, and the Chanel bag said to be one of the most famous fashion designs of the 20th century. .
- Carry Me: 100 Years of Handbags is at Whirinaki Whare Taonga from May 14 to August 7.