I had been mulling it over for at least five months—that’s “forever” in teen years—when I finally petitioned my parents. Certainly, I reasoned, there were worse ways to go about navigating the treacherous waters of adolescence. I could develop a smoking habit. Or start a garage band. I could shave my head or get a septum piercing. I could cultivate my inner Mick Jagger. (“That would be so cool!” said my dad enthusiastically.) I could cultivate my inner Lindsay Lohan. (“Take that back.”)
“All I’m asking for is a signature bag!” I cried to my baffled mother, who—to her credit—was unmoved by my pleas. “If you want a designer purse so badly,” she retorted, not unkindly, “You can buy one yourself.”
That she called it a “purse” demonstrated just how gravely she was missing The Point. I did not want some lowly accessory. I wanted to learn how to be a grown-up, and this platonic ideal of bags would teach me how. This “purse” was my manifest destiny, only rendered in slouchy leather and shining hardware. Never mind that at fourteen years old, I barely had my cellphone number memorized, and my wallet was still a plastic zipper pouch that said, “Hello, My name is… Mrs. Kutcher” on the front. An identifiable bag accompanied every important woman I knew: my grandmother, my favorite history teacher, Mary Poppins. On very busy days, my own mother carried two!
Even now, I’m suspicious of women who dare to leave home without their literal baggage. Where do they keep their spare pair of flats? Their gum? Their balled-up receipts for take-out, stretched-out hair ties, and cracked lip balms? How do they stow their to-do lists, their sunglasses, their forgotten prescriptions? Don’t they know that it only rains when you aren’t carrying an umbrella? Don’t they know that there is no greater validation than having some important man in your life turn to you sheepishly, pockets bulging, and say, “Will you put this in your bag?”
Perma-stubborn teenager that I was, I resolved not to become one of those godless women—bereft of Italian craftsmanship and life purpose. I refused to be deterred by my mother’s hasty dismissal, and so I raised the subject of The Bag often.
Success eluded me. “If this is so important to you,” exclaimed my mother finally, “You can spend your own money on it.”
“Fine.” I said. “I will!” I could tell that she doubted my determination. After all, the aggressive Radica Girl Tech Password Journal campaign of ’99 had crumbled in the face of a similar ultimatum. But this was a pursuit of a different stripe. Voice-operated diaries came and went. Quality pebbled leather, on the other hand, was forever. Flush with the combination of babysitting money, allowance, and a generous serving of my bat-mitzvah reserves, I commenced the hunt for the superlative carryall.
Weeks went by. I had bitterly accepted that the iconic Balenciaga I so admired on the arms of my spirit sisters, the Olsens, was out of the fiscal question. Instead, I doggedly perused the likes of Botkier, Kooba, and Foley and Corinna—attainable luxuries—steeling my paltry bank account against the injuries it was sure to sustain.
Of course, once you stop looking, love will come to you. And so it was only after a lunar phase or two of searching that I found my way into a small, if somewhat matronly boutique near my Upper West Side apartment. It was tucked on a lower shelf, when I first spotted it. Its complexion was the color of fine wine crossed with Harold’s purple crayon. Braided handles gave way to a boxy, oversize frame, which in turn led to a wide, zippered base. Concealed beneath the smooth exterior of his plum-colored body—the new neutral!—lay an embarrassment of canvas-coated pockets and compartments. I saw it, and I just knew.
“Chaiken” I pronounced solemnly, reading from the bag’s understated, interior label. I had never heard of it. Maybe it was British. Or better yet, maybe it was French.
I needed to own this bag. $550 dollars and ten minutes later, I did.
Exactly how my fourteen-year-old self rationalized a purchase that blew through nearly half her life-savings remains somewhat of a mystery. Temporary insanity, I maintain, is the only justification for buying anything from a store with no operative return policy.
“It’s beautiful,” said the storeowner to me, as I stood on my tiptoes to sign the credit-card slip. “And absolutely perfect for you.” I beamed. (Liar.)
When I returned home, I paraded my investment around with glee. Let the record show: my mother was gamely supportive, if perhaps privately horrified. Years from now, when a child of mine commits a similarly heinous crime against common sense, I hope I comport myself with a fraction of her grace. At the time, however, I was inordinately pleased with myself. I gulped back the image of those three digits printed on the receipt’s filmy paper. I had no regrets.
It was two hours later that I first noticed the small, rectangular pad tucked between the bag’s buttery folds. Huh? I unfurled it over the bag like a protective shroud. Rain tarp? And then laid it down beneath it. Pedestal? Launching table? Place mat? I rooted around the bag’s innards for a label that might account for the foreign object’s existence. I found one. This is what it said:
WARNING: Weight of bag may cause stroller to tip over. Please use caution when attaching bag to stroller. Do not leave child unattended.
Oh, I had invested in my future all right. I was fourteen years old and too young to carry a learner’s permit, but I had spent more than $500 on a European diaper bag.
It was all so suddenly, heartbreakingly clear. The ample side pockets fit formula and bottles. The zippered bottom accommodated at least a dozen Pampers. What I thought was a key pouch was meant to hold a pacifier. I stood in my room clutching my cranberry-colored disaster, and I laughed so hard I could barely breathe. I ask you: is there anything more man repelling than a freshman in high school with a diaper bag?
On the other hand, when you consider that a similarly sized Gucci diaper bag retails today for $990, my Chaiken is a real steal. Belly Itch Blog, a site I’m meant to believe is something of an expert on the subject of designer diaper totes, calls the Chaiken Diaper Bag “very cosmopolitan.”
The item’s now-defunct Saks.com product page hails its “soft glazed lambskin” as “gently gathered at the sides and smooth at the center pocket.” Meanwhile, a user proclaims, “…You would never think it’s a diaper bag.” Why, thank you, “Bubu” from Clifton, NJ! I feel validated.
The Chaiken Diaper Bag has spent the past six years tucked into its cloth dust bag, like some rare comic book issue waiting to appreciate in value. I’ve carried it exactly once. But in a decade or so, it’ll have its moment in the sun. And when it does, I will use supreme caution when attaching it to my stroller. I have no intention of leaving this baby unattended.
Do you harbor a similar story? Please, do share.
–Written by Mattie Kahn, illustration by Charlotte Fassler