Life Style

Can a transparent purse break L.A.’s bag polarisation?

L.A. light is liberating. The occasional marine layer that’s crept past the 101 notwithstanding, Eastsiders wake each morning to cloudless blue skies. A blue as crisp as it is soft: hydrangea petals cold with dew, a baby’s onesie that someone bothered to starch. By high noon the pastel is so pale it looks like white. Clear, a canvas. In such light anything seems possible: finding a parking spot on your block on Sunday night, paying your bills as a writer, making an impractically small, cylindrical purse your summer go-to. (Even though you like to walk or take the bus or Metro and might faint without a water bottle in the Eastside heat, not to mention languish in boredom without a book — but hey, that’s what canvas totes are for; take both.)

The bag is by Building Block (or “BB,” for short), a Chinatown-headquartered brand founded by SoCal natives Kimberly and Nancy Wu. Part of their recent Odds + Ends collection, which aims to lighten the consumption footprint by upcycling scraps from past collections and BB staples — think minimalist leather totes and bucket bags plus geometric clutches and crossbodies — the Cylinder Sling’s body is, true to its word, a perfect cylinder: mismatched but complementary leather circular ends (one lavender and the other crimson in the Warm Combo I’ve been carrying), with a clear plastic side. A thinnish, bruise-purple rubber tube serves as the strap. There is only one compartment. The ends are bigger than a coaster, smaller than the crown of a straw hat. Stood upright, it’s short: My lowest-profile sunglass case barely squeezes through the zipper, and then floats there in the clear tube like a kindly tucked-in sleeper, with just a little room at the head and at the feet.

As a luxury bag the Cylinder Sling’s not so expensive — mostly in the several-hundred-dollar range. What BB offers exceeds the typical big-brand designer bag in quality and style, while respecting a (certain kind of) budget. The leather is smooth, the dyes delicious yet timeless, the designs understated and somehow still sunny: Architectural structure meets flair, and elegance achieves a sense of humor. For an Angelena/o, there’s the added pleasure of buying local. But one must admit: Most residents of this city cannot afford to thus indulge. If you build your bag, as the name calls for — I tried a lipstick sleeve and two colors of strap covers — you could be out a solid $600 after tax. Over a week’s earnings at minimum wage. BB’s L.A. is beautiful, but it’s not everyone’s.

To pick up my Cylinder Sling, I rolled onto Broadway in a borrowed two-door on a hot summer day. It was my second time at BB headquarters, where the studio doubles as a storefront, a modest section by the window cordoned off by white linen. The first time was to pick up the Box Bag in which I now threw my keys. In celadon — a color like sweet mint gum — with a pearl handle (and only a pearl handle, no strap, requiring that it be held), this pristine lunchbox purse was my answer to a yearlong search for something frothy. (BB’s website, I discovered later, pictures Ali Wong sporting the same.) I wanted the type of bag that might make me forget, for a moment, that the world is ugly and ailing, or that I actually need use of both hands.

Who doesn’t love a good bag, designer or not? My best Eid gift as a kid was a cheap, white pleather mini-crossbody complete with a white ribbon and bow stitched across the middle, the gift made sweeter by the fact that I was too young to have fasted for Ramadan along with my family — all gain, no pain. With my first serious-money gig decades later, I spent half a month’s salary on a Louis Vuitton dome bag in not white but burgundy patent leather — I appreciate a high gloss, what can I say — with showy LV insignia stamped all 17 inches across, line after line, like an outdated practice sheet. Seven or eight years ago I scaled back: a nude leather tote I’d custom-ordered from a Latvian leather worker on Etsy; a small, suitcase-sized, commuter-friendly black pebbled leather carry-all I’d picked up in Paris — bags that could fit a laptop, and a water bottle, and a book or two, in materials sturdy enough to withstand long bus rides and even longer bus-to-Metro linking, plus whatever happens to your stuff when it’s briefly disappeared by the X-ray machine at TSA, at the mercy of belts and trays that are surely never wiped down. Four years ago I got into plastic. At first the material served as a pragmatic solution to a quotidian problem: My bags were simply too heavy. In physical therapy for chronic neck and shoulder pain, I needed to lighten my load. Soon, though, the plastic began to speak to my experience of L.A.

There is a transparency to this city — to its sky, to its poolside patio bars, to its wide roads — that seduces and deceives you, a transparency that occludes the shut doors of Hollywood and inherited wealth and skyrocketing housing prices no normal person can afford. L.A. performs openness. Like any good performance, that welcome sometimes feels real; and if it feels real, even if only for a moment, it sort of is. A transparent bag similarly claims to offer an unfiltered look into one’s life — except that the joy lies in curating the mess.

A clear cylinder slung over my shoulder, I switch my sunglasses to a clear fold-top case I found at a thrift store. I rifle through the bag that usually goes into my bag — i.e., the makeup pouch I typically throw in a tote — and fish out the essentials: my pillbox, my Chapstick, my house keys. Lipsticks, plural. Today’s shade goes in my favorite of BB’s self-indulgent add-ons, a lipstick sleeve that can be hooked onto any purse strap via a silver clasp; a backup shade (you never know when the mood will shift) gets tossed in the cylinder. This summer I’m into neutrals. But regardless of whatever demure shade I might have tucked inside, the poppy-red sleeve manifests the Platonic idea of lipstick. A shock of red against the cylinder’s lavender face, it’s all old Hollywood and femme fatale.

The joyful ritual of packing this bag — Building Block’s Cylinder Sling in Warm Combo featured with IKO IKO Strap Cover in Pearl — makes me think ridiculous things. Like, maybe plastic wasn’t so bad after all. Like, maybe privacy is overrated.

(Joyce Lee / For The Times)

The joyful ritual of packing this bag makes me think ridiculous things. Like, maybe plastic wasn’t so bad after all. (Dying oceans and mountainous landfills correct me, though of course killing a cow for me to wear over my shoulder isn’t quite sustainable either.) Like, maybe privacy is overrated. (I’m Muslim American; let’s not go there.) Like, luxury is fun. For the luxury of this bag lies in its frivolity. The pure pleasure of having a purse for your purse aside — the lipstick sleeve hangs from the Cylinder Sling as if in the crook of an elbow — this bag’s strap can be clothed. In a collaboration with Iko Iko, gauzy strap covers in pearl, a lavender that winks at periwinkle, or black that adds a ruffle so high femme it’s daring. Their shimmery transparent organza mimics the L.A. sky: at noon, dusk and midnight. BB provides “an accessory for your accessories,” as Nancy put it to me that June day on Broadway; “You can dress up your bag,” said Kim. Extra in the best of ways.

Walking or riding around L.A. of late, I’ve noticed a polarization in bag culture that reflects my own trajectory. In the heyday of work-from-home/your-local-cafe-or-bar, there are a lot of bags that get down to business, much like my own small collection of fancy totes. Such bags do not sacrifice style, as perhaps best demonstrated by Building Block’s Line Tote in vegetable tanned leather, a material that will tan naturally with wear based on its sun exposure, stamped by L.A. light. But totes do require a certain size and sturdiness that can, well, get old. Alongside this yes-we-actually-do-(sometimes)-have-work-to-do side of L.A., there’s a growing abundance of delightfully unserviceable bags carried by folks of all genders, bags that don’t fit your Fendi sunglass case, much less that Franzen novel; bags that don’t want you to hydrate; sometimes even bags that demand you keep your phone in your pocket, tempting the pickpockets also on the dance floor at downtown warehouses. These bags are hardly bags — they can’t carry anything. Rather than working for you, they make you work for them. That’s exactly what you’re looking for: Sometimes a b— just wants to be put in place. The Cylinder Sling flirts with such attitude without becoming rude or unsensible. She’ll take a few things off your hands — but only a few, and they stay in sight. In short, she keeps you on your toes.

There is something about the combination of light and night, of pared-back and over-the-top, at play in these bags that seems so lovingly L.A. Stopped at a crosswalk, I see a city awash in hot white light. The traffic light hangs there, a shock of red against a pale blue face. A few blocks east I can see someone’s life through floor-to-ceiling windows. The space is sparse. Pearl leather sofa, glass coffee table. Riffs on transparency. There’s a colorful throw on the sofa back, not neatly folded but draped, as if just thrown. Casually. Whether the scene’s real or staged, my Cylinder Sling slaps against my hip, plastic contours at turns absorbing or reflecting the light, and its contents revealed or hidden.

Mariam Rahmani is a writer and translator based in L.A. Her translation of the contemporary Iranian cult hit “In Case of Emergency” by Mahsa Mohebali came out fall 2021. She is currently working on a debut novel.

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