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Call it the foundation myth of art and fashion crossovers, if you like: in her new book, Dressed: the Secret Life of Clothes, academic Shahida Bari rehearses the theory that Leonardo da Vinci was not only a great artist and engineer, but also a pioneer in the field of accessory design.
Bari singles out an image from Leonardo’s Codex Atlanticus that depicts a leather pouch with a fastening flap: ‘The bag, in many ways, is similar to a 20th-century handbag,’ she tells CNN. ‘It has brass fastenings at the top, is made of brown calfskin, and it has a top clasp. It’s like a classic handbag that your mum might have.’ Indeed, Leonardo’s vision has proved to be so durable that in 2012 the Italian brand Gherardini went so far as to produce a bag based on his design.
Of course, many contemporary artists have followed in Leonardo’s footsteps. In 2017, Jeff Koons collaborated with Louis Vuitton on a range of bags inspired by art-historical touchstones (including Leonardo’s own Mona Lisa), while back in 2013 Damien Hirst teamed up with Prada to produce limited-edition handbags composed of clear Plexiglas shells decorated with insect designs.
The latest artist to enter the fray is Sterling Ruby, who recently unveiled his new fashion line in Florence – including accessories such as ‘a rectangular-shaped handbag made entirely from silver metal’ and ‘oversized tote bags emblazoned with printed graphics’. What Leonardo – ‘the arbiter of all questions relating to beauty and elegance, especially pageantry’, pace Paolo Giovio – would have made of it all is anyone’s guess.