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STYLE

Aupen Bags Came Out of Nowhere to Become Hollywood’s Hottest Accessory—And They’re Just Getting Started

Taylor, Selena, Kylie, Hailey, and seemingly every other It girl can’t get enough of this unusually anonymous, affordable, and vegan label. Here we examine how the brand did it—and can exclusively reveal Aupen's plans to transition most of its collection to genuine leather.

BY SAM REED

February 9, 2024

All products featured on Glamour are independently selected by our editors. However, when you buy something through our retail links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

First, Kylie Jenner carried Fearless ($340) by Aupen, a faux-leather shoulder bag with a curvy, asymmetrical shape and minimalist branding. Then Hailey Bieber swapped her go-to Bottega Veneta clutch for the Purpose ($180), Aupen's razor-sharp slanted box bag. Taylor Swift was next; the 34-year-old was papped on a night out with her Nirvana ($340) in one hand and new beau Travis Kelce on the other. Selena Gomez, Olivia Rodrigo, Gal Gadot, Gabrielle Union, and a slew of other celebs followed suit, stepping out in variations on the same uniform: a tiny minidress, towering heels, going-out glam, and a PETA-approved Aupen bag.

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Taylor Swift carries the Nirvana; Selena Gomez carries the Purpose Ice. Getty Images

Aupen's hypervisibility in Hollywood, its vegan-friendly reputation, and under-$500 price point were a winning combination: Less than a year after it launched in November 2022, Aupen—a portmanteau of authentic and open—had placed its bags with not just one but a dozen of the most influential women on the planet.

In the blink of an eye, the brand experienced unprecedented success, the kind of recognition that most designers will spend their entire careers chasing. And yet Aupen remained nameless and faceless. In the age of the celebrity designers and designers turned celebrities, the brand was an anomaly. Why did no one want to take credit for this out-of-nowhere success? Among my peers, we joked about people “on the inside” bribing celebrities to carry their handbags; we wondered whether this was all some kind of stunt, as though someone were about to rip off a mask Scooby Doo–villain style and reveal themselves as the genius behind the operation. Maybe all the celebrities were secretly going vegan.

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Even more strange was the disappearance from the press of one man claiming to be the creative director. After a handful of interviews last summer, he all but vanished. And yet the brand marched on. The Fearless sold out, followed by the Nirvana. Several new styles were introduced in rapid succession, including Believe, Joy, and Brooklyn. However, when I finally caught up in person with the commercial director, who also cofounded Aupen, after a series of vague back-and-forth emails signed “the design collective,” the image of the brand started to take place. (And yes, the old “creative director” is still working at the company.) Over lunch in New York in February, the director explained that the whole “anonymous” thing isn't a fluke or a stunt. It was a choice. And clearly, it was working.

But the director, who also prefers not to be named, had more surprises in store, namely that the brand is deviating from its fruitful formula. Glamour can exclusively confirm that the company is transitioning from vegan leather to real calfskin leather for nearly all of its handbag styles. Aupen will also introduce other animal products, including crocodile skin, which can be found on the newly released Nirvana Kiss ($420).

The brand plans to continue to use vegan materials on a handful of styles, specifically the crystal-studded Ice versions of Aupen's signature shapes (the brand's commercial director notes that the crystals adhere more easily to the faux-leather fabric). However, the calfskin versions of the brand's most in-demand styles have already rolled out online with little fanfare. Updated item descriptions emphasize that the calfskin leather is “responsibly sourced and fully traceable through the Leather Working Group to ensure environmental and ethical standards are upheld.” Other LWG-certified companies include J.Crew, Tapestry (which owns Coach, Kate Spade, and Stuart Weitzman), and Salvatore Ferragamo.

For Aupen, the commercial director explained, real leather was the lesser of two evils. Neither vegan nor real leather are 100% sustainable, so the brand chose the material they expect will hold up best over time. “We listened to customer feedback,” they said. “People wanted bags that could be heirlooms.”

Shockingly, the pivot to calfskin will not impact Aupen's commitment to affordable “eco-luxury.” As of press time, prices have not increased for any of the styles that are now being made with real leather. “We have good relationships with suppliers and factories, and that has helped us keep the pricing the same,” says the commercial director. The privately owned business, which is headquartered in Singapore, is a self-funded enterprise, they add.

Aupen's asymmetrical shapes are rooted in the Japanese aesthetic principle of fukinsei, which emphasizes that balance can be achieved not despite irregularity but because of it. There are currently 12 handbag styles available for sale on Aupen's website, ranging in price from $180 to $420. Though the most popular styles, including the Fearless and the Nirvana, come in an array of bright colors, the bags stay true to the designers' minimalist intentions. Even the flashier Ice bags, which are embedded with crystals, are relatively understated, devoid of ostentatious logos. The Nirvana is the only bag that includes branding; “Aupen” is etched onto a metallic gold charm shaped like an enlarged kidney bean. Notably, the charm is removable.

This denial of ego is echoed in the structure of the business as well. There are now a total of four designers—one in Brooklyn, one in San Francisco, and two in Singapore—who refer to themselves as part of the brand's “design collective.”

“That’s the strategy,” the commercial director tells me. “No photos of them, no names, so that egos don’t start coming out. We all agree, no one does it.”

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Hailey Bieber carries an Aupen bag in May. Getty Images

They add, “The designers really wanted [Aupen] to be product and design first. The design needs to be strong enough to move commercially, to be on celebrities, and that’s all they have to worry about. They don’t have to worry about, like, their camera angles.”

The relationship between the cofounders, the commercial director, and the founding designer, also seem to reflect the principle of fukinsei: The commercial director, who lives in Singapore, joined forces with his longtime friend, the Brooklyn-based founding designer, to launch the business in 2022. While the designer refined the Fearless, each edition slightly more seamless, more fluid than the last, the commercial director was toiling away to land the bags in the hands of America's most conspicuous consumers. Elegant, organic design meets a mastermind in marketing: the perfect balance.

Utilizing the commercial director's background in luxury fashion marketing (they previously worked at an agency that introduced American and European brands to Asian markets), Aupen is seeking the ever-elusive middle ground between luxury and fast fashion. They applauded Telfar's Bag Security Program, which democratized the drop model, ensuring that everyone who wanted to a buy the Telfar shopper—a.k.a. the Bushwick Birkin—could get their hands on one. Similarly, Aupen does not plan to discontinue any styles or issue any limited edition runs. As long as there is demand, the director says, they will keep producing each collection.

“Aupen is seasonless, and we want it to be inclusive,” they add. “We want people to be able to afford it and have it—not like, afford it and then go resell it.”

Aupen will also be expanding beyond handbags. The brand launched jewelry in late 2023 and has so far found fans in the loyal It girls they'd previously courted, including Dakota Johnson, who was spotted in a pair of Wave ($140) earrings while promoting her Saturday Night Live episode earlier this year.

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Dakota Johnson in Aupen's Wave earrings, $140 Getty Images

The design collective is “not following the traditional structure,” says the commercial director, referring to the brutal fashion schedules that have caused so many designers to burn out. “Today the design collective may see a gap in the market for this particular trend that no other brand is doing. But it’s not like they have to follow a runway schedule or Fashion Week. It’s great because they might have, like, three SKUs, but we know that these are what [customers] want.”

With more categories in the works—including apparel and shoes—Aupen hopes to find even greater success with its unconventional, “eco-luxury” model. It's unclear at this point whether the young brand will sink or swim, but clearly, they're not afraid of a little risk. Or PETA.

Sam Reed is Glamour's senior entertainment editor.

This article was sincerely referred from GLAMOUR
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