Whither the wallet?
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In January the American brand Telfar, known for its cult tote bag (aka the “Bushwick Birkin”), released a wallet for the first time. Available in 17 colours – from a classic black to fuchsia, passing by acid green – the Telfar wallet, priced at $144, sold out instantly. For the brand’s founder and designer, Telfar Clemens, the launch was a no-brainer. “It’s probably the number-one request [from consumers],” says Clemens. “We give the people what they want.”
That people are still wanting wallets – especially a classic bifold design like Telfar’s – comes as a surprise. This is a dangerous time for the receptacle that has long held credit cards, cash and paper receipts. A recent survey by Mastercard said that 21 per cent of the UK consumers don’t expect to carry a wallet or purse in the next five years, with 41 per cent of Gen Z saying they never expect to buy a physical wallet ever again. Wallets with a coin purse seem especially anachronistic in this cash-free age.
But while the traditional wallet may be falling out of favour, retailers are reporting that the cardholder – the bifold’s slimmer, sleeker cousin – has been gaining traction. “Cardholders and slimline wallets are increasing in popularity, with a notable rise in searches,” confirms Daniel Todd, buying director for Mr Porter. In other words, the wallet may be slimming down – but it’s not wasting away.
Thom Scherdel, menswear category manager at Browns, argues that “wallets remain defiant as a wardrobe staple. Card holders and wallets have always fluctuated in popularity with no rhyme or reason.” Logos are currently very popular, he says, because wallets, like other accessories, “have a more accessible price point for those looking to buy into luxury brands”; but yes, “size is definitely slimming and getting smaller as necessity has changed”.
“Many of our customers still love a classic wallet in which to keep everything in one place,” says Luc Goidadin, creative director at Smythson, who points out that coin purses are still often needed for those travelling internationally, where cash is more popular. “Nonetheless, there is a growing demand for smaller, versatile items that reflect a more digital and mobile lifestyle.” Smythson’s bestselling Marshall Travel Wallet, for instance, can carry passports and foreign currencies, and “can double up as a daily organiser”.
The wallet has never been just one thing. “As a rectangular bifolding design, it is a relatively modern invention dating to the early 20th century,” says Darla-Jane Gilroy, author of Fashion Bags and Accessories: Creative Design and Production. “They started life thousands of years ago as leather pouches carried around the neck or hip, or attached to belts to carry precious items, eventually becoming coin purses that were used by men.” In Europe, once paper money appeared in the 17th century, coin purses “became decorative objects that would be displayed bulging with money”.
Fast-forward to the 21st century, and we have less need of a bulging wallet. So how does it survive? Clemens – who is known for his inclusive and accessible take on fashion – suggests that buying a Telfar wallet is essentially a treat, offering people an entry-level item at a brand that has built a powerful narrative about being part of a Telfar community. Clemens suggests that his fans buy several in one go. “If you really needed a wallet how people used to need wallets, then you would never ever have two or three or four wallets,” he reasons. “We have 17.”
The wallet is enduring by becoming more covetable – by standing out rather than shying away. “Younger customers are more daring in terms of colours and prints with cardholders, as it is a good place to experiment and show your personality,” says Damien Paul at MatchesFashion. “We really see Bottega Veneta’s Intrecciato resonating with our fashion-forward customer, and the colourful croc-effect-embossed prints from Tom Ford sell out every season, with sales up 50 per cent on last year.” As for the old-school wallet, “it is definitely not the end”, says Paul. “Our purist customer still looks to Brunello Cucinelli and Thom Browne for their bifold needs.” Bifolds still account for 80 per cent of the site’s wallet sales.
Perhaps the wallet is going the way of the watch. In a world where the time is permanently displayed on every screen, the need for a timepiece isn’t exactly essential – and yet it survives, more sophisticated and desirable than ever. “I think that 90 per cent of the wallet’s survival depends on how it looks on that little tray in your house where you put your keys and your watch,” says the architect Jesper Henriksson, co-founder of the architectural studio Hesselbrand. “If it looks good there, I think it has a future.”
“I have this very cool friend,” he adds, “a very weathered man, and he has a wallet that has lived as hard as he has; and when he puts that on the bar and orders himself a drink, there’s an effect there.” However much it shrinks, the wallet can still speak volumes.