1. It’s not made of leather. It’s not even made of good faux leather.
I’m not talking about evening bags, which can be made out of everything from silk to hard plastic and still look totally luxery. I’m talking about everyday bags made out of canvas and polyester and polyurethane.
Spring for real leather whenever possible.
On right: Taupe Leather Bag, KELSI DAGGER (Available at Nasty Gal),$98
If you must go faux, make sure it has a rich texture. Texture is essential if you want to get the look of real leather on a budget. Embossed and suede faux leathers are the most consistently real-looking. There are good pebbled and smooth faux leathers out there, but there are also tons of bad ones. If you look at a smooth or pebbled leather and it looks fake to you, just stay away. And keep in mind that rich jewel tones and black tend to look better in faux leather than bright colors or pastels.
On right: Faux Croc Handbag, FRENCH CONNECTION (Available at Neiman Marcus), $98
Be especially wary of brown faux leather. Ninety-nine times out of 100, flat, brown faux leather just looks cheap. Stay away from bright caramel browns in favor of richer chocolate browns.
On right: Brown Faux Croc Chain Bag, ZARA, $179
2. It’s obviously a knockoff of a trendy, high-end designer bag.
Not being able to afford a $2,700 bag is nothing to be ashamed of.
On right: Brown Mini Handbag, CÉLINE, $2,700
Choose a bag with a nice shape that doesn’t look like it is trying to be something else.
On right: Suede Handbag, ASOS, $77
3. It’s dirty and/or falling apart.
Those little threads sticking out where the two pieces of faux leather are sewn together are way more noticeable than you think. So is that pen mark on the front and those dirty, discolored corners.
If you are really hard on your bags, stick to black or other dark colors that won’t show dirt so easily. When you see a loose thread, trim it. When you see two pieces of leather pulling apart, glue them back together. When you get a mark on your bag, clean it before it can set in
4. It’s covered in contrast stitching.
Cheap brands try to pass off obvious stitching as some sort style-enhancing design detail, but it’s not. It’s distracting. Just because your eye is drawn to something doesn’t mean it’s good. “Expensive” is all about subtlety.
When stitches are visible, they should be straight, small, and unobtrusive.
On right: Snakeskin Crossbody, POUR LA VICTOIRE (Available at Shopbop), $95
5. The hardware is lightweight.
Nothing cheapens up a bag faster than a dinky and overly shiny chain or zipper pull.
Less hardware is better than flimsy hardware. And don’t fall for that thing where brands just put a faux finish on lightweight hardware to make it look more like the heavy stuff. Hardware is something you really can’t fake.
On right: Green Bowling Bag, ZARA, $100
6. It’s just too cutesy.
You are not a kid anymore.
Ruffles and rosettes and frilly, scalloped edges with little holes punched in them and bows all over the place is not an “expensive” look. Sure, some high-end designers specialize in this sort of hyper-feminine aesthetic, but what works on a $2,000 bag doesn’t always work on a $100 bag, and, honestly, it often doesn’t really work on the $2,000 bag either.
On right: Brown Leather Handbag, H&M, $129
7. It’s got some big logo on it.
Unless you are rocking some Chanel or another super high-end luxury logo, the smaller and less noticeable the brand name on the bag, the better. And don’t even think about an all-over logo print. Not even if it actually is expensive.
No branding is ideal, but if it can’t be avoided, the smaller and more subtle the logo the better, especially if it is a well-known cheap brand.
On right: Black Quilted Chain Bag, CHARLES & KEITH, $96
8. It’s just got too much going on.
Too many different “design features” just make a bag look chaotic and, yes, cheap.
You can still find a totally fun bag, just keep in mind that the fewer details there are, the more important each one is, so you need to choose carefully.
On right: Suede Fringe Bag, NASTY GAL, $50
9. The zipper is hanging out at either end.
Zipper closures in general tend to feel a little cheaper than flap closures or locks, but this is especially true when the ends of the zipper are not sewn into the bag. Being able to pull the zipper out at either or both ends might allow you to open your bag farther, but it makes the bag look cheap.
If you are worried about the security of your belongings, choose a bag with a flap closure and some sort of locking mechanism.
On right: White Shoulder Bag, CHARLES & KEITH, $80
10. It’s just poorly finished.
That means it has crooked seams or the pattern is off-center or the ends of the straps are folded over and sewn in place instead of being bonded around the edges. It’s the little things. Sometimes these are factory flaws that made it through quality control and sometimes it is just bad design, but either way, you want to steer clear.
Check your bag thoroughly for flaws before you buy it.
On right: Tasseled Mini Bucket Bag, ZARA, $50