NEW YORK – Canvas tote bags and skimmer shoes have been warm-weather staples for decades but they seem to be making the leap into the must-have category.

Cotton canvas had long been left to outdoor apparel makers like L.L. Bean, which introduced its basic off-white Ice Carrier Bag in 1944, reintroduced it in the 1960s as the Boat and Tote Bag, and offers it in a rainbow of colors with customized trim. Now, trendier designers and manufacturers are also embracing cotton canvas as an ideal fabric for fashion accessories.

Generally, canvas is less expensive than leather and easier to manipulate.

The fabric, defined by its plain over-under weave with no directional lines, invokes a casual, laid back feeling, says Reed Krakoff, president and executive director of Coach.

Krakoff used canvas this season to craft handbags, shoes and hats in a colorful version of the brand’s signature scribble pattern, and he adorned other canvas pieces with appliques, embroidery and metallic trims. It’s a hearty fabric that can hold treatments, decoration and color while also keeping its shape, he says.

Coach also offers a silk-blend canvas that’s a “more refined, sexier version” that’s both sleek and sporty, he says, and more luxury-market touches, such as blue or lavender exotic python handles, dress it up.

Leslie Hsu, the designer of Ugg Australia Handbags, takes canvas even further: She brings it to the workplace wardrobe.

“I tried to make two distinct groups. There’s a group in sand (canvas), which is sophisticated and the shapes are more tailored. The “surf’ group is extremely sporty, something I’d use as a mom. The boogie tote and board tote are great for the beach; they fit everything and have tons of pockets and are water-resistant on the inside, too.”

The “surf” bags are a white waxed canvas with brightly colored trims and look great with shorts, bathing suits, sarongs and jeans, she suggests, while the “sand” bags are made to blend in with a more professional outfit. The shape can hold a laptop computer, folders, planners and electronics.

“Canvas is like a blank. You can turn it into anything you want,” Hsu says.

She adds: “The fabric is a bit of a chameleon. A lot of designers use canvas for tailored jacket – and it works. It won’t look trendy or dated. Canvas is timeless.”

Timeless but not seasonless, says Krakoff, who right now is using a cotton twill bag with alligator trim. “Just like I wouldn’t wear a cotton poplin suit in the middle of winter, I probably wouldn’t carry a canvas bag. It’s not just about the weight but it’s also in the attitude.”

“Canvas is easy to hold on a hot summer day. It’s the opposite of a hot polyester bag!” agrees Jane Fox, designer of Buzz by Jane Fox, a predominantly canvas line. “It’s a very clean look. It’s a tradition to put your leather bag away in the spring and take out the canvas. It ushers in the new season.”

Fashion’s color revolution has spread to accessories, and that’s what is fueling the re-emergence of canvas, says Shawn Neville, president of Keds Corp. “Canvas is one of my favorite subjects. This year’s top colors are a kiwi, a bright pink and red is starting to come back.”

Color remains bright on canvas when it might start to fade on other fabrics because of canvas’ tight weave.

Canvas can be spot cleaned with a little soap and water, which is good news for families who tote their totes to the beach or on picnics, or people on their way to work who might put their bag down on the subway platform while they drink their coffee, says Glamour’s Suze Yalof Schwartz.

“There’s definitely corporate canvas and campus canvas. There’s a canvas for every aspect of your life. I haven’t seen evening canvas, but you probably will,” she says.


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