This Week's Wow: Remembering the Man Who Made Shopping Bags Chic

Massimo Vignelli
Photo: Pier Marco Tacca/Getty

In this weekly feature, InStyle’s Fashion News Director Eric Wilson shares his favorite fashion moment of the week, and explains how it could shape styles to come.

The Moment: The graphic designer Massimo Vignelli, who died Tuesday at 83 years old, was known for many great contributions to the visual lexicon of New York and other major cities. He designed the signs for subway stops in New York City and in Washington, D.C., and created a map for the New York system in 1972 that, while controversial for reducing a complex system into neat, clean lines that defied geography (and was eventually replaced), remains an iconic example of the art of graphic design.

But Vignelli also left his mark on fashion, in many ways you might not immediately recognize and that may even be in your home. In the 1970s, he designed shopping bags for New York's biggest department stores. Most famously, while crafting a corporate image for Bloomingdale's, he created one of the most recognizable shopping bag logos in retail history—adding the words "big brown bag" (or medium or little, depending on the size), to its plain brown paper shopping bags (below). They were simple, minimal, and immediately to the point. The bag also, most importantly, instantly branded a person who carried one as a Bloomingdale's shopper.

Bloomingdale's Shopping Bag
AP Photo/Kathy Willens

Why It's a Wow: Vignelli recognized that while fashion is ephemeral, its brands and logos should stand the test of time. "Good design lasts," was a typical refrain. His designs, using color and font, were so elegant that they often projected the identity of a retailer before you could even read the words. He made bags for Saks Fifth Avenue and Barneys, created branding systems for United Colors of Benetton and Knoll, and also created the logo used by American Airlines.

He was even a designer of fashion, though his approach and views on clothing seemed somewhat in contrast to those of the prevailing runways. Rather than strictly seasonal designs, he and his wife, Lella, in the early 1990s, introduced Design Vignelli, a collection of men's and women's clothes that included clean, priestly clothes that prized functionality over trends. In place of a typical work blazer was a loose, cardigan-like jacket with minimal embellishment, which he described as "clothing that follows the body, rather than fashion." While it didn't take off with customers, the collection became something of a personal uniform for the Vignellis.

Learn More: See examples of Vignelli’s designs, including a sketch for his men's wear, on the design blog of the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, or explore his archives at the Vignelli Center for Design Studies.

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