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Designer Creates Bags for Sport and Dress

October 10, 1986|MANDY BEHBEHANI

Mary Ann Rosenfeld was positioned in the Westside Pavilion Nordstrom, wearing a black Donna Karan outfit and grappling with a price tag that refused to stay in place on a purse.

It's not only price tags that are giving the 40-year-old Los Angeles handbag designer trouble these days. In her industry, she laments, times are tough.

"If we see even a 10% increase this year, it'll be great," said Rosenfeld, who was in the store to promote her newest bags for dress and sport.

Pushing back luxurious dark hair that threatened to cover her eyes, she said: "I'm working harder than ever to maintain my business or to have it grow just a little. I'll be lucky to do $5.5 million at wholesale," she added, noting that she did $2 million at wholesale back in 1977--her first year in business.

But Rosenfeld looks on the bright side. Although sales of her sport bags are shrinking, she says, her better-bags division doubled its sales last year, and this year will run 40% to 50% ahead.

The outlook is not really promising, however. Harold Sachs, executive director of the National Handbag Assn., a New York-based trade group, says foreign penetration of the U.S. handbag market in dollars is running at about 65% to 70% these days.

"The truth of the matter is we don't have the craftsmen in the U.S. today," Rosenfeld explained. "It's not a treasured or prestigious profession anymore."

American manufacturers, the designer said, have gone offshore to produce their goods, as Rosenfeld herself has done. (Her more expensive bags are made in Hong Kong.) And department stores now import so many of their handbags directly that they need fewer from domestic makers.

"The stores who were our best customers have become our most serious competitors," Rosenfeld added. "If there were 600 viable handbag manufacturers (in the United States) when I started, it's a surprise if there are 60 today."

Rosenfeld, who grew up in Los Angeles, graduated from Syracuse University in New York and worked in an art gallery and two women's apparel firms here before co-founding a company called Baggs in 1975. A year later, she struck out on her own, and today her bags are sold in Nordstrom, Bullock's, Robinson's, Lord & Taylor, Saks Fifth Avenue and Marshall Field.

Rosenfeld's sport bags--in imported fabrics, heavily embossed vinyls and vinyls with leather trims--retail for $30 to $75. Bags in her more expensive line are of natural and dyed leathers, reptiles and imported fabrics, priced from $90 to $175. Her fall colors range from olive, black and natural tones to teal, purple and mauve. Rosenfeld, who owns her company, designs dressy and sporty bags in simple pouch, clutch, tote, drawstring and briefcase shapes.

She has no special plans to combat the soft market, other than to "make bags of the best design and highest quality. You have to be totally original and pay attention to detail," she explained. "We're known for our color, and you just have to have wonderful colors. I study the American and European collections. I'm a nut for scale and proportion and visual appeal. I think I've proven you can beat the odds."

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