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a brand-new bag

September 03, 1998|ROMEY DE COURTAY | Special to The Times

As the big design houses of the world become better known for their inordinately pricey handbags than for their fashions, a new breed of Los Angeles-based designers has emerged in the past five years to challenge their supremacy.

They're young--between 25 and 40--passionate and headstrong. They offer quality and innovation at affordable prices.

They design and make their bags in L.A. and sell them across the United States, in Europe and in Asia. They've seen their wares worn on and off the air by the stars of television's most celebrated sitcoms and dramas. They've managed to carve a niche for themselves in a market saturated with European heavyweights charging more than $500 for a nylon handbag and $1,000 for a leather satchel.

"Why spend $500 on a bag that you'll use for one season and that will then sit in your wardrobe for the rest of your life?" asks 31-year-old Tiffany Lerman, creator of Chester Bags. "I hate the status indicators, the designer logos," she gripes. "The road has been paved for young designers to do something different."

The London native and daughter of best-selling author Jackie Collins has been designing unpretentious bags in printed velvet, fake fur, embroidered crepe georgette, organza and velvet, Indian silk and brushed faille since 1994.

"Everything I saw was either too floppy and casual or too structured and hard," says Lerman, who started her business out of her parents' pool house. "There was no bag for my generation. I couldn't find anything I wanted to carry."

Her five yearly collections in a mind-boggling assortment of shapes and colors retail between $100 and $160 at Bloomingdale's, Macy's, Nordstrom and specialty boutiques including ICE and Jennifer Kaufman in Los Angeles, and Wendy Foster in Santa Barbara.

Greg Herman is just as passionate about square totes. "How many more square nylon handbags can the market withstand?" asks the baby-faced 26-year-old, a UCLA anthropology graduate who chose handbag design over medicine.

"Fashion needs to be progressive. It should incorporate and modernize different design eras and bring them to another level," he says. "Nothing can ever grow by keeping the same motif."

Herman's first eponymous collection premiering this fall at Jennifer Kaufman, Acacia and Rag Factory features sporty "fashion forward" suede or structured tapestry bags in bordeaux, eggplant, fuchsia, blue, clay and charcoal with tonal or contrasted piping for $120 to $135. His spring collection will include gingham, linen, leather and oilcloth in 12 different patterns and a multiple range of colors. "Designer labels are really making their mark in handbags," notes Arleen Cohen of Arleen C. "A lot of clothing and shoe people are jumping into the category."

Even renowned hairdresser Frederic Fekkai, who owns salons in Beverly Hills and New York, is launching his first handbag collection this fall.

Designs For Every Outfit and Occasion

Cohen, 40, got her start when she hand-set rhinestones on an evening purse, which she wore at her brother's wedding in 1996. Six months later, she set up her own company, offering a selection of fabric or leather bags in prices ranging from $125 to $320. Although she offers a classic hobo bag in Italian glove leather (available at Giorgio Beverly Hills for $320), "I've moved from chain-link handles in faux tortoise shell on simple bags to woven fabric bags with more basic handles," she says. "The novelty has shifted from the handle to the fabric."

Arleen C.'s velvet-and-wool boucle ribbon bags in small, medium or "east-west" size come in a choice of gray or coffee brown at Neiman Marcus, Fred Segal, Giorgio and Nordstrom. Her multicolored velvet weaves can be found at Fred Segal and Giorgio, while her structured velvet buckets are available at ICE stores around town.

"A bag has to be beautiful, comfortable on the shoulder and versatile enough to go with different outfits," Cohen says. "Quality and craftsmanship are just as important as the trend."

Quality is just what Adriana Caras, 33, sought in Italy 2 1/2 years ago. In business since 1993, Caras offers both a bridge line made domestically and a couture line crafted in the region around Florence by the same factories that produce leather goods for Prada, Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana. "One of the factories is a converted farmhouse where the artisans work in lab coats," says the third-generation Angeleno. "These are craftsmen who pass the knowledge on from generation to generation. They have a passion for what they do, which in turn fosters imagination and creativity."

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