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For luxury designer purses, consumer demand is in the bag

Desire rather than logic feeds the frenzy for satchels that cost as much as $10,000. Rentals are available.

August 19, 2007|Lisa Anderson | Chicago Tribune

NEW YORK — A tasseled Gucci Indy bag, in beige and ebony GG logo fabric, for $2,350 . A Duomo satchel from Louis Vuitton in a chocolate and bronze checkerboard canvas for $1,330 . A small satin and tulle camellia evening bag from Chanel for $3,225.

What began as a crudely fashioned pouch of skin presumably crafted for a cave woman's convenience has emerged as the 21st century American woman's most public and pricey consumer craving: the luxury designer handbag.

As prices continue their dizzying ascent, the passion for purses grows stronger. Even Coach, which had been among the more affordable labels, is introducing a $10,000 crocodile number.

Like most obsessions, the luxury handbag habit feeds on desire, not logic. So, it's no matter if a bag with a four-figure price tag may be bereft of leather, let alone exotic skins like python and crocodile.

Although prices may seem breathtaking, "handbags are luxury items that the masses can afford to have -- it's not a car or a boat or a house," said Jill Valentine, a Chicago banker who was carrying a Furla bag.

She estimates that she owns about 20 luxury handbags, primarily from Gucci and Louis Vuitton, and usually buys one or two new bags each season. Although she tends to shop around for her bags, she said, "sometimes I splurge."

"It's an addiction," said Dana Thomas, author of "Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster," to be published this month. "Shall we take Nancy Reagan's 'Just Say No to Drugs' and make it, 'Just Say No to Handbags'?"

Thomas says the trend is "disturbing but yet not surprising because luxury brands have invested so much in selling the idea" of glamorous accessories. Not to mention thrusting them into the hands of celebrities and other newsmakers.

For example, actress Helen Mirren, a 2007 Academy Award winner for her work in "The Queen," left the stage with her Oscar in one hand and a $250,000 diamond-encrusted alligator Cleopatra clutch from designer Lana Marks in the other.

"This would have happened with or without the celebrity endorsement," said Marshal Cohen, chief analyst of the NPD Group, a consumer and retail information provider that began an accessories-tracking service in May. Calling the handbag craze "an amazing phenomenon," Cohen estimated that the number of consumers buying luxury handbags, which he defines as beginning around $400, has doubled in the last five years, going from 6% to 13% of the population.

"They're reaching for the handbag as an expression," he said. "You don't need to worry about does it fit or not fit. You're taking a lot of the emotional baggage -- bad pun -- out of the handbag."

But many women must put a lot of sacrifice into affording it. "When I do my presentations, I talk about how women are willing to go without the essentials of life to buy a handbag. It's that important," Cohen said.

"Absolutely," said Whitney Ritter, 22, a sales and marketing associate in New York. "I know people who deprive themselves of meals out with friends or going to the movies at night so they can save up for a nice bag or pair of shoes. I would just never go that far."

And for those who can't afford to buy or who want to sample first, websites offer luxury bag rentals.

What really matters is the bag as celebrity: It's got its own name, a designer label and, perhaps, the "It" status that launches lengthy retail waiting lists.

"First of all, any price of a handbag -- and price relative to workmanship and fabrication -- is meaningless," said Stephanie Solomon, vice president for fashion direction at Bloomingdale's. "Lately, those kind of rules have been thrown out the window. Now it has more to do with what's cool. What bag is the cool girl wearing? What is the new status? And status does not necessarily in this day and age equate with money." She cited the influence of celebrities and fashion magazines.

"It's phenomenal to me to watch the young girls -- I'm talking 15-year-old girls -- pining after a Marc Jacobs bag, and these bags are $2,000," Solomon said. "It's beyond belief."

Ritter received her first designer bag, a Kate Spade, when she was 17.

"Ever since then I've kind of had my eye on designer bags," said Ritter, who carries a Louis Vuitton tote and craves a Chloe Paddington bag. "A great bag you can carry every day and, if you get tired of it, you can stick it in your closet and chances are you'll be pulling it back out again a few years down the road."

As the bottom lines of manufacturers and retailers attest, the desire for designer handbags shows no sign of abating.

"We seem now to be in a race -- no matter what the product category -- to purchase the most expensive option in that category," said Larry D. Compeau, a marketing professor at Clarkson University and executive officer of the Society for Consumer Psychology.

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