fashion

Blame the Russians for mad purses

New looks include bags with huge fake gems. At first look they bordered on ugly. But then...

BARBARA AMIEL January 29 2007
fashion

Blame the Russians for mad purses

New looks include bags with huge fake gems. At first look they bordered on ugly. But then...

BARBARA AMIEL January 29 2007

Blame the Russians for mad purses

New looks include bags with huge fake gems. At first look they bordered on ugly. But then...

fashion

BY BARBARA AMIEL • The new year began splendidly for passionate accessory purchasers in the U.S. Amazon.com announced the launch on Jan. 3 of the aptly named Endless.com, a dedicated shoe-and-handbag site with free overnight shipping plus a 110 per cent price guarantee. Find the shoe or handbag at a lower price and Endless.corn will refund you 110 per cent of the difference.

Currently, the site features moderately priced goods (approximately US$25-$700) with bridge lines of designers like Oscar de la Renta. Expansion seems inevitable. Most purchasers know which shoes fit them reliably, the colour, heel height and size they want. As for handbags, all that’s needed is a sniff of the hysteria gripping the globe’s females.

Any contemporary version of Charles Mackay’s 1841 classic Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds would note the desperate waiting lists for—and skyrocketing prices in London, Tokyo, New York and Moscow of—the bag du jour. Demand for Gucci’s spring 2007 silver python handbag is already heading into the “unattainable” sphere its winter 2006 handcuff bag reached. The handbag cult is just about as mad as the 17th century’s tulip mania, during which one particular tulip bulb cost 12 acres of building land or 4,600 florins.

Phenomena of this sort rarely yield to rational analysis, but the downfall of the Soviet Union and economic relaxation in China coincided with the consolidation of the big luxury goods conglomerates including LVMH (Dior, Louis Vuitton, Donna Karan, etc.) and PPR (Gucci, YSL, Balenciaga, etc.). Huge markets opened up even as these companies reorganized and discovered the big profit margins on accessories. Advertising dollars and strategy followed. Movie stars and “it” girls turned up on the pages of InStyle, Hello! or Vogue, sporting the newest handbag.

Handbags can’t hide fat hips or improve complexions. They are for use and status. Walk into a boutique wearing a nasty velour track suit and carrying a purse from the sales bin at Sears and you’ll be treated as a shoplifter. Wear the same outfit and carry the new Chloé crocodile Paddington bag and out comes the coffee—an easy way to establish one’s place in the consumer society’s pecking order.

Forbes magazine recently published a list of the most expensive handbags, including a black crocodile Hermès Birkin with pavé diamond-covered lock and clasp (US$64,800 at auction) and YSL’s Muse bag at a mere US$1,300 in chocolate leather or US$18,990 in sage green or white crocodile. Styles come in a range of prices depending on material and hardware. Crocodile (matte not shiny) is most desirable. Balenciaga’s hot designer Nicolas Ghesquière favours natural distressed goatskin. Precious palladium hardware is more exclusive than gold plate. Imitations of the most popular styles (the Dior saddle bag, Hermès Birkin and Chanel quilted bags) can be bought from retailers, street vendors or on eBay in any price range, from Wal-Mart’s $20 up.

Newest trends have a mad-hatter warp with

buckles, dangling straps, charms and bizarre combinations of leathers and fabric. This is partly due to the influence of “new” wealthy consumers, particularly Russian, who want big bling (the polite, expensive VBH handbag Gwyneth Paltrow favours need not apply). The enormous Japanese market focuses on brand identification, with its customers swarming Fendi, Chanel, Vuitton and Hermès.

As the staider brands acquired new designers and new customers, old looks morphed. JeanPaul Gaultier came to Hermès and the traditional Birkin bag got squashed into a shallow loaf-shaped bag—easier to find things in and able to be worn on the shoulder, but not so aesthetically pleasing. This year Gaultier has a Kelly that can be folded up, rather like a Venetian blind. New, but the advantage is not immediately obvious.

At Louis Vuitton, designer Marc Jacobs has taken up residence in Bedlam. This spring’s Vuitton line continues his everything-plusthe-kitchen-sink approach with buttons, embellishments, skins and fabric—all on the same bag. In his own eponymous line, rational limits prevail. New looks this season include his bags with huge fake gems. At first glance they bordered on ugly. Then the eye readjusted and after another couple of looks, one could sympathize with, even echo, the agonized call posted by “Erin” on the popular TheBagLady.tv.

“Anyone want to take pity on me, and get me that ridiculous but strangely fetching rhinestone bag?” she wrote. Line forms to the right. M