Spring 2007
Profits are in the Bag By Sharon Naylor

The Accessory of Choice

In recent years, handbags have increasingly become the accessory of choice for many women. NY-based Accessories magazine has been reporting steadily increasing sales in handbags for a few years now. In its latest “Census Report” published early this year, the magazine reported handbag sales at all outlets across the United States in 2005, the most recent year for which official numbers are available, was $6.4 billion. This number was up 8% from sales figures for the previous year.

Every girl’s best friend

Shoppers seeking the perfect find know that you stock the independent fashion lines they can’t find in department stores. Irenka Jakubiak, editorial and fashion director at the magazine, points out that for today’s woman, a stylish handbag is a perfect way to keep with the trends. “She wants a wardrobe of handbags to show her personality and taste level,” Jakubiak says. Then there’s the economic factor. “If you’ve got an ‘it’ bag or an indie bag that’s been styled to resemble one, it’s okay if your dress came from Target,” says Jenny B. Davis, shopping editor at the Chicago edition of Where magazine. With most handbags, there is an added benefit that the shopper does not have to worry about her body type or size, as she might with clothing.

The gift store shopper is more interested in finding unique, artisan-quality bags than buying just another designer label. “These special handbags become wearable collectibles that reflect innate style rather than just fleeting trends,” says Cynthia Nellis, ‘About Women’s Fashion’ columnist at About.com.

Kristen Luciani, designer of Krina bags in Oceanside, New York, agrees. “Women express themselves through their appearance, so the design, color and embellishments of a handbag show a woman’s character,” she says. There are some valuable lessons in here for the retailer: When you’re looking at handbag lines, think about the type of consumer who frequents your store. Do you attract the country club set? The sophisticated, urban chic crowd? These women want handbags that speak to them. That city-chic crowd won’t come back again and again if your bags are too cutesy.

Knockoffs: Just say no

Vendors and retailers alike recognize product knockoffs are the bane of the fashion industry. Michelle Medeiros, owner of Bahay Bags in Oakland, CA points out that vendors like her are marketing their brands with a “signature style” that stays in customers’ minds. “Customers identify your ‘look’ along with its distinctive details among the sea of cheaply made, lesser-quality replicas,” she says. “Knock-offs do not have the rich materials, supple leathers, exquisite accents or claps that the originals do—which makes a remarkable difference with the originals and is what makes the handbags so desirable,” Medeiros adds.

Sensational for summer; fabulous for fall

Jakubiak of Accessories magazine says that in late summer, the big trend will remain leather mixed with linen. “Look [for] bags with leather trims, piping and handles,” she says, “That’s the natural transition into fall’s all-leather lines.”

Jakubiak predicts suede handbags will do well in the fall as well as a variety of leathers: patent (especially with a croc or python effect), distressed and ostrich. She advises retailers to stock bags with a definite structure for the fall. Fall bags are all about structure, as opposed to spring and summer’s cloth bags. The bags have a definite shape, whether it’s a rectangular bucket bag or the U-shaped hobo.

Sizes and shapes

Elizabeth Wellington, fashion columnist for PhillyNews.com in Philadelphia, predicts we’re going to continue to see big and small bags with not too many sizes in between. Monica Edwards, senior director of marketing, public relations and events at Vera Bradley in Fort Wayne, Indiana, says the company has seen a lot of success with many shapes. Especially popular these days, is the “hipster” which is worn close to the body.

As the handbags from OOVOO show, today’s handbags have also enjoyed success with more feminine shapes and silhouettes. “We go for a soft, feminine feel,” says Pauline Lewis, chief executive officer and creator at the company in Alexandria, Virginia. Over 600 female artisans in Vietnam create the hand-embroidered OOVOO bags as part of a profit-sharing cooperative. The Asian touches in these bags reflect the growing popularity of ethnic designs.

While OOVOO emphasizes more gentle silhouettes, handbag manufacturers like New York-based Cleo and Patek use clean, contemporary lines as the selling points for their bags. And while medium to larger-sized bags might be the trend, designers are also offering lines of smaller bags and clutches.

Wellington says that shoppers will be looking for bags that are long and thin, like computer keyboards, either as hand clutches or with shoulder straps.

Remember also that clutches when paired with the matching bigger bag can be a nice add-on sale as Oren Hakim, president of Cleo & Patek points out. It’s the material, girl

When it comes to handbags, leather is the old favorite especially for fall lines. Graham Goldwasser, vice president of Bingham, a division of Dynasty Designs, says the company has just launched an “ostrich-look” bag line.

Donna Franzini, manager of Square Luggage and Gifts in Morristown, New Jersey, enjoys success with the leathers from Brighton bags. Vera Bradley with its focus on feminine florals in cotton fabrics, have also been a consistent bestseller for Franzini.

Fashion industry experts agree that while leathers and fabrics will be perennial bestsellers, there’s also an interesting trend toward eco-friendly handbags. Companies such as The News Los Angeles based in Los Angeles, wholesale handbags made out of recycled newspaper.

Other natural materials such as straw and bamboo, jute and even banana bark also enjoy popularity as evidenced by Bahay bags.

Accents and colors

When it comes to handbags, experts say “bling” is over and classic is coming back. “For a while, we saw really big bags with lots of accents, sparkles, stripes,” says Elizabeth Wellington. “And now the look is simpler, more basic.”

For fall, the trend is monochromatic bags with little if any accenting. The look is more conservative, which translates to a wider buying demographic.” When I designed my fall line, I went with the feeling that less is more, that I wanted to really focus on the quality and texture of the leather, and the sleek shapes of the bags instead of covering them up with too many adornments,” says Luciani of Krina bags.

Dena Nance, owner of What’s-in-Store, a gift shop in Franklin, TN, agrees that it’s more about the size and structure of the bag than the accents. She says that this is great news for retailers, since the same bag can now potentially be sold to women across many age ranges. “Our audience for each style is potentially larger,” says Nance. “If bags are accented, it’s usually in conservative buckles, suede or leather ties, leather ruching (a gathered style that resembles ruffles), or signature shapes like the Bingham metal heart motif,” she says.

Part of the departure from lots of “bling” has to do with the beauty of handbag hardware, the closures at the top and front of the bag. Variations include top zipper, magnetic, and flap closures.

As for colors, the color palette in fall is pretty much what you would expect: blacks, browns, and cognacs. Gray is especially hot with experts calling it “the new black.” Color contrasting, as demonstrated by the Cleo & Patek bags, helps ease the transition from summer to fall.


What if your customers would like their handbags’ personalization to go beyond style touches? With the whimsical photo-insertion Brighton Memories handbags, buyers can personalize handbags as gifts to others with the right photos, or simply accent their own bags with photos of their kids.

At z becky brown in Columbia, SC, you’ll find handbags with a hard-sided boxy structure, with slip-in liners that can be changed depending on the owner’s mood or colors of the season. This method allows you to custom-design your own in-store line with knowledge of your customer base, or invite your customers to design their own. Carolyn Whiting, owner of z becky brown, says the company offers 61 different designer inserts covering the whole gamut from traditional to animal prints.

There are also bags from Alpharetta, GA-based Reverse-A-Purse which feature removable covers that reverse to reveal a different pattern. Customers can flip the cover or leave it off and get three different looks from one purse.


The buzzwords for handbags are fashion and functionality. This means user-friendly details such as outside pockets, and space for cell phones, iPods and PDAs. Your customers might also look for comfort straps, adjustable straps, or innovative closures. Most handbag designers have incorporated these features into their designs but it’s important to check when stocking up on new lines.

Once you know your customers’ tastes in handbags, you’ll bring them back to you season after season. After all, as the numbers prove, handbags just might be every girl’s new best friend.

Sharon Naylor

Naylor is the author of 30 wedding books, including Your Special Wedding Vows and Your Special Wedding Toasts.SharonNaylor.net

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