- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 30, 2003

All-female parties in living rooms across the country are going back to the 1950s with purses rather than Tupperware. The practical plastic containers have been replaced by the glamorous accessory no true lady of fashion can be seen without: fancy bags, either created by up-and-coming designcompanies like Posh Purses and A Sow's Ear, or illegal knockoffs of classic designs made by runway bigwigs like Prada, Gucci and purse maven Kate Spade.
"The concept is catching like wildfire," says young California-based designer Stephanie Sherwood, 35, of A Sow's Ear. "Purse parties are an opportunity for all types of women and their children to get together in a social setting and shop."
Around Christmastime, a post on the popular online classified ad site Craigslist.com read: "Host a purse party. All the styles, Kate Spade … Tod's, Burberry," referring to counterfeits of the popular designer products.
For a woman whose desire for a one-of-a-kind handmade bag or a designer purse is bigger than her wallet, fake Fendis and other impostors can be the life of a purse party.
Career women, housewives and even celebrities are joining the trend, inviting big groups of friends to their homes to shop, snack and chat.
"Women on the Hollywood Walk of Fame are even starting to throw purse parties," says Gina Alexander, who heads her own bag design company, Gina Alexander Inc., and has clients like Sharon Stone and Elizabeth Taylor.
A successful purse-party hostess is organized. She must have knowledge about fashion trends and her guests' personal styles. Bags ranging from fakes to coveted purses crafted by little-known designers are procured in advance. Then, party details what to serve, what kind of music to play are determined.
Once these matters are settled, the hostess typically lures her friends for a social afternoon or evening, free of high-pressure sales pitches.
Purse parties often are coupled with cocktails. They can center on a meal or a tea, or be the focus of a truly civilized bachelorette party. Some higher-end purse parties begin with fashion and end in beauty, capped off with a day at the spa.
The first 20 minutes of any purse party is usually frantic, Mrs. Sherwood says, with a roomful of women going after the same purse.
Some women become possessive. "There is usually a catfight between women who are set on getting the purse they have been eyeing," Mrs. Sherwood says. "But everyone usually ends up laughing, especially if they get a bit of wine in them."
By party's end, the hostess can make money or earn a free bag or two. Legitimate designers usually offer the hostess a percentage of the profit or a free handbag.
How much money a hostess can rake in depends on her inventory and varies by region.
"You do have the potential to make a living," Mrs. Sherwood says. "But you have to be willing to put in some money up front."
She said one party can yield around $800 to $1,500.
The concept of selling products at home gatherings came from Brownie Wise, a middle-aged single mother who sold Tupperware door to door to supplement a meager income. She figured out how to sell more plastic containers than any business school graduate dreamed possible.
Earl Tupper, a conservative New Englander who created Tupperware in 1942, was amazed by Mrs. Wise's numbers. When Mr. Tupper asked what her secret was, Mrs. Wise revealed: the Tupperware home party.
Mr. Tupper pulled his entire product line from retail outlets and in 1951 made the Tupperware party the company's exclusive form of distribution.
Not all purse designers like the idea of a living room as a sales venue.
For established businesses like Kate Spade and Coach, purse parties are just another way consumers end up with black-market handbags instead of the genuine articles they distribute to high-end stores.
Barbara Kolsun, senior vice president and general counsel at Kate Spade, said selling counterfeit merchandise at purse parties is a form of theft.
"All these ladies who think it's fun and cute are committing a crime," Ms. Kolsun said. "When we find out someone is selling counterfeits at purse parties, the first thing we do is call the police."
Ms. Kolsun said one knockoff is sold for every authentic handbag sale and Kate Spade loses an estimated $70 million per year because of the counterfeit market.
People who pay cash for counterfeit purses don't know where the money is going, she said.
Another naysayer is Carole Sadler, Coach's senior vice president and general counsel. Ms. Sadler suggests education as the best weapon against purse parties aimed at selling counterfeits.
"I do not think housewives know what they are getting into," Ms. Sadler said.
Those who want to acquire handbags for purse parties through legitimate means can turn to designers like Tori Alvarado, owner of ThePurseParty.com and designer of Posh Purses.
Ms. Alvarado's venture started as a quest to quit corporate America and stay at home with her newborn boy.
"If I sold purses through a retail outlet, that would have required me to be there instead of at home with my son," Ms. Alvarado said.
Her at-home business quickly blossomed. She eventually was able to produce a line of handmade purses boasting a mix of fabrics, flowers, feathers and beads from all over the world.
Now Ms. Alvarado's purses are available to women across the United States who want to throw purse parties.
Anything handmade accessories that won't be seen coming and going on other women is usually a big draw in the fashion world, she says.
"Ladies want something unique and that no one else has," Ms. Alvarado says. "It is a personality thing. You feel someone specially made it for you."
Ms. Alexander's handbags have been snapped up at celebrity purse parties thrown by stars like Christina Applegate, Minnie Driver and LeAnn Rimes.
If purse parties are only a passing fad, at least they suggest a shift in women's ideas of fun: Gatherings now are devoted to decorative designer accessories rather than reusable plastic food containers.
Ms. Alexander believes the trend will have a long run because the purse, a classic complement to a coordinated look, always is in demand.
"It will last because the handbag is a woman's companion," Ms. Alexander said. "Women put their whole life in there."

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