- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Christina Taylor gets anxious each year before her birthday.

The nerves don’t come from the growing number of candles on her cake, though. They come from picking out the gift she gives herself each year: a designer handbag.

Ms. Taylor, a 29-year-old business manager for a professional speaker, buys clothes at Target and doesn’t understand how people spend hundreds of dollars on shoes. But she drops big money — hundreds of dollars — on handbags, one of the fastest-growing accessories in retail.

“The [price of the] first one was like a heart attack. … I didn’t buy one again for two years,” the Bowie resident says. “Then I became obsessed.”

Ms. Taylor isn’t the only one.

Designer handbag sales have spiked nearly 20 percent since 2003 to an estimated $6.4 billion last year, according to trade publication Accessories Magazine, and women buy twice as many bags today as they did just five years ago, according to Coach Inc. The industry attributes the increase to women using handbags to experiment with their wardrobes and society’s interest in upgrading everything from their coffee to their fashion accessories.

The price of designer bags runs the gamut from a purse for about $100 to bags by top-of-the-line-designers, such as Chloe, Louis Vuitton or Fendi, whose black crocodile “B” bag tips the scales at $27,700 and is the most expensive handbag in the world, according to Forbes magazine. Cha-ching.

Some analysts attribute the increase to designers making more eccentric handbags.

Five years ago, bags were designed to go with everything — they came in brown, black or beige and in a limited stock of sizes and styles, says Pam Danziger, president of Unity Marketing in Stevens, Pa., and author of “Let Them Eat Cake: Marketing Luxury to the Masses — as well as the Classes.”

Now, they’re in bright colors or bold patterns that don’t go with every outfit, prompting buyers to purchase some “everyday” bags, such as a black messenger bag, and fun bags, such as a pink metallic purse, even though it goes with only a few outfits.

“Five or 10 years ago, a handbag was pretty neutral. It was designed to match anything,” Ms. Danziger says. “Today, they’re highly distinctive and designed to go with a select group of things.”

Washington isn’t immune from the handbag craze.

This spring’s opening of the Collection at Chevy Chase, an upscale collection of boutiques, brought Washingtonians up close to designer goods. Handbags by Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior, Gucci and Bulgari sit next door to Jimmy Choo shoes and Tiffany gems.

At Nordstrom in Tysons Corner Center, handbag department manager Tiffanie Sebree often has waiting lists for the newest, hottest designer bag. In the spring, it was a Marc Jacobs bag. This fall, it looks like it will be Chloe’s Edith bag, which costs between $1,200 and $1,800, she says.

Miss Sebree says she is seeing more purchases by teenagers — as young as 15 or 16 years old — and men, shopping for their wives and girlfriends.

“If a guy kind of knows his wife’s taste, he doesn’t have to worry about the size,” she says. “It’s a nice gift to present to someone. Who is going to complain about getting a Chloe bag?”

Coach spokeswoman Andrea Shaw Resnick says women use handbags as a way to keep their wardrobe up to date or to try something new.

“It’s much easier to go out and buy a fun, brightly colored or metallic bag than a brightly colored or metallic suit,” she says.

Women buy an average of four handbags per year — up from half that in 2001, according to the designer’s figures.

According to Coach’s designer handbag sales calculations (they count sales of all handbags and small wallets and pouches priced at more than $100), sales rose 17 percent last year and 30 percent in 2004.

Ms. Shaw Resnick also attributes the increase in handbag sales to department stores giving more floor space to designer bags and new designers entering the market.

Still, designer handbag buyers — those willing to spend more than $150 on a bag — make up only about 10 percent of all handbag buyers, according to an early 2005 study from NPD Group, a Port Washington, N.Y., retail analysis firm.

But the people who buy designer handbags buy many of them.

Until about eight years ago, Ms. Taylor bought fake designer bags that quickly fell apart or lost buttons. Then, she bought her first Louis Vuitton bag, bought another one two years later and quickly ramped up her purchases. Today, she estimates she has nearly 40 designer bags.

She justifies her purchases with the bags’ lifetime guarantee, durable construction and an opportunity to brighten up plain business attire with bright bags, like a one-of-a-kind bag made from a bright red and gold wedding kimono.

“If I’m wearing all black, it’s something nice that makes my outfit pop,” she said.

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