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Shoulder Status

When it comes to handbags, where celebrities tread, the masses will follow.

By LAUREN B. KRAFT

Kate Moss's Burberry Manor, Victoria Beckham's leopard print Marc Jacobs and Sienna Miller's Kooba. When it comes to handbags, where celebrities tread, the masses will follow--and in no small way. The law of popular culture dictates that when Gwyneth Paltrow steps out with a certain bag, thousands of women will aspire to hanging the same one on their shoulder. Those who can't afford the $10,000-plus Hermes Birkin--one of Paltrow's favorites--aren't allowing steep price tags to stop them from getting their manicured hands on other luxury bags. The market is booming, and fashion experts agree that the handbag fixation will carry through the next few seasons.

"That's a common refrain from my clients--'Oh my god, I'm totally obsessed with handbags,'" says Stephanie Waddell, designer of the Agnes & Hoss accessories line, based in Chicago. "It's almost like jewelry for your arm."

Waddell's line of silk and leather creations ranges from $200 to more than $400, which is modest in the designer handbag arena. Those who have the cash can carry their BlackBerrys in satchels with price tags that rival the cost of many cars. Versions of the Birkin cost up to $50,000.

Meanwhile, women who don't have the black American Express card are still spending hundreds, fashion insiders say.

"They'll save to buy that one bag of the season they have to have," says Melissa Payner, CEO of Bluefly.com, which sells dozens of luxury brands like Prada, Yves Saint Laurent, Louis Vuitton and Gucci.

For those who opt to fake it, counterfeit handbags keep getting harder to differentiate from the real thing, says Stefani Bay, associate professor of fashion marketing and management at the Illinois Institute of Art.

"I think that what's really happening is that the prices are going up so high on the real bags that it's separating the mass market from the luxury market even more," Bay says. "People are throwing up their hands and going, 'Well, if I want something that's going to make me feel good, I'm going to have to get a phony, a knock-off, a counterfeit piece.'"

Monogrammed fakes are particularly popular because the YSL (Yves Saint Laurent), LV (Louis Vuitton) or CC (Chanel) logos are an easily translatable status symbol.

Meanwhile, it's the less obvious bags that are among the most coveted.

"The people who can really afford the stuff, they're not looking for handbags that display the logo," Bay says. "There's a movement--the people who are anti-logo."

Carrying an "it" bag is another form of personal branding, like David Beckham's diamond studs, Madonna's cone bra or even Donald Trump's hair, says Irving Rein, professor of marketing at Northwestern University and co-author of High Visibility, a book about celebrity branding. Rein calls it "made by marketing."

Handbags have beat out other accessories as the must-have of the moment because they make it easy to assert one's status. Slung on your arm, slipped over your shoulder or clutched in your palm, handbags are visible in ways other accessories aren't, Bay says.

Seasons ago it was the Fendi Spy bag or anything Chloe. The TV-sized bags were everywhere throughout the fall, carried on the dainty arms of diaphanous celebrities like Lindsay Lohan and Nicole Richie. Winter and spring will see the same trend, plus the other extreme--the clutch. Look for quilted or jeweled clutches. Red will continue to be the accent color of the moment, and cleaner bags without the accessories and hardware of the fall will dominate, according to Payner.

Chicago women will be more conservative with their winter choices than women in parts of the country where snow isn't an issue, Waddell says.

When trying to guess the hot, new bag, though, it always comes down to what the celebrities are carrying. Cost is not an issue for them, but convenience is.

"Things like clothing and handbags are the easiest to manipulate," Rein says. "They can cost a lot, but ultimately, they aren't facelifts."

Published: December 01, 2006
Issue: Holiday 2006