Power bags become a feminine status symbol
Supersizing is the newest trend in handbags this season.
CHICAGO -- Handbags are big this season. Really big.
The cult of the handbag has reached new heights, literally. The hottest handbags are close to 2 feet tall and wider than a doorway -- power bags large enough to hold a small bureau and topple a passerby with one swing of the shoulder. And the price tags are just as hefty at 1,500 and up.
Observers of fashion and culture say It Bags are to women what sports cars are to men, a competitive status symbol that knows no rational limits.
In a day when jeans and T-shirts are common and upper echelon executive women dress down to preserve authority, an outrageously expensive must-have It Bag, especially one so big it's hard to miss, announces its owner has arrived.
In the past two years, sales of handbags soared at a pace of nearly 6 percent a year to an estimated 6 billion in 2006, according to a report from market research firm Mintel International Group.
Celebrity and fashion magazines devote pages to stars and their handbags. Online chat forums and blogs, including Purseblog.com and Handbag.com, have sprung up for fans to swap tales about their favorite purses and the famous people who lug them.
Kate Moss strolling down the street with her Mulberry Bayswater. Victoria Beckham hopping out of a car with her supersized quilted Prada shopper. Lindsay Lohan swinging her curvy Fendi B. Heidi Klum voguing with her oversized YSL white ostrich Muse.
And, of course, the famous Hermes Birkin that Martha Stewart toted to her trial. Stewart revealed in a Barbara Walters interview, before heading off to prison, that she bought the bag to reward herself after she became successful.
The Birkin is the holy grail of handbags. It takes years just to get on the wait-list. The price can range from 10,000 to 50,000. And carrying one sends a signal of privilege that is difficult to match.
Stewart isn't the only woman to splurge on a handbag after reaching a certain echelon. It's a common practice, say several executive women.
"It shows you mean business," said Melissa Giovagnoli, president of Chicago-based Networlding.com, who totes a 1,500 Prada. "It doesn't matter if I'm using a Bic pen, as long as I have my Prada bag."
Anne MacDonald, chief marketing officer of Federated Department Stores Inc., parent of Marshall Field's-turned-Macy's, changes her bag daily. She has a closet full of Lambertson Truex handbags all neatly stacked on shelves, stuffed with tissue paper to keep their shape.
"I'm like Imelda Marcos with shoes," MacDonald laughs, showing off the luxurious inside lining of a Lambertson satchel she bought 11 years ago.
Grace Tsao-Wu, owner of Tabula Tua, once carried the same bag for three months. Now, she has set up a small table by her door to hold her handbags for the week, right next to her cell phone charger and BlackBerry.
Alice Peterson has always been in favor of one big bag and finds it easier than ever to find one. She just bought a Marc Jacobs leather tote that has extra straps to prevent back problems, a common complaint from carriers of big bags.
The Mintel report noted women from all demographics are susceptible to buying a purse on impulse on any given day. It is no wonder, then, that many department stores have moved their handbag departments to prominent spaces near the stores' entrance.
Neiman Marcus on North Michigan Avenue in Chicago counts its handbag business, which takes up a good chunk of the first floor, as "one of the best businesses in the store," said Wendy Krimins, vice president and general manager of the Magnificent Mile store. Some bags, like Chanel's shiny black Coco Cabas for 1,995, are so popular they are snapped up by wait-listed customers before the bags make it to the display shelf.
"There's no price resistance," said Krimins. "No one flinches. The business just keeps getting better and better. It doesn't matter if you've gained a pound or lost a pound, you can carry an It Bag."
Just ask cartoonist Cathy Guisewite. Her comic strip "Cathy," about the average woman's anxieties, has run a series for the past two weeks on the supersized handbag -- an accessory she calls "a garage with shoulder straps." A saleswoman tells Cathy when she puts a purse on her shoulder that is bigger than she is, "It makes you look petite by comparison!"
To be sure, most women can't help but carry way too much in their handbags. And who knows how many women will be visiting their doctors' offices this year with knotted necks and twisted shoulders.
Cindy Burrell won't be one of them. The Northbrook, Ill.-based executive for Boardroom Bound, a Washington, D.C. organization that helps women get on corporate boards, said she got tired of being the porter for her family.
"You just end up carrying everyone else's stuff around," said Burrell. "When I had a larger purse my husband and children would give me their stuff. I carry a little purse now."