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Personal Finance > The Good Life
Searching for the perfect handbag
For millions of shoppers, handbags are an obsession. One man ventures into a strange new world.
May 21, 2004: 3:56 PM EDT
By Gordon T. Anderson, CNN/Money staff writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - It's been said that there are two types of people in the world: women who are obsessed with handbags, and men.

Strictly speaking, this is probably not true. Still, for every woman who doesn't care about the perfect little purse, there's another who forms deep relationships with her bags.

What constitutes a super satchel? Obviously, even the most beautiful bag has a purpose, namely to carry stuff.

But reducing it to matters of form and function is like saying sex is just a biological necessity -- the sort of comment only a clueless guy would make.

"Finding the perfect bag is a little bit like finding the perfect husband: when you see it, you just know," says Tifani Wilt, fashion director for Macys West in San Francisco. "It keeps you awake at night. It touches your soul."

Martha's boorish Birkin

Bags can say much about their owners, but at the most basic level they signify status and style.

One hand on her lawyer, the other on her Birkin  
One hand on her lawyer, the other on her Birkin

For the past few years, no bag has conveyed status quite like the Birkin by Hermes. Retail prices start around $5,000 and rise as high as $80,000. Despite the cost -- or perhaps because of it -- the Birkin is on perennial back-order in the world's fanciest stores.

Introduced in 1984, the bag gained its widest exposure two years ago, when an episode of "Sex and the City" depicted Samantha (Kim Catrall) going to absurd lengths to acquire one.

This year, Martha Stewart showed up for trial clutching a Birkin (estimated cost: $10,000). The possession of such an extravagant icon, the New York Times observed, may have damaged Stewart's defense by solidifying "an image of her as a pampered fat cat."

Stewart's conviction pushed the Birkin from tasteful to tacky.

"I think Martha killed it," says Suzanne Bergeron Strumph, a San Francisco jewelry designer. "It seems over-the-top now."

Other, more reasonably priced offerings may supplant the Birkin. One bag of the moment, according to buyer Wilt, is the Luella Giselle (see gallery), from British journalist-turned-designer Luella Bartley. Though pricey at around $800, it's a fraction of the cost of a Birkin -- but almost as hard to find.

Tanner Krolle

"Fashion, by definition, is dynamic," writes Barbara G.S. Hagerty in "Handbags: A Peek Inside a Woman's Most Trusted Accessory" (Running Press: 2002). "Each decade or two has brought radically new interpretations to the basic form of the bag, as well as revivals or reinterpretations of old styles."

One brand busy re-inventing itself these days is Tanner Krolle, a 150-year-old British leather goods company. CEO Guy Salter acquired the company from Chanel two years ago, and quickly began updating.

"The company has always sold to top echelons, like aristocrats and royalty," notes Salter. But products had grown fusty -- distinguished, but dull.

"We set out to rediscover the vision of the founder," he claims. "The original bags were cutting edge and revolutionary for their time."

Written by: Gordon T. Anderson

It seems to be working. When Tanner Krolle began selling its new line at Bergdorf Goodman in New York this year, some sold out in a few days. Now, Salter's trying to build a brand that emphasizes not just high style and luxurious leather, but the fact that Tanner Krolle is explicitly not a conglomerate.

"Our target customer is independent-minded," Salter explains. "She's a bit fed up with the major labels. She doesn't want to be seen with everyone else's bag, and she likes the idea of buying from specialists."

Hester van Eeghen

It's impossible to generalize about a category as vast as this one. That said, creativity is in vogue.

"It's not about the basic black bag anymore," says Wilt. "Now, it's all about color and clasps and individuality."

Dutch designer Hester van Eeghen embodies the notion of playful, yet elegant, style.

"Our customer is a person who winks at life," she says. "She's interested in a little surprise, is curious, and doesn't want to be ordinary."

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Van Eeghen is not well known in the United States, though her distribution network is expanding here and in 11 other countries. I discovered her work in Amsterdam, where her boutique attracts a constant flow of visitors.

Van Eeghen bags have a droll wit to them. A bag with a conservative shell, for example, has a vibrant, bright interior. Another bag opens up like a fan. Still another seems to have just two pockets, until you discover seven more.

"I like a bag that has places to hide all your secrets," explains Van Eeghen.

"Life is dull enough," she said. "There should always be a little twist."

The Good Life is a weekly column that chronicles products, people and trends in luxury consumer goods, travel, and fine food and drink. Write to:  Top of page

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