Novelty bags make serious fashion statement

— If there is one fashion accessory women never leave home without, it's their purse. But instead of being just a receptacle for the effluvia of daily life, today's trendy bags are major fashion statements.

Novelty bags that are turning up on the arms of funky women, sophisticated women and everyone in-between are elaborate, bejeweled and often completely impractical. And enormously popular.

Judith Leiber bags, long a status symbol among the older, wealthy set, are decorated with thousands of Swarovski crystals and they come in shapes including dogs, tomatoes and asparagus bunches. The bags can cost up to $5,000.

Victor Lipko, CEO of Judith Leiber, says the pricey bags are attracting a wider audience, notably younger buyers. The bags are meant to be elegant and formal, but Lipko says the younger crowd has been pairing them with jeans and T-shirts.

Lulu Guinness, another bag designer who creates whimsical styles, says that her customers aren't defined so much by age, but by a desire to get noticed.

Guinness' bags take the form of butterflies, lips and a Chinese pagoda; some feature an embroidered New York skyline or a perfume shop.

"My bags can be a useful talking point. Certainly if you place them on a table at an event where you don't know anyone, they almost defy people not to talk to you," she says.

Timmy Woods, a Los Angeles-based designer, says her bags go beyond conversation pieces � they are "psychological bags."

"People can really relate to them," she says of her bags, which are made of wood and carved into mermaids, houses and fish. "They become like your friends."

She admits, however, that there is something a little funny about carrying around, for example, a bag in the shape of a horse's head.

"People do find humor in them; of course, that's a great deal of what they're all about," she says. "You can't help but look. It evokes a feeling. These are 'feeling bags."'

Jane Schoenborn, co-owner and designer for Jane Fox bags, believes that novelty bags are gaining popularity because women are dressing down more often, and a novelty bag "completely zips up a wardrobe."

As the bags become more popular, they are beginning to take on a life of their own. (No wonder, for a bag shaped as a seal or a dove.)

According to Leslie Newton, one of the designers of timi & leslie bags, women build their outfits around the bag, instead of matching a bag to an outfit.

The focus on a woman's purse reminds Newton of the 1940s and 1950s.

"It's a throwback to the time when you had a matching bag and shoes," she says. She adds that she is inspired by vintage fabrics � "They make me think of my grandma in the '50s with her plastic-covered couches."

Guinness also culls inspiration from the '40s and '50s. "This era is a huge influence in my work. It represents a time of elegance and femininity � and everyone was so glamorous."

That glamour comes at a cost, however. Judith Leiber bags start at around $1,000, and the tiny totes fit barely more than a credit card and pack of gum. (They do, however, come with a miniature gold-plated comb and mirror set, and a change purse.)

"They're not throwaway bags," says Jennifer Tash, a designer for Isabella Fiori. The average Isabella Fiori bag costs $325, so Tash tries not to make them too trendy so they can be used for several seasons. Instead, she focuses on designs that offer "a little bit of something extra."

A popular bag is the "Beaded Monkey," which she calls "a funny little bag" with a jungle motif.

"I think that even with the economy going down, people still want to be different," says Tash.

"If they're going to spend good money on something, they want to be singled out for it."


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