Unending accessory quest

Designers know shoes, purses can make an outfit

— What's likely to be the first thing to jump out at you when you open a woman's closet? If it's not the scores of shoes that come tumbling out every time the door is opened, it's probably the handbags that rain down from the top shelf.

Shopping for accessories is almost a genetic thing: Women seem to be predisposed to collecting stilettos and purses, even when it would appear they didn't need any more.

Another oddity is the almost total disregard of cost when it comes to these items. Even in this down economy when fashionistas hunt bargain basements for the bulk of their wardrobes, these same women won't forgo the "it" handbag or shoe of the season � which could set them back several hundred dollars.

"Price doesn't seem to be an object," says Mary Jimenez, the vice president of merchandising for eLuxury, an e-commerce site that sells pricey brands such as Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior. "Women look forward to the next great new thing."

Shoes are the fastest-growing business for the Web site, and handbags are a bigger business than ready-to-wear clothes, says Jimenez, who says she underestimated the demand for bags that cost upward of $1,000.

"Even in difficult economic times we don't see either of these businesses slowing," she adds.

Making a statement

Jimenez's theory for the success in selling shoes and handbags is that American women believe: "It's better to have one great bag than several mediocre bags, and it's best to have several great bags."

If a woman is carrying a $600 handbag that says style, quality and fine workmanship, no one will notice her outfit. The same goes for great shoes, according to Jimenez.

She says onlookers will see a woman who has paired great accessories with a Gap T-shirt and everywoman black pants and think the woman is either really savvy and smart, or think her whole outfit is expensive.

Jimenez also touts the instant gratification that an accessory can bring while also being a timeless item that won't go out of style in a few months.

Typically, a first-time luxury bag or shoe shopper buys a more classic shape, according to Jimenez, but once she's "hooked," she spends double the original amount on more expressive pieces.

Shoes and purses are a way of making a style statement, expressing your personality and brandishing a status symbol all at the same time, says Tamara Mellon, president and founder of Jimmy Choo, a company best known for its sexy stilettos. And as casual clothes become the norm, accessories become even more important to help a woman set herself apart, she adds.

Another plus is that accessories don't depend on body shape to be flattering. "Choosing shoes is not a 'fat-day', not a 'thin-day' thing," Mellon observes.

She says high heels even can be mood-altering since "being taller is empowering."

Ageless and timeless

While Mellon fills her closet with the new Jimmy Choo collection each season (including the round-toe and gothic shoes for this fall) and puts the previous line in storage, she says she always holds on to as many strappy, black high-heeled sandals and high-shaft boots as she can.

In fact, she says, classic accessories are a wise investment once their longevity is considered.

"Shoes won't date themselves. You can wear them two to three years later and they won't be out of style but I don't want to wear my clothes from last autumn next autumn," says Mellon. A woman can also wear her favorite pair of shoes several times a week without any whispers from her peers, but the same people would talk if she wore the same shirt every day.

Judith Leiber designer Drusilla Plunkett intends the brand's purses to be "forever bags." Not only should the style and quality last a lifetime, they should be passed to the next generation, she says.

And, she adds, the shoes the company is introducing this fall are also meant to be ageless, but more in the both-young-and-old-can-wear-it way.

For shoes and purses, the company has a day collection intended for women who work and ladies who lunch, and an evening collection that sparkles.

Stilettos decorated with colored crystals in an intricate pattern are supposed to be easily identifiable as Judith Leiber. "They're for someone who has whimsey in her soul. ... It's a fantasy and it makes you smile," Plunkett says.


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