The Bills

In the Bag

There’s one thing Primates of Park Avenue definitely doesn’t exaggerate: The obscene power of the designer purse.

Birkin Bag

A one-of-a-kind orange Hermès Birkin, being shown off by Comes With Baggage founder Lori Levine on May 14, 2013 in New York City.

Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images for Comes With Baggage

In Primates of Park Avenue, the endlessly talked about and perhaps slightly-less-than-accurate portrayal of life among the obscenely wealthy wives of Manhattan’s rarified Upper East Side, author Wednesday Martin gets a lot of mileage out of her quest for a rare and très expensive Hermès Birkin bag, as a way to impress the women in her exclusive neighborhood. “With a gorgeous bag, I thought, I would not just have a sword and a shield. I would have something that they did not have, or something they wanted, or something they did have and didn’t want anyone else to have,” she writes.

“Really, you couldn’t put a price on that.”

For all too many women, handbags are conveyers of status as much as they are vessels for wallets and lipsticks and whatever else one needs on a daily basis. Even behavioral finance experts agree. Women, researchers Vladas Griskevicius and Yajin Wang report, use high-end handbags—and other expensive accessories—to signal to other women not just their higher ranks but to stay away from their men. As part of their study, the researchers asked participants to draw luxury-brand logos on purses—and some of the women drew larger logos when made to feel jealous than they did when they didn’t experience envious emotions.

No, Martin isn’t imagining things. Talk about the power of the purse.

But are things changing? As the New York Post headline reported earlier this spring, “Pricey purses no longer the totes of the town.” The evidence? A slowdown in sales at pricey Michael Kors and Coach, combined with massive discounting of name-brand bags at department stores like Nordstrom.  

No need to cling tighter to your shoulder strap. As it turns out, the death of the handbag has been widely exaggerated.

According to the NPD Group, a market research firm, totes, bucket bags, clutches, and other handbags are a $7.9 billion market. American women have an average of 11 handbags in their closets, a poll conducted last year for consignment shop Thredup found. Ten percent own up to owning at least 20 bags. As for the luxury market, 8 percent of us admit to spending at least $400 on a handbag at least once. Over in Britain, a survey conducted last year by yet another market research firm, Mintel, found that women aged 16 to 24 were more likely to spend their extra money on handbags than on underwear, costume jewelry, or scarves.

Yet as natural as this seems to us—or at least to many of the women reading this piece—it wasn’t always like this. It’s a huge increase from a decade ago, when women admitted to owning only six handbags and a mere 10 percent copped to spending more than $150 on a handbag.

While the Birkin, for example, has been the object of pursuit and lust ever since it debuted in 1984 and other pocketbooks certainly enjoyed bursts of popularity, the designer handbag as an item of mass appeal did not occur until much more recently. Most other handbags did not attract much attention till recently. The first signs of a change came in the period between the end of the dot-com boom and the beginning of the real estate bubble. There was a 2000 episode of Sex and the City, the one where Carrie didn’t want to let go of a purple Fendi Baguette when mugged. (The episode was such a sensation, it’s credited by some as the start of the show’s impact on all fashion, not just the handbag.) Then Accessories Magazine noted a 20 percent increase in the handbag market between 2003 and 2005.

That’s the year handbag mania went mainsteam, so much so that Patricia Mink Rath, Stefani Bay, Richard Petrizzi, and Penny Gill definitively declare, “The reign of the handbag began in 2005,” in a book called The Why of the Buy. That’s also the year USA Today proclaimed, “handbags are replacing shoes as the signature accessory” and literary agent Nina Collins told the New York Times she spent about $1,200 on a designer handbag.

It was, some said, the rise of casual dressing. When every day was Casual Friday, a girl needed a way to stand out. “The best thing that ever happened to the handbag industry was blue jeans,” wrote Sabrina Siddiqui for Businessweek in 2007. Another woman told the New York Times, “You can go out with blue jeans and cowboy boots, and that high-priced bag makes it all O.K.”

The merge of the Internet with the celebrity-industrial complex played a role too. Blogs were dedicated to identifying the bags used by celebrities ranging from Jessica Simpson to Kate Middleton and sister Pippa. Others paid attention to business and political leaders—Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer, for instance, was spotted with a quilted Chanel purse slung over her shoulder when she met with President Barack Obama at the White House.

Not surprisingly, designers did—and do—their darndest to make sure their bags ended up photographed on the right hands. (Carrie’s affection for Fendi bags, for instance, was a product placement.) Sometimes they wanted to make sure they didn’t end up in some hands—in 2010, the New York Observer reported high-end purse purveyors were sending free samples of not their own but their rivals’ bags to Nicole Polizzi—aka Snooki from Jersey Shore—so she would hopefully not get photographed while drunk holding one of their products. “Nobody in fashion wants to co-brand with Snooki,” the paper noted.

Then came the supposed slowdown.

Retail analysts have trumpeted the end of the handbag boom almost constantly since the 2008 crash, a fact that brings to mind that oft-told witticism that economists have predicted nine out of the last five recessions. In 2012, Business Insider claimed cheap handbags were the new “it” bags, shortly after Wall Street Journal fashion writer Teri Agins boasted of her $6.97 Walmart pocketbook. In 2013, the Luxury Institute, a market research firm devoted to the study of high–net worth individuals, reported that 20 percent of those living in households with net worths of at least $5 million planned to cut back their handbag budgets. (Don’t give them too much credit for thriftiness. A similar number announced plans to spend “more” or “much more” on restaurants or wine, according to the same survey.)

The age of inequality, it appeared, had finally come for the handbag. Michelle Obama, previously criticized for toting a $990 teal blue Reed Krakoff tote, was suddenly extolled for a $500 camel Eartha bag from Zac Posen. “Another Reason to Love Michelle Obama? She Carries Affordable Bags,” Glamour comically and cluelessly declared last year.

Yes, only in the world of handbags could a $500 carryall be called cheap. And that should give you an idea of what is going on here. The wealthy, claims the Washington Post, no longer want to be recognized. As a result, easy-to-identify, expensive bags with logos are out—that means you, Prada, and you, Kate Spade. What’s in? Bags that you need to be in the know to know—like a Mansur Gavriel.  

You don’t know what it is? Neither did I. Till last summer.

I spent a week at the beach with the family, in Primates author Martin’s favored turf—the Hamptons. (Don’t ask. Really, don’t ask.) Within a day, I realized—like Martin—that I needed a new bag. The other women all seemed to be carrying light, bright, expensive-looking straw carryalls during the day and brightly colored leather ones at night. My serviceable, sturdy black city tote, with its heavy, thick straps, looked like the purse equivalent of orthopedic shoes.

This story ends in some embarrassment, in a restaurant in Sag Harbor, where I waited for a table near an older women with a beautiful, beautiful leather tote flung over her shoulder. So I asked. And not only did I ask, I prefaced my ask by saying, “I. Hate. My. Bag.”

This, for all too many women—and I’m one of them—is utter humiliation. But it’s how I discovered the latest “it” bag.

Now, no doubt thanks to the magic of data tracking, Mansur Gavriel bags follow me around Facebook. “Still interested?” the ads say.

I haven’t succumbed, at least yet. But if I do, I feel certain Wednesday Martin will understand.