By  on April 5, 2010

Call them young designer, call them the new guard, just don’t call them contemporary.

A crop of handbag lines are carving out their own niche in the accessories market, and they’re neither high luxury nor youthful and trendy. Priced mainly between $600 and $1,200, these lines — Katherine Kwei, Alexander Wang and Gryson among them — have often been grouped among their lower-priced contemporary counterparts. But with luxe materials and fashion-forward styles, they have defined themselves as an emerging category and an alternative to pricier designer bags.

“Brands like ours that can offer fantastic design, material and make at a price under $1,000 could be considered the ‘new designer,’ where a consumer can get great designer merchandise but not from European houses,” said Peter Gryson, president and chief executive officer of the four-year-old Gryson line, which retails from $800 to $1,200. “Even with some price compression, the Pradas and the Guccis are still functioning at over $1,200 a unit, so as a new breed of branding and positioning, we’re offering great value in regards to the quality of make.”

Saks Fifth Avenue sees opportunity in the niche. For fall, the chain partnered with contemporary label Rebecca Minkoff on a higher-end line called Rebecca Minkoff Collection, which is geared to the sophisticated consumer looking to trade down from luxury labels. The collection features day bags with rose gold trims and premier skins as well as decorated evening clutches, all retailing from $600 to $1,500.

“In 2010, in light of the customer seeking value, we are looking at ways to offer good design and quality at a fair price,” said Cody Kondo, Saks’ group senior vice president, general merchandise manager for women’s shoes, handbags, accessories and jewelry. “And we think there’s a space at the upper end of contemporary or lower end of designer where there’s an exciting business opportunity. Our handbag team worked with Rebecca on this exclusive, and we’re doing it across all categories. We probably have 160 different projects in the whole company focused on this new price-value category, tied to having a distinguished assortment at Saks.”

To better define her two lines, Minkoff is lowering prices on her namesake contemporary collection to around $400, a reduction of more than $100 compared with last year. Gryson is also straddling the market after launching its lower-priced Olivia Harris by Joy Gryson line last year. Retailing for less than $500, Olivia Harris was conceived partly to establish Gryson as a true luxury level bag.

“Venturing into the contemporary zone with Olivia Harris helped us to better define and separate Gryson,” Gryson said.

Shopbop.com buyer Kassidy Babcock said the Web site is supporting and growing its young designer group. Its roster includes Jerome Dreyfuss, Vanessa Bruno and Tila March.

“These lines’ aesthetic is very much the Shopbop girl, and we have seen incredibly strong sales from these brands,” Babcock said. “The hand and quality on these bags is pure luxury and the price for these bags truly matches their value....We continue to see sales increase from these young designers without price resistance from our customers.”

Not every retailer is sure how to merchandise this growing group. Be&D creative director Steve Dumain, whose fur-lined and studded day bags retail from $800 to $1,500, said his international accounts are more comfortable mixing his pieces with designer brands such as Yves Saint Laurent and Miu Miu than his brick-and-mortar retailers in the U.S. Gryson said the placement of his bags depends on the store.

“Some stores have a hard time defining our brand in terms of how it’s positioned and where,” Gryson said. “Some top doors have a better sense of what to do with a brand in that in-between space. But when you get beyond the ‘A’ doors, they often don’t know where to put you. I’ll go into one store and find Gryson sitting next to a true contemporary brand at a low price point and I can go into the next location and find it sitting with Marc Jacobs, Chloé and Balenciaga. I prefer the latter.”

Katherine Kwei, whose namesake line features fringed watersnake and lambskin bags from $600 to $1,300, said placement should depend on price points. Saks generally includes her on the main floor, but that wasn’t always the case.

“I think my lower-priced items that came out last fall were put with contemporary brands, but the higher-end stores still want higher-end items and they’re happy to get them and treat them accordingly,” Kwei said.

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