By  on July 27, 2009

Today’s burgeoning handbag designers need every ounce of help they can get.

With the economy in a state of disarray, retailers are buying fewer items across the entire category, much less taking chances on unknown names. But a fresh crop of handbag awards are sprouting up aimed at fostering new talent and connecting the labels to stores.

The Independent Handbag Designer Awards is a competition geared toward up-and-coming, independently funded designers. Founder Emily Blumenthal conceived the idea after trying for years to get her line off the ground by submitting her bags to apparel-based design competitions.

“Handbag designers directly out of design school don’t get flooded with opportunities, so it’s been an honor to help move independent designers to the next level, especially from a personal perspective,” Blumenthal said. “Accessories as a category is so important and most competitions are so apparel-focused, so we found something and the market has responded well to it.”

Blumenthal enlisted a roster of judges and sponsors that includes Saks Fifth Avenue, Swarovski and Devi Kroell for the third installment of the awards last month.

“I have gotten a lot of support from industry insiders when I started, and in order to ensure a great supply of talent, such awards and opportunities that offer students ways into the industry are really key,” said Kroell. “If we want our handbag industry to keep growing and to produce talent, we need to support new talent so it can develop.”

Kroell employed the winner of the best student-made bag, Rachel Esswood, with an apprenticeship at her firm. Zibba, a Brazilian brand that took home the award for overall style and design, also increased its visibility. Thanks to the win, the line will be carried this fall at Saks and smaller specialty stores.

“What I particularly like is how the winners are given internships in the industry and given introductions to the buyers — this is key to starting your own brand,” said Lulu Guinness, recipient of this year’s Iconoclast Award. “It’s so nice that accessories are no longer the poor relation at fashion awards, even though handbag designers have long been making an enormous commercial contribution to the industry as a whole.”

Henri Bendel launched a similar handbag competition — The Henri Bendel Accessory Award — in the fall in conjunction with Parson’s The New School for Design in Manhattan. The event was exclusive to the school’s graduating seniors. This year’s winner was Nanae Takata. In April, the New York-based retailer said it would become an accessories-focused store.

“As we became a brand centered on accessories, focusing on the new and the next, I started looking at different curriculums around the country and realized that there was none based on accessories design,” said Ed Bucciarelli, Henri Bendel’s president and chief executive officer. “So we’re delighted to do it; we feel obligated to do it. If we can’t foster up-and-coming designers, we’re in trouble as a store. But as an industry, we have an obligation. Each retailer, each manufacturer, has an obligation. It’s crucial for us.”

Long-standing handbag and accessories awards also assist rising talent in the field, as well as the industry as a whole. The Accessories Council’s annual competition, the ACE Awards, has grown substantially in its 13 years, reeling in such talent as Stella McCartney, Nicolas Ghesquière and Marc Jacobs, and celebrity guests like Chloë Sevigny, Jessica Simpson and Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. Council president Karen Giberson attributed the event’s press coverage to a positive effect on holiday retail.

“The awards are positioned in early November, calling attention to the category before the most important shopping season of the year,” Giberson said. “We work hard to bring out designers and talent, and we know that’s the kind of story that will get attention in consumer press. And more people thinking and talking will hopefully translate into dollars when they’re thinking about gift giving.”

In a tough economic climate, retailers and brands often look to these awards as networking opportunities and a chance to boost morale within the industry.

“These events are a great platform to share a toast with industry executives and retail counterparts,” said Abe Chehebar, president and ceo of Accessory Network Group. Chehebar, who has been an instrumental figure in supporting the ACE Awards as well as the annual Fashion Accessories Benefit Ball, or FABB.

In May, FABB celebrated its 20th anniversary and honored, among others, Frank Fialkoff, ceo of Haskell Jewels.

“Receiving the FABB Achievement award this year let us know that our hard work has paid off,” said Gabrielle Fialkoff, chief operating officer of Haskell Jewels. “Events such as the FABB Ball and the ACE Awards cast a light on what is happening in our industry, highlighting new talent, recognizing growing companies and innovators and innovations. It is a way for the industry to express what we are excited by and whom we are inspired by.”

FABB founder Renee Brown said while FABB has donated more than $12 million to charity throughout its 20 years, the awards have gotten smaller due to the mergers and acquisitions taking place in the industry. Nonetheless, she said the down economy has made the event more important than ever.

“Morale will pick up because businesses will pick up,” she said. “We’re just not sure when.”

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