By and  on September 12, 1994

NEW YORK -- Heading into the fourth quarter, handbag makers say 1994 is turning out to be a successful year at the mass market level, thanks in large part to backpacks and other functional items.

Many major vendors are reporting year-over-year gains ranging from 5 to 20 percent. Some stretch even higher. Most say they hope to ride the crest created by this year's big sellers into next year by expanding these categories -- mini-backpacks and handbags with built-in wallets and other add-ons, for example.

The gains bode well for mass accessories business in general. Vendors say handbags are the single largest accessories category for discounters and other popular-price chains, accounting for an estimated 60 percent of volume for the department.

Among vendors, Bijoux International, a multicategory accessories company, was posting gains of 40 percent in its Eastport bag division, although it had projected only 25 percent increases here, according to Arthur Grayer, vice president of sales. The boom, Grayer said, has been almost entirely backpack-driven.

"The business has become so huge that we ended up making a bold move by phasing out our handbag line almost completely," he noted. "It's a piece that sells across just about every lifestyle, in every color and fabrication you can think of."

Grayer added that his firm was pegging the backpack as next year's runaway handbag department bestseller, as well.

John Bihn, president of Monique Handbags, said the backpack has become "the handbag of the Nineties." He cited backpacks as a top reason for this year's brisk pace.

The company is currently showing mini-backpacks. Bihn said he sees such items staying on a roll into next year, but added that he expected oversized tote bags to come on strong as well.

"We've found that after the success of very small handbags, or backpacks, in this case, very big bags tend to come into demand," he noted.

In the meantime, to keep on top of the backpack trend, Monique is taking cues from the upscale bag business and developing sophisticated nylon models in the style of Prada and other such high-end firms.

"We're finding that when business in better bags is strong, our business also gets hot," Bihn said. "A budget customer is not suddenly going to start spending $300 or more on a designer nylon backpack, but she will spend a few dollars more to get that same sort of look in a budget bag."

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