By  on February 5, 2005

The ceiling on luxury handbags has reached new heights.

Wander through Barneys New York or Bergdorf Goodman and it’s tough to find a bag priced under $1,000.

The strength of the euro against the dollar has caused European production costs to increase while expensive exotic skins are becoming more common. Three or four years ago, the bag of the season  cost between $600 and $800. These days it’s more like $1,200 — and it can go up to $10,000.

“The average bag now is $1,000 and they used to all be $600,” said interior designer Jackie Astier. “You know, the Birkin’s not looking so bad.”

Hermès’ iconic Birkin bag used to seem the pinnacle of luxury bag ownership. At $5,600, it’s handmade, has an exclusive waiting list and costs more than most women have ever before spent on a bag. But did the Birkin just break women in, helping them get used to spending that kind of money on one single handbag? Based on the offerings for spring, the Birkin almost seems like a bargain.

The luxe choices range from Ferragamo’s $11,000 crocodile shopper to Bottega Veneta’s $70,000 crocodile Cabat bag.

Despite the sky-high prices, designers insist that like-priced bags sold for fall. Jimmy Choo had waiting lists at each of its seven stores for the $9,500 Tulita Flap Hobo in crocodile last year.

“They sold very well,” said president Tamara Mellon. “We have a very strong exotic skin business in our stores, even though the prices are higher.”

This fall, Barneys New York sold 10 special-order Balenciaga City Classic bags in alligator for $14,500, according to Julie Gilhart, vice president and fashion director.

“If a bag is in crocodile or alligator, it reads like a diamond,” she said. “I may have the superexpensive gold necklace on, but with a diamond it may look even more expensive. At that price, the bags are beautifully done and very special.”

John Truex, who owns Lambertson Truex with partner Richard Lambertson, has every confidence in their $9,800 brown alligator travel tote for spring.

“It’s for the customer who is very specific about his or her purchases,” Truex said. “They look at them as investments, pieces they will have for years to come. People are spending that amount of money on bags.”Are they really?

“I think I would not spend more than $1,500 and that’s even pushing it,” said New York socialite and publicist Emilia Fanjul. “I’d rather almost be very individual and buy a fun cool bag that might not be expensive. I always love seeing the cute girls wear Louis Vuitton or Gucci bags, but I know I don’t love them next year. Of course, if I could borrow one, I would.”

As Truex said, spending thousands of dollars on a classic bag can be easily justified — it will last a long time, never go out of style and can be passed down to daughters and granddaughters. But the days of shelling out that kind of money for the “It” bag of the season might be over.

“If I’m going to wear a fashion bag, I’m going to buy a fake one on the street,” said Vanessa von Bismarck. “I pay $40 and everybody thinks it’s real. But I would never buy a fake Birkin, like I would never buy a fake diamond.”

The bag von Bismarck is toting around these days is from Italian luxury firm Valextra, a client of her public relations firm.

For women who are going to purchase an expensive classic bag, price is secondary.

“Here, everyone has the exotic skin Birkin,” said Brian Bolke, co-owner of Dallas store Forty Five Ten. “So it’s not the price that’s the issue, it’s the bag. It becomes a status thing. It’s the exclusivity. People want to buy something other people can’t have.”

Knowing this, Bolke brought VBH into his store for spring. He said the shop will be the only outlet in the U.S. for the brand.

Houston-based Alexandra Knight tries to keep prices of her custom alligator and croc bags in the $7,000 range. Customers can order one of over a dozen shapes and choose from 42 colors, so depending upon their creativity, they’re almost guaranteed to get a unique bag.

“I can’t imagine making a bag that takes more than four alligator skins [her $7,050 Thomson totes use four],” she said. “We’ve tried to make an effort to keep $7,000 the cap. Since people are buying it directly from me and not through the stores, I don’t want to rob people, because before I was doing this I know I would do anything for an alligator bag.”If a bag causes heart palpitations in its admirer and its price can be managed, it seems there is no such thing as too much to pay.

Helen Schifter, socialite and wife of Le Sportsac owner Tim Schifter, counts multiple Birkins, CeCe Kord alligator bags and Louis Vuitton’s Theda bag among her collection. Speaking like a true investor, she said: “They say you can amortize the cost over the number of years you carry it.”
— With contributions from Marc Karimzadeh

The Expensive Eight

Alexandra Knight Thomson tote, $7,050

Bottega Veneta crocodile Cabat bag, for special order, $70,000

Chanel Classic shiny alligator handbag, available in nine colors, about $13,700

Chloé yellow crocodile Mayfair handbag, $11,080

Dior made-to-measure detective doctor bag in crocodile, $27,000 (standard version, $2,790)

Ferragamo crocodile Gancio Sella bag, $11,000

Lambertson Truex alligator travel tote, $9,800

Louis Vuitton Les Extraordinaires monogram embroidered bag, $21,000

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