By  on February 25, 2002

ACCESSORIES MAKERS ARE GIVING HANDBAG INTERIORS A FACELIFT WITH QUIRKY LININGS AND GADGET-FRIENDLY COMPARTMENTS.

For many women, the following scenario is all too common: It's late, the glass or so of champagne has kicked in and a frantic shuffle through a handbag searching for a cell phone or pair of house key ensues.

For years, handbag makers have heard similar stories from frustrated consumers searching for a way to keep their belongings tidy and organized, not to mention easy to locate in poorly lit environments. Not surprisingly, after such rifling, the handbag's interior often looks like it was shaken and stirred.

But such tales of woe have not gone unheeded. Accessories designers at both ends of the price-point spectrum are paying closer attention to the handbag's inner sanctum: its interior. They are adding fashionable and functional features, including lining with lively contrasting colors -- which make it easier than the traditional black lining to find items -- and inside pockets designed for modern must-haves, such as cell phones and personal digital assistants.

"When we started our collection in 1998, we found that women were always searching for ringing phones, scratching their sunglasses, or digging for keys for their cars, so we wanted to really organize the inside," said John Truex, partner at upscale accessories line Lambertson Truex.

The New York-based company has acquired a following of on-the-go accessories aficionados for its well-constructed handbags, many of which feature a clip for keys, cardholders to store transit passes or other similar items and cell-phone pockets that may also be used to hold sunglasses.

At Maxx New York, about 90 percent of the assortment features details including pockets for cell phones and PDAs, as well as linings with paisley, gingham or optical geometric prints.

"It's a great way to get a trend out there without being too loud about it," said creative director Robert Rokoff. "If baroque paisley patterns or brocades are popular, you can throw it in, rather than put it on the outside."

Vendors said intricate interiors, featuring distinct linings and multiple compartments, help distinguish lines from one another -- an important aspect in the increasingly competitive accessories category. Vendors added that consumers are now demanding pieces that offer both form and function."Aesthetics continue to be important, but now more than ever, people are educated about function, quality and design in general," said designer Matt Murphy.

For spring, Murphy's assortment includes lambskin handbags layered over a color-contrasting canvas interior. The lining seeps out onto the outside of the bag, giving consumers a hint of what's going on inside. For the coming market, Murphy is launching a small tote shoulder bag with a snap-out pouch inside that matches the lambskin exterior, priced at $118 wholesale.

"The customer is more in touch with the quality of things and where they are putting their money, so it does have to read quality if they are paying a certain amount," said Julie Gilhart, vice president of fashion merchandising at Barneys New York, who cited model Alek Wek's silkscreened linings based on her artwork and Carlos Falchi's fringed leather handbags with striped linings, as popular items at the store.

One of the pioneers of intricate interiors is four-year-old accessories line Isabella Fiore. When president Jennifer Tash launched the line, the company used contrasting red cotton linings so consumers could find items more easily than in a traditional black nylon-lined bag and found that buyers immediately reacted to the concept. The linings assortment has since been expanded with stripes and checks, using the same quality of fabrics as the bags. For the May market, Fiore plans to introduce a new flag bag which has the phrase "Old Glory" embroidered into the lining. "That way, when you open it, it talks to you," she said.

Just how crucial linings can be became evident by the reaction to designer Angela Amiri's line when she scrapped them.

Amiri launched her line using vintage silk tulle blouse and dress fabrics as linings in January 1999. When the line was acquired by the Leiber Group, then known as the Pegasus Apparel Group, production was transferred to Italy, raising costs and prompting executives to save on those whimsical linings she had become recognized for. "It made buyers feel like a part of the product was lost.

It made them look not as special and unique," she said. Amiri claimed the decision to drop the special linings didn't hurt her existing business, but conceded that it probably prevented her from adding new accounts. Having bought back her business last April, Amiri put back the linings, and for summer, each handbag features a whimsical polkadot design on the inside.Retailers are also singing the praises of bags with detailed interiors and saying they boost sales, as style-savvy women in search of new fashion snap them up.

Heidi Cohen, an accessories buyer at New York retailer Henri Bendel, said, "The modern woman is so busy, she needs conveniences like zippers, cell-phone pockets and Palm Pilot holders, and designers have certainly started catering to that."

Cohen said Lulu Guinness and Un Apres-midi de Chien, in particular, are paying more attention to the interior of handbags, by including quirky linings and cell-phone pockets.

Henri Bendel last November teamed up with lighting fixtures company Acolyte and launched a private-label line of Italian leather tote handbags that includes bags with a small light affixed to the interior. The "Light" bag -- priced at $200 to $300 retail, depending on the style -- was launched in black and camel and was popular among shoppers the moment it hit the Fifth Avenue retailer's sales floor. "We sold out and are taking special orders, but they will come back for spring," Cohen said.

Some retailers and vendors noted that a reason for the growing popularity of interior compartments is the larger-handbag trend, most notably hobos and totes, in which it is harder to locate things.

"The color and fabric interest adds another dimension," said Sandra Wilson, fashion director for accessories at Neiman Marcus. "It's a touch of whimsy and a touch of surprise, and it does enhance the product, if done properly."

And for many shoppers who want to don a luxe look, these handbags are filling a niche. "Other people can't see them except for customers who buy them," said Cohen. "It's like, for instance, lingerie: It's a personal luxury which makes you feel you good about yourself."

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