NEW YORK — The high stakes war of the must-have bag goes on — except this season no one victor emerges.Unlike Louis Vuitton’s runaway win with last season’s Murakami bags, the key for spring isn’t one It bag, it’s many must-haves from the likes of Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Prada, Marc Jacobs, Chloé and lesser-known names like VBH and Amy Morris.

Season after season, luxury goods and fashion houses from New York to Paris and Milan have made it a competitive sport to zero in on the bag that will unleash a wave of frenzied shoppers jockeying to get their names on mile-long waiting lists. Landing that elusive, must-have bag is not just a way to heighten desire for a brand, but also serves to pump up their visibility and, of course, their sales volume. After all, Louis Vuitton expects the Murakami bag to have sales of at least $345 million this year alone.

For spring 2004, trends ranged from prominent hardware details like metallics and bamboo to novelty looks, vividly printed bags and exotic skins, particularly python. Yet according to retailers and designers, it wasn’t a single look that shook the runways, but the variety that created the stir.

“I don’t think there is one must-have handbag this season,” said Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president of fashion direction at Bloomingdale’s. “There were great ones at Vuitton, Celine and some at Dolce. There’s a lot of excitement in handbags. It is perhaps the most important accessory [for spring] and I think women are willing to invest in a variety of handbags.”

Julie Gilhart, vice president and fashion director at Barneys New York, concurred, “I think it’s about having a lot of different bags. I’m so over the It bag. I feel totally manipulated by it, and I feel like that’s not so stylish. Balenciaga, Prada, Marc Jacobs are all producing great handbags…And frankly, I don’t want to wear the same bag that everybody else is wearing. It’s silly. I think a really upscale customer doesn’t want to, either.”

That type of thinking has created an opening in the market for smaller, independent handbag designers.“In general, we’re finding a huge trend of people wanting unique handbags that are slightly under the radar, but still at the luxury level,” said Robert Burke, vice president and senior fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman.

Tim Schifter, president and chief executive officer of LeSportsac, explained that the concept of status has evolved in luxury goods over the past few years.



“Status is no longer defined by the cost of the bag, but by the uniqueness and the style of the bag,” he noted. “Perhaps the reason there are many and not one is that the customer is defining status not by price but style and quality and attitude.

“It’s great, because it means the customer is thinking, and is curious and that there is more individualism and diversity, and that is healthy for the fashion business.”

Schifter liked Marc Jacobs’ designs for Louis Vuitton, particularly the looks featuring gold metal hardware.

Robert Rokoff, creative director of Maxx New York, meanwhile, noted, “Usually one of the designers will hit on the must-have, but there are so many options now that it’s not the have-all, end-all...like the Fendi baguette was at that time.”

Rokoff claimed that because consumers have learned during the past several years that It bags have little longevity, they aren’t as eager to buy them anymore.

Rafé Totengco, designer and owner of Rafé New York, said he has been noticing a backlash of sorts with consumers.

“The It bags used to be about ‘you got it, and you were so there,’ but now, you almost have to have something more unrecognizable with more allure,” said Totengco. “It’s that sense of ‘she knows something I don’t’ as opposed to ‘Oh, she’s got one, too.’ It’s that thirst for the individualist look, and goes hand in hand with the interest in vintage clothing.”

For spring, Totengco applauded Louis Vuitton’s drawstring satchels. “That little drawstring bag will be the one bag many will want. It almost didn’t look like Louis Vuitton, so that was what was so appealing about them,” said Totengco. “Also the Gucci clutch with citrus stripe. That was the freshest way to do logo for me.”For retailers and consumers alike, the handbag remains the most coveted accessory.

“There was more focus, more attention to the handbag this season,” said Anna Garner, fashion director at Henri Bendel. “[Designers] were really working them as part of any of the given looks.

“A girl can do the Twenties vintage look with a pearl handle or she can do something a little more prim and Fifties style with a box bag. There are a lot of different options.”

With the absence of a clear front-runner, buyers’ choices for spring were all over the map.

Gilhart cited strong handbag collections from Balenciaga and Prada.

“We think the white Balenciaga bag with hard, round handles is going to be so important because the arena leather has been something that’s been trending in Balenciaga, and we have had a huge bag business with them over the last few years.

“The Prada bags are beautiful,” said Gilhart. “Some of them are with fabric and some straw.”

For Bergdorf’s Burke, VBH bags by Bruce Hoeksema are a must-have for spring.

“His handbags are so unique, perfectly made and very modern. They’re not fussy,” said Burke, adding that the python bags by Azzedine Alaïa were a spring essential.

Garner liked the Seventies-inspired colored mesh bags from Chloé in vibrant hues from yellow to kelly green.

“On the runway, we loved Chloé, Sonia Rykiel and Luella, but we’ve also really increased our handbag assortment with lesser-known designers like Amy Morris.”

Jeffrey Kalinsky, owner of the Jeffrey stores in New York and Atlanta loved the Yves Saint Laurent zebra print bag, while Joan Kaner, senior vice president and fashion director at Neiman Marcus, chose the new logo Cambon bag from Chanel, which did not appear on the runway.

“We just feel that it is new, innovative — it has the CC logo,” she said. “It’s important and we like the look and shape of it.”

Buyers at European department and specialty stores also favored a variety of styles.“First, the sensational luxury by Gucci with multiple chains or strands and the snakehead for the buckle. It’s the bag that everyone will desire because it is chic and shocking at the same time,” said Sarah Lerfel, buyer of Colette, Paris. “And the other bag everyone will want to have will be the new Sofia bag by Marc Jacobs. For the summer, people will want it in white. It is the perfect size, you can wear it on your shoulder, and it’s practical, comfortable and perfect for everyday use.”

Dauphine de Jerphanion, accessories stylist at Le Bon Marché, Paris, chose Miu Miu’s varnished basket bag with a buckle in the front. “Not only is it an excellent compromise between a city bag and a casual handbag — perfect for all occasions — it is also very colorful and cheerful.”

Dries Van Noten’s cross-body belt bag in white topped the list of Tina Lamb, accessories and shoe buyer at Harvey Nichols in London. “It is modern, functional and made from beautiful soft leather,” she said.

Harrods’ handbag buyer Lara Lambert opted for Chloé’s bracelet canvas bag in green. “It’s all about green next season and the bracelet bag is the epitome of Chloé’s accessories line.”

Gucci’s novelty bags were favorites of Majed Al-Sabah, owner of Villa Moda, Kuwait, and Alla Veber, commercial and buying director for Mercury Group in Moscow. “To me, the hottest bag without question is Gucci’s large horse-bit bag with the chain strap,” said Al-Sabah. “It performed amazingly well everywhere around the world for fall, and we all saw that Gucci carried it over for spring 2004…they’re just wonderful.”

“I loved Gucci’s multiple chains and strands evening bag,” said Veber. “Not only is it something that we haven’t seen before but it is also fresh and rich. Also, the white soft leather bag by Yves Saint Laurent with a horn handle is one of my absolute favorites.”

Giuseppe Angiolini, owner of Sugar in Arezzo, Italy pointed to Prada’s Venetian print bag with leather details. “It is sure to be a very popular item. It is very original and fresh, perfect for the summer."

PHOTOS BY STEPHANE FEUGERE, LAURENT FOLCHER, GIOVANNI GIANNONI, DAVIDE MAESTRI AND MAURICIO MIRANDA

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