NEW YORK — For many women, a handbag is more than a mere fashion statement — it signals who she is and who she wants to be.At least that’s the view of writer Anna Johnson, author of the new book "Handbags: The Power of the Purse," who asserts dramatically that "the bag is infinitely optimistic. We carry it and it transports us into the lives we wish we were living."Her book and the often complex subject of handbags were the topics of a recent breakfast at Henri Bendel, where venerable designers Judith Leiber and Carlos Falchi spoke about their devotion to the category and their chosen profession. Valerie Steele, the fashion historian, told the packed room at Bendel’s she is "never without her handbag," and likened people who collect handbags to those who collect art.Johnson, a self-admitted handbag addict who owns more than 100, offered three reasons why people are so fixated on handbags: "First of all, you don’t have to take off your clothes to buy one. Second, fashion is getting more and more monochrome, and less eccentric, and bags are the last bastion of eccentricity. And, third, it is a place to put your keys and lipstick."Johnson’s pocket-size book ($13.95, Workman Publishing) is packed with hundreds of images and factoids about handbags, from the 5th century to today. There are pictures of bags from around the world, featuring everything from totes to baguettes, with chapters on evening bags, American classics and the art of the clasp.Among the diverse group of companies whose bags are shown in the book are Kate Spade, Fendi, L.L. Bean and Natori. Accompanying the book’s launch is a handbag exhibit on the fourth floor at Bendel’s that was curated by Johnson and inspired by the book.Johnson said she scoured the world and spent two years researching the topic, which often kept her up at night.As she succinctly writes in the book, "The ideal handbag has never been about necessity. It is the stuff of dreams, desire and deliverance from the banal."

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