By  on August 14, 2006

NEW YORK — Stuart Weitzman is trying on bags for size after 20 years in the footwear business.

The $175 million Manhattan-based footwear company, in which Bear Stearns acquired a 40 percent stake last year, launched a handbag collection to retailers last week. Weitzman also announced plans to more than double its U.S. stores to 40 from 19 within three years and open an undetermined number of international boutiques to go with its existing 17. In the near future, the company wants to add categories through licenses, such as children's and men's shoes, jewelry, eyewear and beauty.

The company projects the handbag collection to generate $15 million in retail sales this year and will seek to grow that to a $100 million business within three to five years. The bags are aimed both at a hip and young customer and the company's more mature clientele, with styles such as a leopard print tote and a fake anaconda satchel. Like the company's shoes, the handbags are made in the firm's factories in Alicante, Spain.

Weitzman has done some bags in the past, but never a full collection for wholesale.

"Our customers feel a tremendous loyalty to our brand," said Stuart Weitzman, founder and chief executive officer. "We didn't want to do one "It" bag because that you either hit it or you don't."

The first collection wholesales for $250 to $400 and will launch in November at select retailers that already carry the firm's shoes, including Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale's and Harrods. The collection will also be sold in Weitzman's U.S. stores and its international boutiques.

The bags were designed under the direction of Clare Schultheis, executive vice president of the product division, who came on board in January after serving as senior vice president of design and merchandising for the Cole Haan women's division.

Next year, the company is to open stores in Troy, Mich.; Natek, Mass.; Austin, Tex.; Los Angeles, and an outlet store outside Las Vegas. The firm launched its seventh store in Rome this month and plans to open three in China in 2007. It already has shops in Israel, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Israel, Switzerland and Italy.Weitzman has also brought on its first president and chief operating officer, Greg Ribatt, a former principal of Bennett Footwear, who reports to Weitzman. The firm has promoted Wayne Kulkin to president of the wholesale division. Kulkin has been with the company for 17 years and most recently was president of sales and merchandising for footwear.

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