The contemporary market, now rife with apparel, has set its sights on bags as its next mode of expansion.
Brands from all ends of the contemporary spectrum said they view handbags as a way to better serve consumers at retail — the byproduct, they claim, of a better creative representation on the floor. Unlike luxury firms, which rely on leather goods as the major revenue generator (up to 75 percent, as stock brokerage firm Sterne Agee estimated), contemporary labels report that they are shooting for more in the 10 to 25 percent zone and anticipate that apparel will continue to reign as their foremost source of sales.
While the bags are not a primary objective for financial growth, brands including A.L.C., Vince, Kensie, Elizabeth and James and others have recently introduced a multitude of styles for less than $1,000, in the hopes of expanding their branding footprint. Many said launching a bag line is an introspective process, in which core values, aesthetics, price points and consumer research are taken into consideration — with the objective of accommodating existing clients, as well as drawing new and varied ones in. It’s a tactic that has worked well for their contemporary compatriots in the past: Labels like 3.1 Phillip Lim, Marc by Marc Jacobs and Tory Burch enjoyed larger brand recognition upon the launch of their own handbag lines — expansions that eventually led to successes in other product categories as well.
Karin Gregersen, president and chief creative officer of Vince, which is now in its first bag season (styles retail for between $295 and $895), said when launching the line, it was important for the “handbag collection to share a similar aesthetic [as our apparel]. It’s really leveraging and staying true to our core values throughout the design process.”
Gregersen estimated that bags will ultimately become 10 percent of the label’s overall sales.
Jill Collage, president of Dualstar, which owns contemporary brand Elizabeth and James, concurred, and said the first design objective for the label’s bags was figuring out what the hardware would look like. “That’s really what you are talking about in terms of [brand] DNA…We knew bags were a huge opportunity and very important to round out the brand.”
Elizabeth and James’ bags ($245 to $645), now in stores for a little more than a year-and-a-half, have “grown by 70 to 80 percent from 2014 to 2015, and are in 140 doors,” Collage noted.
While its original offerings were intended to create a “crossover customer,” the brand has varied its finishings, leather gradients and hardware to appeal to a range of consumers.
“I think bags are a place where you can start creating an identity a little different from your apparel,” Collage said, referring to the firm’s goal of enticing shoppers through its bag line.
Like Elizabeth and James, many brands say they intend to gradually expand their offerings, tailoring designs to consumer preferences along the way. Andrea Lieberman of A.L.C. is one of them, and emphasized that, for her, slow and steady wins the race when launching a new product category.
“I think if growth happens too quickly it becomes inauthentic,” she said. “We grew ready-to-wear that way, it was the right choice for us, so we’re building our bag business in the same way.”
Lieberman, whose bag line ($365 to $595) is now in its fourth season at retail, would not disclose financials or projections for the range. She did report, however, that there is a definite crossover customer between her apparel and leather business — a fact she partially attributed to her price positioning within the market.
“When you get too high [in price] you are too close to the designer bags, and if you get too low, you are too close to some of the true contemporary bags. I think it’s really about finding that sweet spot,” she said.
Lieberman added the key to the line’s success is “also about understanding your customer. I understand more times than not, my customer carries a Céline bag. More times that not, it’s not an either-or decision, it’s about what’s going to be the addition to what she already owns — that’s my approach to it.”
This is an observation that multiple contemporary brands have made about their bag consumer. Due to the category’s price point — with most products often hitting less than $1,000 and lower-end bags even falling below $100 — contemporary labels claim that consumers see their bags as an easy way to engage with trends and styling, rather than an all-seasons investment.
Lani Karls, creative director of Kensie, a brand with a bag line in its second year, said the label’s price point of $69 to $109 “gives [our customer] the option to change her bag way more often. I think we are in an age when someone doesn’t use a bag until it drops. They want a bag for their outfit. It’s truly an accessory now — she’ll accessorize her outfit with a bag.”
Karls added, “This is the era of wanting a different look with every outfit, and that’s not going to happen at $2,000. The consumer might still have that aspirational bag just to have, but then she might pepper in these price points at just under $100 or slightly over, where she can just be a little more playful.”
Kensie reports that select styles from its first bag season produced in-house had a 100 percent sell-through rate. The brand projects that bags will represent 25 percent of its overall business as the range develops over the next three to five years.