Byline: Wendy Hessen

NEW YORK — Handbags are shaping up to be one of this year’s star accessories categories.
The classification started on a roll for the spring season. With a big wave of trends such as glamour, shine and retro kicking in, handbags started receiving fresh bursts of fashion inspiration. The plethora of resulting new looks, combined with a surge in consumer demand for function, has driven handbag business to new levels and prompted many vendors to project 20 to 25 percent increases for this year.
What’s more, the business is expected to keep following suit into fall. Key shapes will range widely from geometric octagons and boxes to slightly softer, structured silhouettes, clutches and frame bags and even the ubiquitous backpack shapes. Fabrications will include traditional leathers, suedes and nubucks, as well as less conventional materials, including patent leathers, exotic hides such as snakeskin and python, wools, nylons, tapestries and animal prints. Hardware will also be a major factor, whether it’s shiny and clean or more vintage-looking.
The overriding demand for functionality, whether it be in a dress bag or weekend tote, is expected to continue as well.
Joanne Hart, a partner at the recently opened handbag and small leather goods showroom Hart & Kean — as well as a former fashion director for Macy’s East and Federated Merchandising — sees the mandate for function as an essential element of the Nineties mentality.
“Consumers are willing to pay more as long as they gain function,” Hart said, referring to styles with more than one use, such as those that convert from top-handle to shoulder-strap bags and items that incorporate additional functional pieces inside.
She noted that buyers taking an early peek at fall merchandise have been interested in structure that isn’t too confining.
For the March accessories market, Bally is introducing an executive collection called Work In Progress that features computer cases, totes, brief cases, portfolios and matching agendas that are multifunctional and include pen, key, lipstick and mirror holders, according to Kelly Greenfield, director of ladies’ product development.
The leather-trimmed nylon collection is available in red, black or brown with either gold or silver hardware.
“It’s time we got things that are easier to use,” said Greenfield. She added that box and frame bags are also gaining momentum, and that as a result, Bally recently added more such styles, some with unusual shapes and angles.
Liz Claiborne Accessories is also jumping onto the structured bandwagon.
“There is a decided, almost unconscious return to more structured and contained looks,” said Carol Hochman, president of fashion accessories.
In addition to introducing new groups of fashion leathers and nubuck, Claiborne is actively pursuing the back-to-school business with a line of colored brushed twill accented with heavy webbing and expects to see tremendous increases in fabric plus leather combinations, such as its coated woven tapestry series.
“Buyers have really been saluting all this variety and newness,” Hochman added, pointing to strong interest in box and frame looks, as well as drawstrings.
Function is what sells in the mass market, according to Abe Chehebar, chief executive officer at Accessory Network.
“It’s the buzzword now. Buyers are looking for lots of zippered compartments and organizers that are also fashionable — along with accents like pullout key chains, mirrors and credit card holders. Retailers are beefing up their presentations for this type of merchandise,” said Chehebar.
And while mini-backpacks are still an important issue, the next generation model has a wallet-on-a-string attached to its back.
The trend toward structure hasn’t reached the mass market yet, other than for holiday-type merchandise.
Back-to-school business, an all-important selling season, is focusing more and more on rugged outdoor looks, Chehebar noted, in nylon (often with a suede bottom), cordura and vinyl.