NEW YORK — Wallets aren’t just meant to stay inside handbags anymore — and handbags are hardly the only places women can carry their belongings. The true trailblazers in the leather goods business right now are worn on the body.
Pieces bearing unusual names — wallets on a string, fanny packs, agendas on a strap, macro and micro-bags and mini-backpacks — mean big business right now, for both retailers and manufacturers of personal leather goods. This category, generally referred to as novelty merchandise, serves a purpose that is meant primarily to be functional. But some say that these pieces are also becoming the “in” things to wear.
“Something like the wallet on a string seems as though it’s becoming a mini-fashion statement,” said Kim Ballis, executive vice president of Bentley’s Luggage and Gifts, an 85-store chain based in Miami. “We’re seeing women carrying them more and more, whether it be for day, evening or whatever.”
A number of vendors are also seeing the same sort of results. Timothy Schifter, president of Le Sportsac, said the belt bag is one of his strongest areas. The company makes them in 15 different colors and prints, to coordinate with the rest of its nylon accessories, and wholesales the bags in the $7.50 to $14 range.
To keep the momentum going, Le Sportsac introduced a belt bag/tote bag combination in April. The pocket of the belt bag holds a fold-up 21-inch tote, “so a traveler always has an extra tote for purchases made when shopping,” Schifter pointed out.
Other companies, such as Rolf’s Leather Goods, are just getting into the business. Eric Lund, vice president of the West Bend, Wis., company, said his firm launched its first macro-bag line last fall.
“We had forecasted doing a total shipment of 30,000 pieces of it, and we ended up shipping 500,000,” he said.
Rolf’s version of the macro-bag comes in four different shapes, each with a strap so it can be worn around the neck or on the shoulder. One bag has a pocket for a cellular phone; another has several pockets for keys and identification and can also be attached to a belt.
The firm’s newest addition, introduced earlier this year, is called the Wilderness collection. According to Lund, the 10-piece group includes items to be worn at the neck, shoulder and waist. All are done in a sporty-looking oil-tanned leather.
Jansport, the Everett, Wash., company that specializes in backpacks, also recently introduced a new line called Four Great Directions. This group includes waist and fanny packs, as well as larger travel-oriented items such as duffel bags.
“We’ve always been in the waist-pack business, and it’s a nice growth area,” said Skip Yowell, one of Jansport’s founders. “One thing we’ve found is that waist packs and other similar pieces are becoming more and more popular across the board, not just with young or outdoorsy people.”
The waist-pack concept is not entirely a new one, Yowell pointed out, but one that has gained even more popularity in the practical Nineties.
“The waist pack was first used by cross-country skiers, and then the Japanese popularized them in smaller sizes,” he said. “When they hit the U.S. some years back, they were very successful and have been become even more so recently.”
Belt bags will join the product lineup this year at Buxton, the small leather goods maker headquartered in Chicopee, Mass. Laura Drnek, vice president of marketing and product development, said the firm is already producing wallets on a string and other novelty items, but sees a distinct opportunity in items worn at the waist.
“We plan on offering a somewhat more sophisticated version of the belt bag than what is currently out on the market,” Drnek said. “We’re starting to see many businesswomen carrying wallets on strings right along with their briefcases, and we think there’s a niche out there for belt bags that suit the same purpose.”
Mini-backpacks are another sub-category currently performing well for several firms. Tony Klein, sales manager for Eastport here, said that pieces in a variety of fabrications, including canvas, vinyl and heavy and crinkled nylons have been selling strongly, particularly in the junior market.
“I think right now people, particularly younger people, want more contemporary bags — backpacks as opposed to traditional handbags,” Klein said. Standard-sized backpacks remain Eastport’s best-selling item, he added, but the smaller versions represent a solid supplementary business.
Larry Lein, senior vice president for Tumi Luggage, the Middlesex, N.J., firm that distributes the Kipling line of nylon travel bags, said mini-backpacks with handles have been the line’s bestsellers in recent months.
“Kipling puts handles on the mini-backpacks, so they can be used as handbags as well,” Lien said. “They’ve been the most successful of what we call ‘crossover’ items, by far.”
Others are moving into the novelty classification more slowly. “We did a fanny pack that has been only moderately successful,” said David Youngerman, vice president of merchandising for Whiting and Davis, a manufacturer based in Plainville, Mass., that specializes in metal mesh accessories.
“This type of item tends to be viewed as a more outdoorsy piece, and when done in a gold or silver mesh, it doesn’t work for everyone,” Youngerman noted. “It has, however, been a big hit with women in Las Vegas.”
The company will take another shot at the business when it rolls out a mesh mini-backpack for the August market, he added.
Some executives said that while demand for unusual leather goods is strong now, it may be leveling off fairly soon.
“I think we might see it peak in the third quarter this year,” said Richard Rubin, president of Mundi/Westport Corp. “That’s when people start coming into the stores, when they are looking for gift items and tend to lean more toward basic wallets and the like.”
Still, Rubin said, “hang-around” business is a big growth sector in his company, and should continue to burgeon.
“Between the strength of novelty and the resurgence of basics, we’re very optimistic about the second half of this year,” he noted.

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