Byline: Jill Newman

The evening handbag business is habitually overshadowed by the more visible day bag category. Nonetheless, as merchants gear up for the all-important fall and holiday seasons, evening bags are moving up in the rankings.
The evening arena is typically a narrow, focused business dominated by a few key players. Judith Leiber remains the undisputed leader, and the 35-year-old brand’s recent efforts to modernize its image have won it a new, younger customer.
The Leiber reign may not remain unchallenged, however, as a crop of new designers is changing the evening landscape, with strong, midpriced evening collections.
“It’s hard to find a really special collection at a midrange from $200 to $400,” said Liz Dixon, divisional merchandise manager for handbags at Bloomingdale’s. Victor Lipko, president of Judith Leiber, said: “It’s difficult for any company to create unique evening bags at that price because it’s too costly a proposition.” In comparison, Leiber’s opening price is $800 to $1,200 for fabric, skin or smaller-scale minaudieres, while the average minaudiere, which is the mainstay of the brand’s business, retails for $2,500.
For many merchants, including the better stores, a broad price range is essential in order to satisfy the consumer’s varying special occasion needs. In many better department and specialty stores, the entry-level price ranges from $50 to $100 retail, with Franchi and Moyna among the key names. And then there’s private label brands, which play a small, but critical role in filling the marketplace gaps with stylish looks at a good value. “Private label gives us a different fashion look at a [lower] price,” noted Sandra Wilson, fashion director for accessories at Neiman Marcus.
As retailers look to broaden their assortments in both price and style, British designer Lulu Guinness has emerged as one resource that bridges the gap between midtier and high-end designer bags.
“Consumers don’t need another basic black or beaded evening bag; they want something different and fun,” said Michael Schultz, chief executive officer of Lulu Guinness, which over the past few years has done well with its limited U.S. distribution to better specialty stores, including Neiman Marcus and Tootsies in Houston. Sales volumes should double this year, said Schultz, thanks to greater penetration in its current accounts and a slightly broader distribution. The bulk of the collection retails from $400 to $500. Solid performers include Lulu’s signature silk flower baskets, embroidered and jeweled fan-shaped silhouettes.
Several retailers, including Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus, also pointed to Badgley Mischka’s two-year-old evening bag collection as a solid performer. The handbags, which retail from $750 to $1,500, are elaborate and embellished jeweled boxes reminiscent of the designers’ bead-heavy gowns. Designer Mark Badgley said the handbags have a broader appeal than even his high-profile eveningwear. “Some women might never buy a beaded evening gown,” he said. “But they want a fabulous embellished bag to accent their simple black dress.”
Yet another high-recognition name new to the scene is Josie Natori, whose evening bag collection bows this fall. Natori drew on her Asian heritage in designing the collection, with bags inspired by (and in some cases made from) printed antique kimono fabric. Other styles are clean satin wristlets, embossed and beaded satin top handles, clutches and an unusual cylinder-shaped bag. Colors range from jewel tones to black and browns, with trims such as feathers, velvets and even mink. Retail prices for the bags range from $500 to $3,500, with the core of the collection retailing from $650 to $1,300.
Michelle Hatch, a veteran handbag designer who was formerly the creative director for Judith Leiber, introduced her first self-named handbag collection bearing her name two years ago. Initially, she focused on beaded evening handbags, but this fall she has a new look. Her new styles feature satin bags with antique velvet ribbons and other trim that retail primarily from $600 to $900. The collection is sold in better specialty accounts, including Bergdorf Goodman and Stanley Korshak in Dallas.
Hatch moved into the evening bag market with some prodding from her buyers. “For years, the stores said there were not many choices in evening bags,” she said. “Then, in the past few years, many new lines appearedin Dallas, prompted by the huge success of the beaded and embroidered Fendi baguette. Now, consumers want something new.” Other new and notable collections include Larisa Barrera’s beaded and jeweled styles and Lily Scott’s jeweled wristlet bags. “Women are willing to splurge for something special in an evening bag,” said Larisa Barrera, who launched her collection nearly four years ago and already has established collectors for her bags, which retail from $800 to $1,300.
“Larisa Barrera has been an excellent resource for special handbags that are like works of art,” noted Neiman Marcus’s Wilson.
Notwithstanding the new players in the market, the fashion trends are also changing in evening bags, which retailers are hopeful will spark sales for fall. Some of the standout looks:
Watch for a shift from heavy adornment to more simple, elegant styles with clean, geometric shapes, said Wilson. “While the weighty embellishment of past seasons is long gone, there are still beaded and jeweled bags, but in more subtle variations.”
“The current looks we like are vintage-inspired, modern, sleek and exotic,” said Reina Meucci, dmm for accessories at Bergdorf Goodman. She said the store’s strongest evening bag resources are Judith Leiber, Badgley Mischka, Larisa Barrera and Darby Scott.
At Henri Bendel, the direction is novelty evening bags, reported Heidi Cohen, buyer for accessories. Bestsellers include beaded and lace styles from Moyna, which average $150 retail, and Italy’s Sissi Rossi and Cristina Cantini, both offering embellished novelty styles.
The top two evening bag brands at Stanley Korshak are French designer Renaud Pelligrino and Valentino, according to Rose Clark, vice president and general merchandise manager for accessories. For fall, Clark liked the small, boxy satin bags from Renaud Pelligrino, which range from $500 to $800, and extravagant feathered, jeweled and pleated bags from Valentino.