Byline: Toni M. Lublin

For spring, designers of novelty handbags are creating handmade, art-inspired pieces to set themselves apart from mass-produced lines, and the results are paying off in increased retail sales.
Specialty store buyers agree that customers want more than basic utilitarian handbags. They want limited editions, collectibles that they perceive as little pieces of art. In some cases, handbags double as home accessories; customers display them as works of art.
Accessory designers see novelty handbags as a growth opportunity and an avenue for expression.
For designer Mary Frances of Mary Frances Accessories, handbags were just a small part of her jewelry business 11 years ago. But now, handmade bags represent 80 percent of sales.
Frances develops her own trims and techniques, using beads, shells and glass as components in her designs, which she makes in her studio in Lafayette, Calif.
“My bags are artistic. Each one has its own personality, and often my customers will showcase them at home,” said Frances.
At any given time, Frances has 100 bags in her line, with 35 new bags rotated into each season. “This keeps my line fresh and both buyers and customers happy,” she said.
With two labels in the line, Mary Frances wholesales from $28 to $48, while Motif sells at $55 to $95 wholesale.
Tammy Wilford, designer and owner of JAS in Houston, was a stay-at-home mom eight months ago.
“I went from making cigar-box purses at the kitchen table to a 1,700-square-foot office space, seven employees and six independent representatives to keep up with the demand,” she said.
Wilford’s bags are eye-catching and unusual. Made from cigar boxes, which Wilford now buys directly from cigar manufacturers, the interiors are fused with lush fabrics and the underside of the boxes have whimsical fabric patterns. All boxes are varnished and finished with premium hardware and swivel handles. Annual wholesale volume for JAS is targeted at $500,000 this year.
“I inspect every piece that is shipped out to maintain the quality and workmanship that my customers have come to expect,” said Wilford.
She recently sent a range of bags to the HBO television show “Sex and the City.”
“I am so excited. I got a call back from Patricia Fields, the wardrobe stylist for ‘Sex and the City,’ and she told me she is going to use a bag on a future taping.”
Even First Lady Laura Bush was sent a red, white and blue special-edition Punch cigar box purse and obliged with a thank-you note to Tammy.
Wilford has recently added handmade jewelry-like handles and plans to continue with innovative twists.
“Customers love the fact that Tammy’s bags are handmade and see them as very unique,” said Paula Fridkin of Paula Fridkin Designs, a specialty retailer in Houston.
“I cater to a clientele that appreciates unusual handbags, and Tammy’s creations are so much fun,” said Fridkin. Since picking up the line last February, Fridkin said she has sold around 30 bags a month.
The slowdown in the economy has only improved sales of novelty bags in Terri Jackson’s boutique, Just the Thing, in High Point, N.C.
“Women are purchasing a new novelty bag instead of a new dress to update their wardrobes. The JAS cigar bags are fun and fit this need,” she said.
JAS bags wholesale from $87 to $150 and are offered in a range of sizes, patterns and cigar manufacturer labels such as Arturo Fuente, Montecruz and Grand Cameroon.
“The Nineties were so destructive to accessories, as it was all about minimalism,” said Dana Melton of Lori Vieth Accessories, which represents Rodo handbags. “Rodo has never been shown in Atlanta before, even though the Italian line has been making handbags for 50 years.”
Melton said Rodo bags “offer a whimsical tradition, without being too far-out.” Wholesale prices range from $90 to $375.
Nine months ago, Denton Kump, located in Richmond, Va., created Poesis Purses.
“I have a PhD in immunology and toxicology and never dreamed I would fall into this business,” said Kump. “It just evolved after I made a funky diaper bag to replace my boring black nylon bag, and all my girlfriends wanted one.”
The demand ignited Kump’s business and Poesis — Greek for creation — became a full-time job for Kump.
“My bags are works of art. The insides are as fun and exciting as the outsides,” he said. Poesis purses are offered in five geometric shapes and made in cheerful patterned duck cloth. The range has grown to five collections and wholesales from $43 to $54.
Artist and designer Elizabeth Whitener of Columbia, S.C., taught art until about a year ago, when Ditta bags were born.
“I started buying inexpensive bags, stripped them down and reworked my designs on the structure,” said Whitener. Her friends and family loved the creations, and soon Whitener started to name the bags after her friends and people she had met. One of the bags, for example, is called the Lucy Liu.
“The names came easy because the bags reminded me of the people I originally made them for,” said Whitener.
Ditta bags are offered in a variety of feathers, from ostrich and peacock to black swan. The handles are made from colorful beads and crystals.
Her customers have also used her bags as art displays in their homes.
Jan Jenkins, of Columbia, S.C., owns three Ditta bags. Instead of tucking them away, she uses them to decorate her powder room.
“Ditta bags make a statement with an outfit and always are the topic of conversation whenever I wear them or place them on my counter in the powder room as a focal point,” said Jenkins.
With five independent representatives, and expanding demands in orders, Whitener is adding additional hired help and expects a strong spring season. Her wholesale range is from $70 to $170.
Whether for art or function, these handbag designers have developed a winning formula of originality and artistic expression that everyone seems to enjoy.