LOS ANGELES — Gone are the days when goodie bags — those gift sacks full of freebies handed out at parties, fashion shows and other hype-heavy events — constituted a contradiction in terms, filled as they were with logo baseball caps, discontinued lipstick shades and cheap sunglasses. Today, they contain bona fide keepers — the sort that spark fashion trends, inflate sales and, of course, incite envy among the masses. Luxury gift bags can be valued at upward of $10,000. In these cases, the canvas tote is replaced by a leather suitcase or a rattan basket, which is then stocked with the latest (and priciest) electronic gadgets, Swiss watches, Italian handbags and designer sunglasses.

At the upcoming Golden Globes on Jan. 20, expected celebrity presenters such as Kate Hudson and Cameron Diaz will receive a suede-lined, handstitched leather box containing a gift certificate for a $2,000 Herman Miller table, a $500 Judith Leiber compact and a $1,100 Michele Art Deco-style timepiece, among other items. While the furniture and home accessories are undoubtedly a score, it’s often the showy and easily wearable items that garner the most attention.

“Without question, the goodie bag starts trends,” says People’s West Coast style editor, Steven Cojucaru. “There’s a sensation when you open it that this is the latest thing.” The practice of selective sampling makes it a cinch for companies to start trends among celebrities says Cojucaru. “They’d rather have something handed to them than have to schlep out and buy it.”

Enter a company like Backstage Creations in Santa Monica, Calif., which sets up goodie-strewn VIP lounges at award shows, where vendors can personally lavish their wares on celebrities. Karen Wood, a former talent coordinator for the Grammy and Emmy Awards, founded the company a year ago upon realizing she’d already become a de facto personal shopper for the shows. Although she charges clients a one-time, standard fee of $5,000 to participate, for the most part, it’s an easy sell. “It’s all about having the cachet of introducing your product to the celebrity,” explains Wood. At the March 2001 SAG Awards, nominees and presenters including Kate Hudson, Halle Berry and Kim Cattrall, took home Baccarat jewelry, Scott Kay platinum bracelets and Danier leather bags. For each manufacturer, the cost of the giveaways plus the staff’s travel expenses often rises into the tens of thousands of dollars. But many vendors agree that it’s more cost-effective than taking out an ad in a magazine, which can cost up to four times as much.

“I can’t think of a better way to spend the money,” says Eden Wexler, marketing director at Safilo Group, which produces sunglasses for Christian Dior, Gucci and Burberry. “We’ve gotten tremendous bang for our buck.” Still, Wexler doesn’t discount the power of print ads. “Obviously, the message put out by ads is important for brand image. This just reinforces it.”

Carol Levey, public relations director at Maurice Lacroix watches, remembers when Brooke Shields came backstage at the American Music Awards in January 2001 to pick out a watch. “Subsequently, we got a phone call from a retailer in Indianapolis who says, ‘We just sold a watch the other day because Brooke Shields was wearing it.’ That’s when you can tell how important it is to work with celebrities. We don’t have the huge dollars to spend on advertising, so we try through more personal contact.”

Levey adds that celebrities often buy more products instead of requesting additional freebies. Sandra Bullock, who first saw the watches in the Backstage Creations lounge at the Blockbuster Awards in January 2001, called Levey directly to purchase the timepieces as wrap presents for her crew.

“When they choose their own items they are more likely to wear them,” insists Dana Gers, vice president of marketing for Baccarat, which introduced its jewelry line in the U.S. at the 2000 SAG Awards. When pressed for quantifiable results, Gers replies: “We don’t do a return-on-investment analysis. It’s a way of building word of mouth.”

Others sing the praises of goodie-bag-prompted sales. “It comes full circle,” says Jeffrey Wortsman, chief executive officer of Toronto-based leather goods company Danier. On Dec. 14, Danier posted its best e-commerce sales to date, a milestone Wortsman attributed “to being in People.” In addition to donating about 150 leather duffels valued at $178 to gift bags at the 2001 SAG Awards, Danier provided a $38 complementary leather backgammon set for the gift bags at Heather Locklear’s surprise 40th birthday party, an event that People covered.

But the practice can also backfire. After New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham snapped a gaggle of Burberry bag-clutching fashionistas for his weekly column that touts the latest trends to hit the street, editors realized that many of the bags came from a Burberry-sponsored event. Still, it begs the question: if women are carrying the bags, isn’t it a trend no matter where they got it?

“In the beginning, we did only gift bags, but now, I go on-site to outfit the celebrity personally,” says Wexler. “It’s difficult to give away one pair of glasses and expect them to look great on 50 people.”

Sometimes, the backstage free-for-all frenzy disrupts the business at hand.

Wexler recalls the time her company was kicked out of a green room. “I had to relocate to a parking garage, where we had to suck fumes while sampling glasses,” she laughs. “You do what you have to do to get the product on ‘NSYNC and Alicia Keys.” Her efforts paid off: the band and the soul singer wore their freebie glasses on their respective CD covers.

Celebrities also validate fashion as much as they influence it. “You almost need celebrities to get behind a look because so many styles these days are so flamboyant,” says Wexler.

“There is credibility when you see a star wearing something,” adds Cojucaru.

Another bonus: the previewing of new styles at events along with the long-lead time of magazines like In Style means that products often turn up in magazines at the same time that they hit stores.

Ironically, an item often becomes fashionable because it was free and available — not because of an inherent style choice.

“Believe me, there are celebrities who don’t know their tuchus from their elbow when it comes to trends,” sniffs Cojucaru. “For every Courtney Love, there’s a thousand B-list stars quaking in their shoes saying, ‘Are Jimmy Choos still in this year?’ They’re not all Sarah Jessica Parkers.”

Few vendors, however, argue with celebrity endorsement, no matter how it’s achieved.

“I find it much more powerful than traditional advertising,” says Backstage Creations’s Wood. “No one is paying celebrities to wear things they get in goodie bags.”

Not yet, at least.