Handbags: quality is key

Years ago a very charming elderly uncle gave me a check for Christmas with explicit instructions that I was to buy something "special" for myself that I might have wanted for a long time.

Ignoring pleas from the immediate family to invest the money in a dishwasher, re-cover the living room sofa, or have the bathroom repainted (as it greatly needed), I sallied forth and bought a handbag from Hermes, famed old leather goods shop on the Faubourg Saint Honore, which probably sells the finest quality accessories in France and perhaps the world.

The moral of the story is that in due time the sofa eventually got recovered, the bathroom repainted (no dishwasher to date), and I still, almost two decades later, have my beautiful classic bag which is as good as ever and has never gone out of fashion.

Certainly there is more emphasis on quality than ever before, especially in the realm of fine leather accessories -- investment pieces slated to last for years. Styles in bags and belts do not change radically, and quality seemingly goes on forever.

This basic approach was greatly evidence at the recent spring and summer leather goods exposition at the Porte de Versailles, where constantly rising prices for raw skins have influenced designers to concentrate on classic shapes and good workmanship.

Granted, there are also all the little frivolities. Anyone can spring for an inexpensive raffia or straw cloth bag in some bright new shade to accessorize midsummer dresses. But the main idea is quality which is going to amortize the hefty initial cost on a long-term basis.

Handbags are slightly more structured than a few years ago with stiffening and inner linings helping to hold the shape in spite of all the things we stuff into our bags, even for a short excursion on the corner grocery store. Geometry evolves in subtle effects, and the endless copies of the Hermes trapeze bag that have been knocked off by practically every manufacturer in town are still around.

It's all a semblance of a happy medium between the rigid shapes of train and attache cases and the floppy feed bags and reticules that appeared supple enough to have been made of fabric back in the early 1970s. Vertical and elongated styles are currently more in evidence than the horizontal looks which were intended to break the total silhouette when hemlines hovered at midcalf, before they were chopped off up to the knees in the ready-to-wear collections for the coming spring and summer.

Geometry is not all squares and angles. Many of the incoming trends are based on gentle curves -- crescents and half moons often treated to asymmetrical effects with curved pockets or trimmings set low at one side.

Everyone expects to pay a high price for fine quality leather, but there are excellent duplications, often so perfect in fact that it takes a professional to tell the difference between the fake and the real thing. Vinyl, in the early days of its debut, looked as different from leather as oilcloth from Irish linen. Not so today. The marvelous finishes, the grainings, and latest techniques which enable synthetics to "imbibe" the dyes deep into the pores and veins evolve extraordinary replicas of genuine leather.

The less expensive real leathers such as cowhide and calfskin are also treated to imitate many rare and precious hides as lizard, crocodile, and ostrich skin. Latest novelty is a replica of the iguana stamped with infinitely small pin point markings.

Many bags play up contrasts of media and color as the calfskin models with imitation crocodile appliques and insets. Patchwork per se, however, is generally finished, as the profit gained from salvaging the small scraps of precious leathers is more than offset by labor costs and the long hours necessitated to stitch the tiny bits and pieces together.

Color is as important as shape and media, but when you're looking for a long-term basic bag, it doesn't necessarily have to be "black for winter" and "white or beige for summer." Granted, it involves careful planning to coordinate one bag with the various backbone pieces in one's wardrobe, but several all-season shades go with a surprising number of different ensembles.

The deep rich tonalities of wine colors are as effective with the pale summer pastels as the wintery darks. Forest greens are equally valid, plus the ink blues and indigo along with the current craze for gray, including everything from the soft pearly tones down to steel and elephant shades.

"Classic" doesn't mean dull in 1980. My 20-year-old black bag has a black lining, but the current vintage are usually livened with some bright colored contrasting lining.

Finally there is fun and frivolity with inexpensive little pieces often priced in the dime store ranges -- "throwaway" items that one doesn't have to wear forever and featured in hit colors that will probably look outdated a year from now.

These bags come in inexpensive materials such as straw cloth, cotton fabrics, and the least costly synthetic leathers. Here, color is all important with clear pastels accounting for 60 percent of the wholesale orders so far this season, compared with 40 percent for the bright floral shades. Newest ranges are the pink and lavender families with turquoise in third place.

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