There was a time when fashion designers could make or break their career on a sexy silhouette or an unusual use of color and fabric. Now most fashion careers are subject to the whims of handbag consumers. With huge margins and high visibility, bags like Chloé's Paddington and Vuitton's Murakami can add hundreds of thousands of dollars to the bottom line, or a nice $300 million in the case of the Murakami. So luxury kings like Bernard Arnault, owner of mega-brand Louis Vuitton, fret over the star power of each one they produce.
What makes a handbag hot, in some cases even before it hits the store shelves? It could be Lindsay Lohan's endorsement or a placement in a big box-office movie. And a handbag can become an instant best seller because of one quirky design detail, like last season's Fendi Spy bag with its weird dangling closure.
The creative coup is often more the result of serendipity than science. Stuart Vevers, the young designer behind the suddenly hot British brand Mulberry, says creating an "It" bag is just dumb luck. He hit the jackpot three seasons ago when Kate Moss strolled through London carrying his Roxanne bag--a slouchy duffel in distressed leather. "I don't think you can create a hot handbag every season," says Vevers, who used to work at Vuitton. "You have to wait for your time."
Not so for designers like Reed Krakoff of Coach, where handbags make up almost 65% of the business and a single style can bring in more than $40 million in global retail sales a year. For Krakoff there is an intricate system that produces every handbag, and it involves getting three things right: price, fashion and fabrication. "If we create a handbag that everyone wants and then they also say, 'Great price,' then we've hit on something," says Krakoff, whose office is decorated with inspiration boards that include photos of a Noguchi sculpture, a Marc Newson sketch and a swatch of gray fabric from a chair in his house. "I'm noticing more organic shapes and more black and white than color right now," he says, flipping through an auction catalog filled with works by American artists like Alexander Calder and Robert Motherwell.
Coach's best-selling bag today is the shoulder tote. Modeled after a Coach duffel from the 1960s, it draws on iconic Coach signatures like brass hardware and leather binding, and its appeal crosses over different age groups. Krakoff is hard at work, however, divining the must-have for next spring, a season that he thinks will be defined by a chic, more tailored look. Once Krakoff has started sketching, he and his production team begin reviewing last season's handbags. They look at what sold, which colors were popular in Los Angeles and New York City and which shapes appealed in more conservative markets like Chicago.
They review colors (at this moment, black feels very new for bags) and look at details (braided trim, exaggerated hardware) and fashion trends that have migrated from clothing to accessories (pleating, distressed leather). "There's a lot of pleating in the market," says Krakoff. "It's a detail that evokes something a little sportier, kind of 1970s chic, but prettier." In other words, it's not sporty casual, which Krakoff says was so last season.