WASHINGTON _ It has a name like a traditional household item: the envelope. Or like food: the baguette,the pancake.
It sits locked behind a glass display window in a department store,or perched on a shelf in a trendy boutique. It also dangles,swinging in the wind,off a metal spike on a street vendor's cart.
For the discerning handbag lover,choices abound.
Only one universal truth emerges from the sea of slick leather,brushed tweed and glittery beading: Rarely does the perfect pocketbook come cheap.
Even the tiniest bags from popular designers such as Gucci and Louis Vuitton cost as much as $500 this season.
But with handbag trends slipping in and out of style several times a year,some women get a little crafty when shopping for the season's must-haves. Filene's Basement,T.J. Maxx and online retailers such as bluefly.com are favorites for snapping up heavily discounted brand name picks. Other women comb through booth after booth of knock-off street vendors in Los Angeles,New York and Washington,D.C.,searching for a convincing copycat version.
Pointing at a sleek black Kate Spade on a street vendor's cart parked across the street from Washington,D.C.'s Capital Hilton,Beth Stoner admitted she bought the real version last summer – for $385. But when shopping for her college-aged daughter,she said she can't justify the exorbitant expense. Instead,Stoner heads straight for the fakes.
“This would be close to $1,000,” said the Richmond,Va.,resident,twirling a big,glossy Prada triangle bag around her wrist. “And that's absolutely ridiculous.”
She's not kidding. A tiny black Prada clutch – barely big enough to hold a tube of lipstick,a credit card and a pack of TicTacs – costs $178 at Neiman Marcus this spring. For that price,one would expect leather,suede,or perhaps even linen. Nope. It's 100 percent nylon.
And since most of Prada's other top-selling creations are similarly fashioned,it's no wonder rip-offs are a dime a dozen at flea markets and street bazaars.
Purses with lots of “hardware,” however,are harder to dupe,said April Stern Riccio,public relations manager at Neiman Marcus in Washington,D.C. The more bangles,beads and buttons a bag designer uses,the less likely their work is to be copied and sold for a fraction of the cost on a street corner.
Judith Leiber bags,for instance,boast intricate,gem-laden clasps made from Austrian crystal,quartz and pearls – for more than $1,000 each.
But knock-offs of Kate Spade's plain bucket totes (which usually retail for more than $200) and Fendi's slick baguettes (about $300,depending on size) dot street corners of big cities nationwide,rarely for more than $40 each.
Online discounters such as Bluefly.com,too,are zeroing in on bargain hunters and padding their stock with the hottest handbags available,usually offering them for more than 50 percent off their original retail price.
Bluefly CEO Ken Seiff reported triple-digit growth in the site's handbag sales last year,which he said he attributes to the company's consistent “fashion forward” offerings.
Although the site sells few up-to-the-moment bags,the season's best – always the genuine article — often appear for sale four to six weeks after their retail debut.
Thanks to last spring's ruling in the Supreme Court case Wal-Mart Store,Inc. v. Samara Brothers,Inc.,midwestern fashionistas without neighborhood knock-off vendors on every corner can now get their fake fix by trolling the 'Net.
Greg Crowe,a self-proclaimed “knock-off artist” and part-owner of the Los Angeles-based Web site anyknockoff.com,is betting that they'll get hooked.
The site hawks imitation Coach,Kate Spade and Fendi bags,as well as wanna-be designer watches,shoes and scarves.
More than 1,600 customers subscribe to the site's monthly newsletter,and Crowe said sales have increased 20 percent every month since the site's launch,last June.
“There's only two real fashion districts in the country – New York and L.A.,” Crowe said. “What about the people in the middle? We're giving them an option to get products they would never normally have access to.”
But every week,Crowe said,the company gets at least four or five e-mails from customers asking if its Kate Spade bags bear the teeny,trademark “Kate Spade New York” label on the front.
And every time,he explains that they do not. Keeping its bags label-free is what keep anyknockoff.com on the right side of the law,Crowe said.
Walmart v. Samara Brothers established that although a product's design is distinctive,it is protected under law only if it the knock-off version features “any symbol or device likely to cause confusion as to the origin” of the merchandise. These include the signature Gucci “G” and the Kate Spade New York tag on the front of each bag.
So what about the labeled,tagged bags that most street vendors sell? They're illegal. Anyone who opts to sell – or even buy – them could be prosecuted for copyright infringement.
Still,Rachel Goldstein-Rodriguez said she's not worried: She's just desperate.
A trip to Africa for her job as United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees looms just a few days away,and after searching for a “field bag” at Filene's,Hecht's and Macy's,Goldstein-Rodriguez still hadn't found one she liked – until she stumbled upon a street stand stocked with a rainbow of Kate Spade knock-offs.
After spying a giant,black tote with two sturdy-looking straps,she fished $35 out of her wallet and handed it over to the hovering vendor,relieved that her search was over. Although she admitted that the new bag isn't the sassiest one she owns,sometimes function has to trump fashion – especially when the price is right.
“I couldn't care less whether it says Kate Spade or Kate Burns or whatever,” Goldstein-Rodriguez said. “I just need something now.”
Despite cheaper options,when nothing but a color-coordinated Kate Spade bucket tote bag,wallet and diaper bag will do,customers still plunk down dollars at chic boutiques and department stores.
And of course,Riccio said,impulse buyers are rarely turned off by a hefty price tag.
“You'll always have the women who buy a pale blue suit and then decide they absolutely have to have a bag to match,too,” she said.
But in the game of hand bag shopping,patience is a virtue. Taking a stroll down the street — or on the Information Superhighway – often nets huge bargains. And at only $30,it hurts a whole lot less to cast that sassy little eelskin clutch into the back of the closet when it becomes more “Not” than “Hot.”