The Handbag’s Tale

A stylist once told me that when a customer walks into a high-end store, the first things the salespeople notice are watch, shoes, and handbag. Apparently, these three items determine your spending ability. While I don’t especially care what a clerk thinks I can or cannot afford, I agree that those accessories make a strong first impression. Since I’ve previously addressed the investment potential of a good watch and I’m always blogging about shoes, let’s move on to handbags.

When I first moved to LA, I decided that I needed a new purse. My first stop was the section of Wilshire Boulevard that runs parallel to Rodeo Drive…Barneys, Saks, and Neiman’s are all in that neighborhood. (Yes, I know I picked the priciest part of Beverly Hills in which to launch my search, but heck…I was new in town. I wanted to shop where the big girls shop.) Culture shock started to brew when I walked into Barneys and discovered there wasn’t a thing to be had for under a hefty four figures. $3800 for a handbag? For that price, it should automatically generate hundred-dollar bills when you’re not looking.

I moved on to Saks. After a considerable amount of searching and gasping at price tags, I finally found a marshmallow-soft leather hobo for $550. Steal! As I stood in line waiting to pay for it, I realized that the monthly rent on my just-off-Park-Avenue apartment on the Upper East Side of New York was precisely the same cost. Granted, that was in 1981, but still…

By the time it was my turn at the cash register, my heart was pounding and my guilt was building. It’s even possible that I might have been sweating. I took a deep breath and handed the saleswoman my credit card, rationalizations and justifications for my purchase swimming in my head.

“That will be $239.47,” she said.




Noting my perplexed (read: stoopit) expression, she politely told me that the bag was on sale. Relief flooded over me. I thanked her, took my purchase, and staggered outside. I felt as if I had just escaped unscathed from a war zone.

Things went steadily downhill after that. The longer I lived in LA, the more immune I became to insane price tags. While I wasn’t necessarily paying top dollar for everything I bought, I was no longer choking at the sight of $130 T-shirts or $4000 dresses. And then Christina came to visit.

Christina is a very dear friend who lives in Rochester, NY. She works part time at a fabulous shop there called A Different Point of View, and she’s singularly responsible for introducing me to the incredible designs of Sarah Pacini. Christina and I love to shop together, so it was only natural for me to take her to Barneys.

It started out safely enough. We both bought fragrances…not cheap, but not outrageous. And then it happened. While wandering through display after display of designer handbags, I saw it. A Balenciaga purse. To say it was love at first sight would be an understatement. I was smitten. Dazzled. Overcome with desire. I had to make it mine. The clerk conveniently informed me that if I opened up a Barneys charge account, I would automatically save 10 percent. 10 percent! That would cut the price by a whopping $……

Okay. I can’t go there. I’m not going to admit what I paid for it. But I was in love in a way I’d never been in love with an accessory before, and I was ready to take the plunge.

Now here’s the rub. For all it’s beauty—and it is truly gorgeous— it is the worst handbag I have ever owned. Within months, the leather looked as if it was desperate for a drink of water, and no amount of leather cream could slake it. Within a year, the shoulder strap was so worn that the leather had actually cracked and split in places. When I called Balenciaga to see if I could get a replacement strap, I was referred back to Barneys. When I contacted Barneys, the clerk laughed. “Balenciaga doesn’t make good on any of their products,” he said. “I’m sorry…we can’t help you either.”

At present, the bag is on the east coast being “evaluated” by a leather-repair expert to determine if anything can be done. Did I learn a lesson in the process? I’m not quite sure. I have to admit that I loved having such an elegant bag on my shoulder. I loved when strangers—okay, strangers who recognized the signature Balenciaga hardware—would comment on its beauty. But when it started to weather like something I might have picked up on sale at Walmart, the love started to dim.

I’m still trying to decide if the price I paid would have been worth it if I’d bought a different bag…by a different designer…by one that stands behind its product. Or maybe the truth lies in the above-mentioned hobo from Saks that still looks like a million bucks. A bargain—even at full price.


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