Handbags are big this fall. Really big. The cult of the handbag has reached new heights, literally. The hottest handbags are close to 2...

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CHICAGO — Handbags are big this fall. Really big.

The cult of the handbag has reached new heights, literally. The hottest handbags are close to 2 feet tall and wider than a doorway — power bags large enough to hold a small bureau and topple a passer-by with one swing of the shoulder. And the price tags are just as hefty at $1,500 and up.

Chalk it up to the celebrity culture, women’s rising economic clout and one undeniable, intoxicating fact: You don’t have to be model thin to wear one.

Observers of fashion and culture say It Bags are to women what sports cars are to men, a competitive status symbol that knows no rational limits.

In a day when jeans and T-shirts are common and upper-echelon executive women dress down, an outrageously expensive must-have It Bag, especially one so big it’s hard to miss, announces its owner has arrived.

“It’s like a Hummer — built to do the kind of things no driver would ever do,” said Robert Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse University. “It’s excessively overbuilt for what you need it for. The really giant purse has got that same sense. It says, ‘I can afford this excess even though all I’ve got in this is a wallet and an LG Chocolate cellphone.’ “

In the past two years, sales of handbags soared at a pace of nearly 6 percent a year to an estimated $6 billion in 2006, according to a report from market research firm Mintel International Group. While the pace of growth is expected to slow slightly, to more than 5 percent a year through 2010, luxury analysts and culture experts predict the handbag hoopla will continue.

The purse wears the celeb

Celebrity and fashion magazines devote pages to stars and their bags. Online chat forums and blogs such as Purseblog.com and Handbag.com, have sprung up for fans to swap tales about their favorite purses and the famous people who lug them.

Kate Moss strolling down the street with her Mulberry Bayswater. Victoria Beckham hopping out of a car with her supersized quilted Prada shopper. Lindsay Lohan swinging her curvy Fendi B. Heidi Klum voguing with her oversized YSL white ostrich Muse.

And, of course, the famous Hermès Birkin that Martha Stewart toted to her trial. Stewart revealed in a Barbara Walters interview, before heading off to prison, that she bought the bag to reward herself after she became successful.

The Birkin is the holy grail of handbags. It takes years just to get on the wait-list. The price can range from $10,000 to $50,000. And carrying one sends a signal of privilege that is difficult to match. The TV show “Sex and the City” built an entire episode around the outrageous lengths the character of Samantha goes to in order to secure the coveted treasure.

Stewart isn’t the only woman to splurge on a handbag after reaching a certain echelon. It’s a common practice, say several executive women.

“It shows you mean business,” said Melissa Giovagnoli, president of Chicago-based Networlding.com, who totes a $1,500 Prada. “It doesn’t matter if I’m using a Bic pen, as long as I have my Prada bag.”

Giovagnoli bought her first designer handbag four years ago. She was window shopping, eyeing a $600 Ferragamo purse, but decided to wait for a big account to justify the splurge. When a call came in from a longtime client asking her to speak at an event, she offered to do so for free as a favor.

The client insisted on paying, so Giovagnoli charged $600 and bagged the handbag. She carried it for years as a good-luck charm and a reminder that she should charge what she’s worth, a message she shares with other businesswomen as part of her networking and coaching business.

You can’t have too many

Women have always been attached to their handbags. They carry them close to their sides. It holds all their personal belongings. It’s almost an “intimate extension of the body,” writes Anna Johnson in her book “Handbags: The Power of the Purse.”

Research shows women buy on average three bags a year, up from one every two years in 2000, according to NPD Group.

Anne MacDonald, chief marketing officer of Federated Department Stores, parent of Macy’s, changes her bag daily. She has a closet full of Lambertson Truex handbags all neatly stacked on shelves, stuffed with tissue paper to keep their shape.

“I’m like Imelda Marcos with shoes,” MacDonald laughs, showing off the luxurious inside lining of a Lambertson satchel she bought 11 years ago.

Grace Tsao-Wu once carried the same bag for three months. Now, she has set up a small table by her door to hold her handbags for the week, right next to her cellphone charger and Blackberry.

“Lately, I switch bags often,” said Tsao-Wu. “I easily carry two or three bags a week. I didn’t used to do that. There’s some addictive quality about it. A handbag has a major presence on the body. They take up a lot of space, especially these days.”

Alice Peterson has always been in favor of one big bag and finds it easier than ever to find one. She just bought a Marc Jacobs leather tote that has extra straps to prevent back problems, a common complaint from carriers of big bags.

“I tend to have a whole lot of stuff that allows me to be productive in different situations in my one big bag,” said Peterson. “I buy one, spend a lot of money on it and select it with great care. It’s easier to take a bag like that anywhere, to the opera or airplane or board meeting or just schlepping on the train.”

Yes, one size fits all

The Mintel report noted women from all demographics are susceptible to buying a purse on impulse on any given day. It is no wonder, then, that many department stores have moved their handbag departments to prominent spaces near the stores’ entrance.

Neiman Marcus on North Michigan Avenue in Chicago counts its handbag business, which takes up a good chunk of the first floor, as “one of the best businesses in the store,” said Wendy Krimins, vice president and general manager. Some bags, like Chanel’s shiny black Coco Cabas for $1,995, are so popular they are snapped up by wait-listed customers before the bags make it to the display shelf.

“There’s no price resistance,” said Krimins. “No one flinches. The business just keeps getting better and better. It doesn’t matter if you’ve gained a pound or lost a pound, you can carry an It Bag.”

Just ask cartoonist Cathy Guisewite. Her comic strip “Cathy,” about the average woman’s anxieties, ran a series on the supersized handbag — an accessory she calls “a garage with shoulder straps.” A saleswoman tells Cathy when she puts a purse on her shoulder that is bigger than she is, “It makes you look petite by comparison!”