Mirror, Mirror: A handbag to smile about - if you can get it, afford it

The Cline Mini Luggage Tote, at Saks Fifth Avenue in Bala Cynwyd.
The Cline Mini Luggage Tote, at Saks Fifth Avenue in Bala Cynwyd. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 07, 2011

I present to you this fall's words to die for: "I can get you an authentic Céline Luggage Tote."


Back that sentence up and you'll be worth your weight in Manolos as this pocketbook, in all of its handled, two-toned glory, is fall's "It" bag.

The mixed-media, medium-sized catchall - we think the tartan and black leather combination is über-hot - hails from the brain of Phoebe Philo, creative director of the French-luxury house Céline. The bag, which sells for $2,200 to $2,500, is next to impossible to get, with wait lists throughout the country at every major specialty store from Saks to Neimans.

The tote debuted in late 2009, but has been the talk of all things chic since early spring, when high-society and Hollywood starlets - Leighton Meester, Nicole Richie, Reese Witherspoon, and even classy Meryl Streep - were spotted with the structured bags draped over their wrists.

There are back orders here, too. Saks Fifth Avenue in Bala Cynwyd has a 10-page wait list. After a generous shipment of the bags reached the store in mid-August, just one was left last week. And that $2,500 chocolate brown and blue leather treasure had already been spoken for by Claire Fu.

"I'm crazy about the bags," said Fu, 30, a secretary at a Center City dentist's office who wears black all the time. "I have at least four: one in burgundy, another in blue. I bought a leopard print last year and I'm thinking about ordering one in hot pink."

Probably the cutest detail is the placement of the zipper under the short, round handles, making a smiley face, a much subtler way to identify a bag than Chanel's locking C's. Trend-watchers say the bag, which comes in two expandable sizes, mini and regular, is right on point thanks to fall's color-blocking trend.

The bags are available in bold solids, but the most popular versions are two-toned, such as burgundy and orange or navy blue and kelly green. These help women work this season's bold color combinations into their accessories. A turquoise pencil skirt and a kelly green skirt can be tough to pull off. But on a bag, it's less intimidating.

"They've managed to do something for all their customers," said Lisa Hayes, director of fashion design at Drexel University. "There are mixed-media black combinations for conservatives, there are neutral pale and suede for the hippie hobo, and colorful pops of color for the savvy creative types."

I like the simplicity of structure and the more manageable size. I don't know about you, but I spend more time looking for keys, cellphones, change, and chargers in my passé oversized hobo bags from seasons past. Not to mention the handle is so retro 1950s, allowing for I'm-in-a-rush shoulder action and more dainty wrist carrying.

Margie Berger, a retired communications specialist for Independence Blue Cross, loves the style, the size, and that the bag is a tote.

Berger's daughter, who lives in New York's fashionable meatpacking district, told her about the Céline a few months ago. But they couldn't find any of the bags in the big city. With a little tenacity, Berger was able to secure two mini-totes from Neiman Marcus in King of Prussia, one tan and another in blue, for herself and her daughter. She's waiting for a third.

"We can actually get it here," Berger said, pointing out the bags' almost impossible-to-find status in New York. "I can't wait to start carrying it this fall."

Thanks to the recession, it's been about three years since we've seen an "It" bag rise to the level of the Birkin, Kelly, or Chanel bag. Not only did the dearth of spending put a plug in our retail purchases, but also design houses, sensing our reluctance to buy high-end, cut back on manufacturing runs. One order does not an "It" item make.

Drexel's Hayes says we're also on the cusp of a bevy of new fashion trends. Fall silhouettes are Mad Men-sleek, yes, but they are complemented by not just pops, but blasts of color. If there was ever a time for an "It" item, it would be now, when women's fashion is seeing its biggest shifts in quite some time.

"A new handbag is indeed the mark of new trends," Hayes said. "And this is the first bag in a long time that has been color-blocked. Not to mention it holds all of our technology, laptops, and iPads. These two elements combined are definitely putting the bag on the map."

Mirror, Mirror:

For a video preview of this season's hot bags, go to www.philly.com/style/video.

Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704, ewellington@phillynews.com, or @ewellingtonph on Twitter.

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