Holding the bag

THE BALTIMORE SUN

New York -- It's 6 a.m. on a Monday and Emily Levitas, owner of Gotta Have Bags in Hampden, is on a bus, headed for the accessories trade show in New York. There, she will scout out the designs of hundreds of handbag manufacturers and artisans and decide which will and which won't make the cut.

She has armed herself with only a few tools: a map of the booths in the mammoth exhibition site, a pen, comfortable shoes and a keen eye for beauty, usefulness and style.

Like hundreds of others who will descend on the trade show on this day, Levitas is a hunter of sorts, on the prowl for the must-have of the season - handbags.

"It's a big category right now," Lincoln Moore, vice president and divisional merchandise manager at Saks Fifth Avenue, says of handbags. "It's kind of the customers' signposts."

Handbags are so important these days that it makes Levitas' job that much more important. But her work is often unrecognized by most everyday shoppers.

Buyers do the preliminary shopping, picking the items that you one day will pick and choose from.

At two of the more popular fairs, attended by hundreds of exhibitors, Levitas spots a few unusual pieces to put in her shop window, to draw in customers, such as an across-the-body pouch, from new designer Sobella, with a detachable strap that can be made into a necklace. But she also sees style in basics: black satchels, brown hobos, clutches, dainty evening bags.

For Levitas, that style-spotting talent is part experience - from nearly 40 years in the handbag business - and part gut feeling.

"I am very opinionated about what I like and don't like," says Levitas, who had a partner, Linda Segal, to bounce ideas off of, but is now sole buyer since Segal's death last fall. "If I don't see anything by just scanning, I won't go in [to a booth]."

And in six hours, Levitas does pass up many a booth, for various reasons: too expensive, too dowdy, too cheap-looking, too glitzy.

Multiple times a year, she does this, spending hours on her feet, scouring exhibition booths for new inventory to fill her small boutique. Through the day, she breaks only once for a half-hour lunch.

"I have to see everything there is to see," says Levitas. "I can't miss anything. And I don't have a lot of time."

At the trade shows, buyers converge on each small booth and instantly go to work.

Levitas is astoundingly decisive, despite salespeople's sugary spiels. And she has no poker face.

She turns up her nose. Frowns her face. If she loves something, she coos.

Hour after hour. Handbag after handbag. Walking, peering, weighing, feeling.

At the Tocca booth, many bags were about $220 wholesale - the price buyers pay for merchandise - which means they'd cost her customers twice that or more.

Levitas liked the bags, but bit her bottom lip at the price, and left the booth without buying.

At Y&S;, she picks up a hobo bag and puts it back.

"Everybody's got a hobo," she says.

She passes up bags with too many nail heads or grommets. "Too busy," she says.

She's looking for hip and functional bags with clean lines and good construction. She prefers bags that are lightweight and labels that aren't carried by competitors.

She stays away from the supersized-bags that have become popular of late, saying that Baltimore women - who don't walk the streets like New York women - prefer their handbags more compact. She also avoids other characteristics, such as suede, and black bags with white stitching.

"Baltimore doesn't like white stitching," Levitas says. "I don't know why."

After the two trade shows in New York - the first one at the Chelsea Piers is more high-end than the other, at the Javits Center - Levitas has ordered close to 250 handbags to come into her store from August to September.

This will make up Gotta Have Bags' fall line of selections and styles.

At the end of all the foraging, she is exhausted and slightly anxious.

"You only know that you've bought right," Levitas says, yo-yo bouncing a bag to see how much it weighs, "when it walks out the door."

It is the driving question behind most buyers' purchases: Will this handbag sell?

"This [job] can be chancy," says Jodi L. Brodie, who buys the fashion-forward handbags for Treasure House in Pikesville, as she rides the tour bus back to Baltimore from a day at the shows. "If we bring it in, we're making a statement saying that we believe in it and this is what we think is important for the season. Some things work, and some things don't."

In Baltimore, customers tend to be "safer" than many buyers would like.

"In a way, we're a bit provincial," says Lola Abt Hahn, buyer for handbags and accessories at Octavia in Pikesville. "They love fashion, but ... " She chooses her words carefully, not wanting to paint too bleak a picture of Baltimore.

Abt Hahn says she loved Lockheart, a new line she discovered at Accessorie Circuit, the higher-end of the two shows Levitas attended. But she isn't sure if Baltimore's women - who prefer recognizable brands - would see what she saw in the fanciful, embellished line of leather bags,.

"If I carry this new line that I just saw," she says, "it's so edgy and so fabulous. I don't know. I would carry it, but I don't think I can sell it."

Abt Hahn and Brodie have many of the same customers - women with means and a real sense of high fashion.

Octavia, for instance, carries designer Marc Jacobs' highly sought-after status bags. And Treasure House was one of the first to introduce Kooba - the latest "It" label - to Baltimore.

Levitas' customers, on the other hand, want style and flair, but with a slightly lower price tag. So Levitas' days traipsing up and down convention center aisles are filled with visions of dollar signs.

Botkier, a rising star in the handbag world, required buyers to purchase at least 10 bags. Fine for big department stores. Too much for Levitas.

Keeping costs low is harder this year -rising gas costs have worked their way even into the price of handbags.

"In the last two months, things have gone up 14 percent" for manufacturers, says Glen Teres, designer for Borsetta International, where Levitas buys many of her bags. His suppliers are "not absorbing those oil prices."

"I just have to try to keep my prices low by not making such a profit," Levitas says.

She buys pieces from small companies, ranging from $18 to about $200 wholesale, prices she says her customers will not balk at.

Bigger stores, with bigger budgets, don't have to be so nitpicky.

Saks Fifth Avenue, for example, has four handbag buyers to shop for 54 stores, and most are concerned about presenting a "point-of-view" for each store, says Moore of Saks.

"Of course, we'd like to have a touch of everything in every store," he says, "but that's not realistic."

So large flagship Saks stores, such as in Washington, New York and Houston, have selections that are broad, varied and "fairly high-end," Moore says. Medium-sized stores, say in St. Louis or Columbus, Ohio, have somewhat of a more casual feel, with fewer choices. Small stores, such as in Santa Barbara, Calif., or Greenwich, Conn., have scaled-down, more personalized perspectives.

"Greenwich is pretty much all designer," Moore says, "and Fort Myers, [Fla.], is more casual, very young and fresh."

Bigger stores also buy bags much further in advance than specialty shops. While buyers from boutiques are looking to stock for fall, Saks' buyers are ordering for next spring.

And department store buyers rarely, if ever, put in orders at accessories trade shows. Instead, they see what's new there and may make appointments to order from showrooms - organized representatives of various labels.

Levitas visits showrooms, as well, of labels she knows best, where sales reps work more closely with her to tailor her selections for her customers.

But that is for another day.

On this day, she will shop the shows, up and down the aisles, hunting for the perfect handbag.

And she won't get back on the bus for Baltimore until she's found it.

tanika.white@baltsun.com

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