Purse Craze Spawns Array of Products

They have as many different styles as the women they accompany. They can make a statement without saying a word. And they've become so in, they're inspiring everything from pastries to perfume bottles.

The penchant for purses has led to what can only be called the cult of the handbag.

"They're kind of an obsession for some people," said handbag designer Elaine Arsenault, who opened her namesake boutique in Manhattan last fall. "People do fall in love with them. They are a way for women to express themselves, whether it's that day or in general."

The infatuation with handbags explains why each season, the hot designs like the Christian Dior saddlebag or the Marc Jacobs buckle-festooned Venecia draw long waiting lists of hopeful buyers. It also explains why some women have a stash of purses for every occasion and mood. And why other companies have begun capitalizing on the fad by fashioning their products in pocketbook shapes.

Anna Sui's $100 "Dreams" perfume comes in a clutch-shaped bottle. 4Showers.com offers cardboard party bags for baby or bridal showers that look like brightly colored purses. And several craft companies sell Christmas tree ornaments, jewel boxes and other miniature handbag knickknacks.

Purse fever has even extended to food. New York specialty bakery Eleni's is selling intricate handbag sugar cookies modeled after real designer versions. Purple cheesecake purses, with a white-icing glove or handkerchief peeping out, are among the offerings of Elegant Cheese Cakes in northern California.

"Handbags are an absolute craze right now," said Erica Garvey, a partner at Eleni's. "This is sort of a little spoof on it all."

Garvey's pastry shop worked with Neiman Marcus (which sells its own pocketbook-shaped cookies and cakes) on hand-iced, Kate Spade-inspired biscuits, which come in six designs and cost $55 for a tin of 18. The equally artistic purse desserts from Elegant Cheese Cakes vanilla, lemon and white chocolate cheesecake with raspberry swirl, lavender icing and a lemon hazelnut crust go for $120.

Since the purse is one of the ultimate symbols of femininity, both pastry shops created and began selling the edible bags in time for Mother's Day.

"A handbag is like a personality trait," said Elegant Cheese Cakes owner Susan Morgan. "It doesn't always have to match. It can just be a statement of who you are. It reminds me of mom."

Pocketbook-inspired concoctions aside, recent sales and profits for retailers like Coach Inc. also provide evidence of the craze.

The company's third-quarter earnings almost doubled this year compared to last from $7.8 million to $14.7 million. Sales rose nearly 30 percent, from about $126 million to about $162 million. And its spring line has met with more consumer interest than predicted.

Even specialty designers have seen their once-cozy clientele grow larger and more eager, though many work hard to keep their businesses small. Arsenault, for instance, has seen something akin to a fan base form around her purses, whose trademark is a drawstring closure.

"There's a bit of a cult following around my bags," she said. "People come in here and tell me they're dreaming about them, they haunt them."

The passion for purses seems to stem in part from their dual fashion-function role.

"You have the practicality of carrying around all the things you need as well as looking elegant doing it," said Arsenault. "It's a statement accessory and also a function accessory."

It's also an item of familiarity a soothing, well-worn security blanket that adult women can drag with them everywhere.

"There's a psychological thing with the handbag," Arsenault said. "You put all your special things in this little hidden place. You don't feel comfortable unless you have it."