Those among us who enjoy prowling expensive boutiques for the latest designer goods must inevitably ask ourselves (assuming our husbands don't ask us first): Have we lost touch with what really matters in life? Are we fashion victims, enslaved by famous names--in thrall to Gucci, Vuitton, Fendi? To which we unfailingly reply: Nah, not really We are simply discerning. For us, it's the quality of the product that counts, not the name. Can we help it that so many well-made items bear famous labels? But I will admit there is one designer product with a name so hallowed, so downright sacrosanct, that its unimpeachable craftsmanship has, for me, always been of secondary importance to the aura the item confers on its wearer. We're talking Hermes, specifically, the company's iconic handbags. Call me arriviste, frivolous, lacking a value compass. There's just something about those bags. A woman's first Hermes bag is a rite of passage, which may explain why I let mine slip through my fingers. I wasn't ready. I'd recently moved to New York and was doing odd jobs to put myself through grad school. Within the first month, an elderly woman asked my help moving her from a brownstone to an apartment a few blocks away. After three days of hard, dirty work, I waited anxiously for the cash I desperately needed. Instead, the woman handed me a nearly unused Hermes copper-colored alligator Kelly bag. She explained that she had bought it years earlier when she wore couture. Now that she only dressed "ethnic," the bag no longer interested her. Having been brought up outside Philadelphia, with Grace Kelly as the local goddess, I naturally recognized the bag as the style she often wore in photos. To me, it was a symbol of class and refinement. That she could have a "pocketbook" (that's what I called a handbag in those days) named after her was endlessly amazing to me. Still, it just didn't go with my lifestyle either--living in Morningside Heights, eating macaroni at the Columbia cafeteria and wearing tattered jeans. Disappointed but too shy to demand the cash, I trudged home with my "pay". When I described the bag to a friend who worked in an uptown art gallery, she told me how desperately she wanted one. Without hesitation, I insisted she take it. What good was it to me? A few days later, I was caught in a sudden rainstorm. To avoid a drenching, I took the shortcut from 58th to 57th Street through Bergdorf's. As I walked by the Hermes boutique (where Chanel is now), I saw a bag just like the one I'd given away. It had a $3,300 price tag. I almost choked: Two years of tuition. Ten thousand plates of macaroni. Then it got worse. I learned that even used Hermes bags were often sold in collectibles auctions at Sotheby's, where I had a part-time job. My secondhand Kelly could have brought $1,800 or more. After agonizing about it, I called my friend to explain apologetically that I had made a terrible mistake. But before I could say anything, she told me excitedly that Andy Warhol had come into the gallery. He'd seen the bag and complimented her on being chic enough to carry it off with jeans. "Andy Warhol...," she gushed. "Can you imagine?" There was nothing I could say. I didn't have the heart to ask for it back. Now, 25 years later, she still carries that bag--the bitch! A few years later, I had a second chance. This time, it was a gray ostrich Kelly, a gift from an employer. But I blew this one, too. Not sure that pale gray was practical, I returned it to the store for credit. (Three thousand dollars was still a lot of money.) Over the next two years, I stopped by the store from time to time just to look at the bags, but I never saw anything I liked better. Finally I decided I'd been wrong. The gray ostrich was perfect, after all. And I still had the credit. Once I'd made the decision, getting that bag was an emergency. I rushed to the store. Luckily, a gray ostrich Kelly just like the one I had returned was available. (It probably was the same one; there were no waiting lists in those days.) Available, yes, but the price was now $4,200. My finances had improved, but not enough to part with the extra $1,200 it would take just to break even! I slouched from the store, convinced that these damn bags would always be just out of reach. I was wrong, thank goodness. My next encounter with an Hermes bag--and the first that would really be mine--was a worn brown Kelly a gift from a good friend who'd been a famous fashion model in the Sixties. Giants like Norell, Galanos and Gernreich had designed entire collections around her. Fresh out of school when I first met her, I was fortunate enough to work as her personal assistant off and on for three years. I had never met anyone with such unerring chic. She never adopted the latest fads (as I slavishly did). Rather, she stuck with classics. Looking back, I learned everything I know about style from her. All along, I admired her collection of Hermes bags--11 in all, I counted--which had taken her years to assemble. In 1984, she fell ill with cancer, and over the next year she fought death valiantly. Realizing that she was losing the battle, she slowly began to give away her extraordinary things to her friends. I still remember her retired former assistant weeping as my friend draped an ankle-length sable around the poor woman's shoulders. About two months before she died, she called me into her bedroom and sat me down on the bed. She handed me the bag, saying simply, "You're ready for this now." I said the obligatory, "You'll still need it." She laughed, "Not where I'm going." Then she said, "Open it." I did. Inside was her Art Deco diamond bracelet. The bracelet was a breathtaking gift, but I think she was sending me a special message with the brown bag. I was a grown-up--independent (not really), mature (hardly) and in charge of my life (certainly not). Yet, my friend apparently thought so, and the bag made me believe all those things. And believing them was a tiny step toward being them. Because I've worn that bag and repaired it so much, it has become fragile. So I bring it out only on special occasions, when I need a talisman. It's made me try to be like her. Whenever I wear it, I think of her and hope she'd be proud of me. I always thought it would be splendid to be given an Hermes bag by the man you love. Eleven years ago, after years of spending Sundays alone, reading The New York Times and outlining the coming week's work, I finally got married. He's a bright, lovable widower--just the type who might surprise me with "that bag." One morning when we were on vacation in Mexico City, we learned on the news of a sudden and previously unannounced devaluation of the peso. My husband asked what I'd like to do that day. There was no question. At 9:45 a.m., we were outside the local Hermes store, waiting for the door to open at 10. My husband had always found Hermes bags attractive, and he encouraged me. As if in a dream, I heard him saying, "We'll take this one, and that one, and that one, and yes, that copper alligator over there, too." We walked off with five bags--two Birkins and three Kellys--and that's not counting the clutches. It might not be the most romantic Hermes bag story in history, but then, you can't quarrel with 50 percent off! Over the years, my collection of Hermes bags has grown steadily. My husband tells people that my annual budget has a line item for Hermes bags and that the bags have their own insurance rider. He thinks he's joking. It doesn't take much for me to rationalize buying another. I tell myself it's not spending, it's investing. That may be true, although I don't have what the investment bankers call an "exit strategy." I can't imagine ever selling one. Fortunately, I'm not alone with my meshugas about Hermes bags. My friends all have theirs and stories to go with them. One old friend, Marianne, loves their patina. To her, a new bag is crass. She buys vintage ones when she can. When she picked up her last one at a Paris flea market, she was told Catherine Deneuve had owned it. Can you imagine--a pocketbook with provenance? In those rare instances when Marianne buys a new handbag, she rubs it with a concoction of vinegar and I shudder to think what else. Then she leaves it out in the sun to create that worn look she so admires. Another friend, Sara, has a wish list that at one time or another has included everything from South Sea pearls to a JAR ring to a sable coat from a man not her husband. A chain bag-buyer, she never purchases an Hermes bag without placing an order for her next one. Somehow, she's convinced her husband that all those real Hermes bags are just knockoffs, bought for a few dollars from a street vendor on Seventh Avenue. Probably I over-romanticize Hermes bags; I am prone to such things. I've come to consider them like a kind of secret handshake. I'll nod to another woman on the street carrying one, imagining that the bag signifies some memorable time in her life. And if her bag has the patina of wear, I'll conjure up the life she must have led, her accomplishments, her adventures, the men she's loved--all with that special bag at her side. She probably thinks I'm some sort of nut, ogling her handbag. She's not far wrong.
COPYRIGHT 2002 Fairchild Publications, Inc.