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Handbags hint at social hierarchy

As Dickens said in “A Tale of Two Cities,” it was the best of times; it was the worst of times. Or, as Sam Becker put it in his Cheat Sheet review of a recent analysis of a research study, “When it comes to this Pew report, you can look at it from a couple of different perspectives. You can be emboldened by the fact that middle class Americans are finding ways into the upper tier, or you can be dismayed at how many people are slipping behind.”

Becker is referring to findings which clearly show that the middle quintile (one-fifth of the nation) has steadily decreased from 61 percent of the national population in 1971 to 50 percent in 2015.

Meanwhile, the lowest two quintiles have risen from 25 percent to 29 percent, and the highest two quintiles have increased from 14 percent to 21 percent. Becker blames this phenomenon on two factors: the continuing trend to automation and political polarization, which deflects government from addressing the problem.

Sociologists know that social class is multidimensional, not based solely on income; so I’ll refer to the middle quintile as middle-income earners, or something equivalent. But, whatever we call this large cohort of Americans, it has been evident for a long time that the middle is being squeezed. And, in fact, there are more people falling from the fourth quintile (second from the bottom) to the fifth quintile than are rising from the middle to the second quintile (second to the top).

In 1971, ten percent were in the fourth quintile; in 2015, there were 12 percent. However, the fifth quintile (the bottom) grew from four percent in 1971 to nine percent in 2015. During that 44-year period, the second quintile remained steady at nine percent. But, the first quintile (top) grew from 16 percent to 20 percent, according to the Pew report. The handbag’s the thing Researchers look for trends that may be correlated with social mobility (the movement up or down in the social hierarchy). In this regard, an article written by Mallory Schlossberg for the Chillicothe Times-Bulletin caught my eye. Schlossberg was reporting on the downturn in sales at major department stores, like Macy’s. She points out that “one category that has been suffering amid department stores’ struggles is the designer handbag, which has long been a status symbol for American women.”

Schlossberg looked at three particular brands: Michael Kors, Coach, and Kate Spade. Most women would consider these handbags to be expensive, but affordable to those in the middle-income bracket. Yet, sales have been dropping. And, of the three, Michael Kors — the costliest in median price — is in the worst position. According to Wedbush Securities analysts, “It has the highest direct exposure to the wholesale channel (nearly 50 percent of its North American sales), but beyond channel exposure, higher promotions at department stores and a slowing of the category in general also led to sluggish sales and increased discounting at retail locations.”

Huh? I guess I don’t speak Fashionese. Gabriella Santaniello, an analyst and founder of A Line Partners, is quoted in Business Insider as follows: “The problem with these three brands in particular is there’s a difference between the department store distribution and the retail distribution, and unfortunately there’s some overlap in the handbags and the assortment between retail and wholesale, and with that, when you’re in wholesale there’s a lack of control in their brand, and ultimately the department store is going to do what they have to do to drive sales — and that includes promotional activity.” If this is supposed to clear things up, I think it missed by a light year.

In fact, if students still had to parse sentences, this would be the ultimate puzzler (aside from being ungrammatical gibberish).

Both of the above statements (Wedbush analysts and Santaniello) are attempts to avoid saying that women from the middle-income bracket can’t afford even these brands that are sold in department stores. What the studies don’t show, and what the analysts shy away from, is this: Really expensive handbags have never had a better day! Accessorizing the wealthy Based on many years of study, I concluded long ago that — barring something like lifetime imprisonment or a crushing depression — the rich are always rich, regardless of what may be happening in the general economy. And, social class — as I’ve emphasized many times — is based on life style. So, although Martha Stewart was imprisoned for a while, that experience did nothing to alter her social class.

Likewise, women who are wealthy enough to purchase very expensive handbags will continue to buy their favorite brands. Manufacturers of high-end merchandise know this. Consequently, if you’re hooked on Louis Vuitton, you can still buy the Twist MM in yellow Epi leather, embroidered with parrots to show the “spirit of travel,” for $4,400. Gucci’s Dionysus Medium Embroidered Hobo Bag, with either birds or flowers, goes for $3,300. But, if you’re a little strapped for cash, the small “Tiger Hobo” sells for $3,100.

For those not yet addicted to ridiculously high prices for a sack in which to carry their lipsticks and pepper spray, there’s Prada’s “Large Saffiana Travel Tote Bag” in navy, which kind of resembles a bowling bag, for $2,225. And, it has snap closures, two zip pockets, and three slip pockets.

Still too high? Into suede? How about Saint Laurent’s “Cabas Tote Bag” in light ochre at $1,990? Ralph Lauren’s “Tiffin 27 Satchel” in taupe is available for $1,950 at Bergdorf Goodman. And Givenchy’s “Antigona Evening Clutch,” just perfect for a night at the opera, is $1,395 at Neiman Marcus. By the way, it looks like a black Manila envelope. And, here’s a great bargain: At Vestiaire, Versace’s $1,429.13 patent leather handbag is marked down to just $1,416. 91.

On the other hand, if these somewhat pedestrian pocketbooks are somehow too bourgeois, try Lana Marks. Her creations are carried by Angelina Jolie, Jennifer Aniston, and a whole bunch of other notables whose photos appear on her website. However, her products are so exclusive that one must fill out a resume just to get a glimpse of them. Price, of course, is not mentioned. Which is as it should be from the perspective of the nation’s top tier where all’s well with the economy.

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