Get a New Bag, Lose Five Pounds Small Handbags Are a Big Fashion Trend; No More Digging For the Cellphone June 5, 2013 By Elizabeth Holmes Susan Wagner carried a huge bag every day for more than a decade, moving from an oversize satchel as a graduate-school student to a diaper bag following the birth of her first son. But then the 45-year-old, who lives in Oklahoma City, received a sapphire-blue leather clutch as a gift. She took it for a test run on a business trip and returned a changed woman. "I told the kids they were in charge of their own junk and started carrying it around full time," Ms. Wagner, a freelance writer, said. To make the small purse work, Ms. Wagner has relegated some items, including her phone charger, to her car. And she has a tote for when she needs it, like at her sons' sporting events. But mostly she has learned to live with less. "I have never left the house with a tiny bag and thought, 'Gosh I really wish I had 17,000 packs of Kleenex and a Hot Wheels car,' " she said. Small is the big thing in handbag fashion, as clutches, crossbody bags and shrunken versions of full-size styles replace large, heavy totes. Women accustomed to carrying around everything they could possibly need—an umbrella, a change of shoes, a bottle of water—are downsizing to a bag that holds just the essentials: a cellphone, keys, an ID and a credit or debit card and a lipstick. "The bigger the bag, the more you are tempted to shove in there," said Tina Craig, co-founder of BagSnob.com, a fashion site. "An arsenal of 10 lip glosses at a time—why?" When she noticed bags were getting smaller, she gladly left her big Hermès Birkin bags in her closet and grabbed her colorful clutches instead. Inside, she tucks a slim men's card case in lieu of a wallet. "You can find what you need right away," she said. "You don't have to dig for it." The shrinking of bags, however, can only go so far. "I would never make a bag that wouldn't fit a phone," said Rebecca Minkoff, a tech-savvy designer who has helped usher in the small bag trend with her cross-body styles. She said her new bags are big enough to fit a Samsung Galaxy, which is slightly larger than an iPhone.
Everyone knows someone who carries a ridiculously heavy handbag—and who probably isn't suffering in silence. Karen Erickson, a Manhattan chiropractor, estimates the average handbag weighs from 3 to 5 pounds, though some women lug around twice that weight or more. According to the American Chiropractic Association, for which Dr. Erickson is a spokeswoman, backpacks shouldn't exceed 10% of a person's body weight. Handbags, which are carried on a single shoulder, shouldn't exceed 5%, Dr. Erickson said. Heavy handbags can cause muscle pain, headaches and, in the long term, arthritis. When a patient complains of shoulder or neck pain, Dr. Erickson will lift the person's handbag. Most women "are incredibly embarrassed" by the weight, she said. There are times when a small bag isn't realistic. Mothers with young children usually can't ditch the diapers, snacks and toys, and commuters often carry high heels and something to read. Some women opt for a modular approach, packing a big bag with smaller bags inside. Fran Della Badia, executive vice president for North American retail at Coach Inc., carries a larger bag to and from her New York office. Inside, she has an iPad-size clutch, which she brings to meetings or lunch. "I feel very light and unburdened," she said.
Coach says the sweet spot for its smaller handbags is between $198 and $258. The lower price brought down the average price of its bags in its most recent sales quarter, but overall the small-bag category contributed to a rise in sales. On average, North American women own more than eight handbags and buy two new ones a year, Coach said. The new smaller bags are designed to fit easily into a woman's handbag wardrobe, with different styles for different needs—tempting women to buy more than one, other retailers said. Candace Corlett, president of consulting firm WSL Strategic Retail, says handbag makers have gone beyond the evening clutch to create other "small bag occasions." Now, there are bags for weekend brunch and for outdoor festivals. The message to shoppers: "Monday to Friday, I'm surrounded by stuff. Let me be a minimalist on the weekends," Ms. Corlett says. Streamlining isn't easy, though, as Ms. Corlett experienced on a recent coffee run. She took just her wallet, her keys and her phone, and as she picked up her drink, the phone slipped from her hand. "If I had the bag, I wouldn't have broken the phone," she said. British accessories designer Lulu Guinness says the size of a bag reflects a woman's state of mind. A "big bag day" is when "everything's gone in just because you are in a hurry and you can sort it out later," Ms. Guinness said. A small bag "is a badge of being organized." For a black-and-white chevron clutch for fall this year, Ms. Guinness shaved about a third off the length of a similar striped bag from spring. "I just thought it would be more glamorous smaller," she said. She also prefers a hard shell for her clutches so women won't be tempted to overstuff them. Cross-body bags are the fastest-growing segment of the $6 billion handbag industry. Sales of the style reached almost $541 million in the 12 months ended in April, according to market-research firm NPD Group—up nearly 39% from the prior-year and far surpassing the 4% growth in the category as a whole. The appeal is the ability to be hands-free, designers and customers say. Ms. Minkoff's bags are popular accessories at outdoor music festivals like Coachella, which she has attended. "You want to dance," Ms. Minkoff said. "It's nice and refreshing to not have to hold it."
When carrying a cross-body bag, many women report a freeing feeling. That is the result of walking unencumbered, said Dr. Erickson, the chiropractor. A person walking freely has a "cross crawl" pattern, swinging one arm forward while taking a step with the opposite foot. It synchronizes both sides of the brain, promoting relaxation, Dr. Erickson said. The new small bags appeal to a broad age range of shoppers, unlike the past when small bags were designed primarily for younger customers, said Coach's Ms. Della Badia. Coach's "Penny" style, a small, rectangular cross-body bag just 73Ž4 inches long, has sold as well with young girls as it has with women in their 40s, she said. Among the roomier options in the small-bag world are shrunken versions of well-known full-size designs. Coach earlier this year released a version of its Tanner tote that is about three-quarters the length and just over half the height— the Mini Tanner. It can be carried by its top handles or with the cross-body strap, and it has room for a wallet, a small makeup bag and an eReader—"all the woman essentials," Ms. Della Badia said. The style has been "enormously successful," she added. Small bags often have fashion-forward colors, shapes and hardware, because their size makes them less likely to look garish. Instead, they take on the role of a fashion accessory, not unlike a statement necklace. "It stands out against the canvas of whatever your outfit is," says Brooke Jaffe, fashion accessories director at Bloomingdale's. Jennifer Suarez, a 32-year-old who lives in Raleigh, N.C. prefers not to carry anything when she goes out for the evening. Ms. Suarez, a writer and former professional organizer, slips her ID and her credit card into her pocket along with a phone. The approach has prompted comments, especially from men. "They think it's kind of cool that you're not lugging around this big bag," she said. A version of this article appeared June 6, 2013, on page D1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Get a New Bag, Lose Five Pounds.