Holding the bag

Long before yoiu pick out your next pocketbook, buyers like Emily Levitas have decided what you'll carry next season


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.

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