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There's bags of interest in fashion's latest collectable

Handbags are hot once again as classic designs go on show, and on sale, to Nineties accessory fans. By John Windsor
Though blighted as objects of desire by Lady Bracknell and Baroness Thatcher, handbags are making a comeback as collectables. A selling exhibition of 20th-century handbags opens at Grays Antique Market, west London, on Monday: Butler and Wilson, the famous makers of costume jewellery, have added vintage handbags to the stock of their Fulham Road shop - and a guide book, Bags: Icons of Style in the 20th Century, by Claire Wilcox, has just been published by Apple.

Linda Bee, who is mounting the Grays Antique Market exhibition, and who trades in antique jewellery and handbags there, says: "I always grab a beautiful or unusual handbag when I'm off to a fashion show or an art gallery opening. I find they help to break the ice. People come up to me and say, `Where did you get that?' I tell them I deal in them, and give them my card."

One reason why handbags have not entered the mainstream of collecting until now, is that they fall uneasily between manufactured goods that can be catalogued and collected in a complete-the-set way, and hard-to-identify oddities without labels, which are as likely to have been cobbled together in a Continental holiday resort as in an East End sweat-shop. Some handbags are one-offs, made by the fireside. Others are the creation of jewellers such as Cartier, encrusted with gold and gems and worth thousands.

But Wilcox's book succeeds in instilling some coherence into what are, basically, holes enclosed by a bewildering variety of materials in a bewildering variety of shapes.

For a start, there is the designer-name category - Hermes, Gucci, Biba, for example - as distinctive and saleable as fashion clothes by the same names. Expect to pay a going rate of pounds 300 for a handbags with one of these labels. Then there is period fashion appeal - such as Art Nouveau and Art Deco, which happen to be waning in popularity.

The big buzz at the moment is fun Fifties designs. Bee reckons that now that we are heading into recession, fun accessories are in ever greater demand as pick-me-ups. If it's fun that people want, then the Fifties are the decade to turn to.

The bigger the bag, the more outrageous its design is likely to be. By contrast, the tiny and discreet strapless pochette belongs to the Twenties, when rich and elegant ladies, surrounded by servants, needed to carry only a lipstick and a few billets-doux. Some pochettes will not even hold a bunch of keys. They got bigger, evolving into Joan Crawford-style clutch bags, when women began carrying cigarettes and a bigger battery of cosmetics.

Bee, 52, whose father made splendid leather handbags for Ward and Co, the Royal handbag makers, now sells big, colourful, kitsch plastic handbags made in Miami in the Fifties for pounds 75-pounds 250. Her Fifties yellow-plastic beehive handbag, with three bees embedded in the top, was one of her best finds. Handbag cognoscenti will pay up to pounds 500 for one. As for her early-Fifties floppy Belgian poodle bags with zip-up tummy - they have sold for pounds 1,000. Butler and Wilson are selling beaded and bakelite Fifties handbags for pounds 238-pounds 398.

But the market is still in its infancy. Novelty bags from the Fifties and Sixties, their value unrecognised, can still be picked up for pence at jumble sales and charity stores, whose middle-aged organisers still think that plastic is cheap and nasty. It may be nasty, but the right stuff is no longer cheap.

Bee's customers tend to go for either Fifties whimsy or big names. That applies especially to the Japanese and the Americans, who also have an eye for early Victorian tapestry and bead bags. In London, she says, her sales to foreigners have dropped off by two-thirds because of the strength of the pound. Prices have not dipped, but at least British buyers now face less competition.

One modern designer who has hit the spot with Fifties-style designs, and is aiming at the collectors' market, is Lulu Guinness. Her flower bags sell mostly in the pounds 200-pounds 300 range. Two collectors' bags for the 1999 season will be in the shops in March - "The Room", a satin bag hand- embroidered to look like an English sitting-room, price pounds 284, and "The Fan", a clutch bag, also hand-embroidered, price pounds 405.

Linda Bee's exhibition, 2 November-24 December, Grays Antique Market, South Molton Lane, London W1 (0171-629 7034); Butler and Wilson, 189 Fulham Road, London SW3 (0171-352 3045), and 20 South Molton Street, London W1 (0171-409 2955); Lulu Guinness, 66 Ledbury Road, London W11 (0171-221 9686); `Bags' by Claire Wilcox, (Apple, pounds 14.99)