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Step away from the It bag, ma'am

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THE Birkin, the Paddington, the Speedy and the Spy. Anyone who picks up a magazine or catalog these days knows it's all about the It bag. With the advent of high-low chic and today's more casual approach to dressing, accessories — not clothes — are driving retail sales.

It's easy to get caught up in the frenzy — the steady diet of paparazzi photos of celebrities carrying the latest bag (gifted, of course), the waiting lists that begin mere minutes after a bag has been carried down a runway, the limited editions, the breathless purse blogs. (I admit, I look at them.)

My newest obsession is the Yves Saint Laurent Downtown tote, size medium, in black patent. It's $1,395, or $2,195 with cute flower cutouts on the sides. Jessica Biel's got It in white, Salma Hayek is using It to cover her pregnant belly, and one of the Olsen twins (I'm not sure which) has It in the straight-from-the-runway black-and-white check. I get butterflies just thinking about It.

But the reality is, very few people have the means (or celebrity cred) to have a new bag every season, especially when everyday styles cost $2,000 and up.

So, Tim Gunn, America's favorite fashion authority from Bravo's "Project Runway," has a radical suggestion: "Just say 'no' to the It bag." This nugget of fashion advice and others are outlined in his new book "A Guide to Quality, Taste & Style" (Abrams).

On a recent visit to L.A., I invited him to join me in the handbag department of Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills, along with his co-author Kate Moloney. I challenged them to cure me of It, and teach me how to choose a work bag that will last longer than a high school crush.

"Am I becoming a victim?"

"Ask yourself," Gunn suggests. "And if the answer is even a remote nod to yes, then back away from the bag. Think about having things in your wardrobe that you will want to use season after season, instead of something you bring out every two to three years for a wedding."

It bags are dangerous

"I've had three people tell me in the last couple months that they've had a Birkin bag stolen," Gunn says. "And from very high-end places. Can you imagine being at the Four Seasons restaurant in New York and having your Birkin bag stolen by someone who is sitting at an equally tony table right next to you? It's horrifying. And there is a kind of social embarrassment to having an It bag. I would rather say, 'Gee, this is a $4,000 bag. Why don't I spend $600 instead and give the balance to charity?' "

A better buying policy

"Stay on the lower end for on-trend bags and invest in real pieces," Moloney says. "I like Mulberry because it isn't immediately recognizable. It's subtle, and I will have it forever."

She and Gunn suggest spending money on your "workhorse," the bag that will go to the office with you every day. Choose a color that works with whatever dominates your wardrobe, and make sure the strap is thick enough to distribute the weight of the bag.

As for those flavors-of-the-month — the patent tote, the nautical-inspired beach bag, the metallic clutch — head to Target.

Size matters

"What are you going to be carrying in your bag?" Moloney asks. "I see women carrying It bags and five shopping bags and a gym bag. Think about something that can accommodate your needs. On the other hand, the larger the bag, the more we stuff in it, so there's a balance."

Bigger isn't always better

"Make sure you're buying a handbag, not a weekend tote," Gunn says, throwing the $1,395 denim Chanel hobo over his shoulder like a potato sack. "Proportion is important. You need to think about the relationship of the bag to you."

If you are 5 feet tall, a big bag will overwhelm you. But just because you're tall doesn't mean you can pass off a piece of luggage as a purse. There's a fine line between spring's trend for supersized bags and a small carry-on.

When in doubt, Gunn says, size down.

Pay attention to structure ...

"You don't want to look like you are carrying an amoeba," Gunn says. "Hobos are nice for a casual look, but frame bags are great for work." Bags with frames and feet have a more tailored, professional appearance.

... And what you have to hide

"How and why and who?" Gunn scowls at an $895 see-through plastic Oscar de la Renta tote.

Runway isn't reality

"It looks like Cousin Itt," Gunn says of the $2,195 brown, allover fringe bag from the spring Prada runway show. "Or a Chia bag. You just keep watering it"

Don't forget the back shelf"I like what she's doing with this," Moloney says, picking up a camel-colored Prada nylon frame bag with leather trim. "She's giving her signature nylon a new flavor."

"The nylon makes it lighter, more durable and stylish," Gunn adds. "I like this."

Goes over the shoulder, has room for a notebook — even an ID tag so I don't lose my $1,260 investment. Could this be It for me?


booth.moore@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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