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Not her bag

Gloria Diaz ventures into the quilted jungle and tries to understand the globe-spanning appeal of Vera Bradley

By Gloria Diaz

Fort Wayne Reader

2013-07-04


I never realized the reach of Vera Bradley until I was in Puerto Rico in 2005.

My father's cousin and I were at a restaurant in the mountains. Her handbag was on the table, and the pattern seemed familiar. I continued to stare at it, and there it was, in tiny script near the bottom of the bag: Vera Bradley. I identified her bag, and she gushed about it. One of her daughters who lives in the US sent it to her. She just loved it. And I thought — 1,922 miles away from Fort Wayne, I can't escape the Vera Bradley phenomenon.

The bags are everywhere. I've always been a handbag junkie, ever since I was a little girl, but I've never understood the appeal of Vera Bradley bags. When it comes to handbags and clothes, I'm usually ultra conservative. The flashiest bag I own is a Loop NYC Parcel shoulder bag that has a comic book print all over it. I bought it because it's huge, and I am able to put several books in it, plus my video and still digital cameras, in addition to my usual stuff. It's definitely a casual bag, but I like it. It goes well with jeans and a t-shirt. And, it was on sale. It was marked down to $6.99. For a long time, I didn't use it. If I hadn't taken the tags off, I could have sold it on eBay for $34.99 and made a decent profit, but I liked it, so I kept it.

But the Vera Bradley popularity escapes me. The bag patterns don't seem to go with any outfit ever created. They are so distinctive, they stick out. No matter what you're wearing, a Vera Bradley bag is about as subtle as a heart attack. If I'd had any money some 25 years ago, when the company was founded, I wouldn't have invested it if they'd asked. I would have doubted that super-colorful (dare I say it?) LOUD quilted fabric stitched into handbags would have made them any money. Shows you what I know.

Some co-workers have Bradley bags, and I had to ask them what the appeal was. The most frequent answer was pockets. Lots of pockets. That, plus the fact they could throw them in the washing machine, and they would be as good as new. Some confessed that they acquired the bags as gifts; others reported they bought them used, or at a greatly discounted price. Some had just a few VB handbags/accessories; some had at least 50. One opened up her VB bag, and showed me assorted makeup bags, clutches, and organizers stashed in it for a multiple Bradley experience.

Another said I should wait and write the story after I'd attended the annual outlet sale in the spring. I realized that would be a good idea, since I was really trying to figure out how a local company had such a grip on women of all ages with what I thought were — as one of my friends described them — overpriced, glorified diaper bags. I was a Vera Virgin, much like the woman sporting a pink shirt with that sentiment on it. Not knowing what I was in for, I bought a ticket for the 6 p.m. session the first day of the show.

I approached the event as if I were some sort of scientist discovering a new species. I'll call this new species Verabradleyus Obsessivus, a branch of female homosapiens attracted to expensive quilted handbags. I noted the women standing in line, which stretched hundreds of feet. Some sat, some were on phones. A few were in wheelchairs. Most of them were white, but I saw at least a couple of Middle Eastern women, and a handful of African American women. There was a chap in a Killswitch Engage shirt, who was probably trying to appease his girlfriend by being a good sport.

The show took over all four halls of the Memorial Coliseum Expo Center. I bought my ticket, then approached some women as they were exiting, and asked them if they would answer a few questions. Every single woman turned me down. “Not tonight,” said one. “I'm really tired,” said another. I'm assuming their husbands weren't going to get anything that night either. Another woman asked me if I would use her name. Even though I assured her anonymity, she refused. I had already interviewed some women about their bags several months ago, and was sure I'd get some responses on Facebook, both from shoppers and people unlucky enough to watch the mayhem as temp workers.

Right inside the door was a registration table. If you wanted to buy, you had to register. I was told it was to keep track of what you bought, because some people had the temerity to resell it on eBay. Big Bradley is watching you. I guess capitalism is okay if you are a corporation, and not just someone trying to get by.

Slowly the line moved forward, and we were in one section of the expo hall. Dozens of tables stretched from one end of the room to another. The smell from the German Roasted Almond booth was overpowering and inescapable. It dogged me for the next two hours, giving me a headache.

I started on the right, looking at a pillow for $20, and two piece comforter sets for $79. An expandable upright suitcase usually went for $280, but today it was only $169. The next piece of luggage I saw was normally $330, but was down to $209.99. A “Suzan” bag made in China costing $49, was down to $14.99.

One woman I interviewed before the big sale, Connie Gumbel, has 10 Vera Bradley bags, all purchased from past outlet sales. But she says she hasn't bought a Vera Bradley item in five years. Why? She feels the quality has declined, and doesn’t like the fact that the bags are made overseas. In fact, on that last point, she turned pretty frosty. “I'm unimpressed by Vera Bradley today,” she said. “Don't take the people that supported you and take it over to China and pretend you are doing someone a favor when you're not.”

Overheard at the sale: “I'm going to get home and say, 'what did I just do?'”

Vera Bradley isn't just handbags and luggage. It has branched out into accessories, as well. At the sale, I saw Vera Bradley sugar-free mints (originally $3, but marked down to 50 cents) a pencil box with ten pencils and a sharpener (originally $14, but was now $4.99) and — in what I thought was a brilliant bit of marketing — “Gem” pencils, with a fake gemstone on the end instead of an eraser. The set of 24 pencils was marked down to to $9.99, though originally they went for $36. Yes, that’s 24 pencils for $36. Well, they were Vera Bradley pencils, after all.

I made my way down each and every row of tables. I was warned by someone several months ago that I just might break down and buy something. It wasn't going to happen. I was just about flat broke, but even if someone had given me a Vera Bradley gift card, I found nothing I wanted to buy. There were some smaller wallets with a nice design that were solid color, but no. There was just no way I was going to buy anything. They seemed too garish for my taste.

But then I hit the motherlode with one table full of small handbags that really took the cake. I couldn't tear my eyes away from this monstrosity. I couldn't believe that they were originally selling this tiny purse for $42. And it was made out of plastic. It was something you might have seen at the dollar store, only to give the dollar store credit, they had better looking stuff than this. I HAD to get a picture of it. I drifted over to the wall and snapped a one-handed shot of the purse from Hell. I was embarrassed to even be touching it. Today, this made in China disaster was going for $10.99, which was about $10 too much.

I had also found one item, a plastic lined ditty bag made in the U.S., plus its Chinese counterpart. The only difference was the stitching. Retailing for $25 to $28, both bags could be had for $14.99. The U.S. made bag seemed to have tighter stitching, but to be honest, the stitching on both bags was unraveling. I took a picture of the labels on each bag, then I put them back and continued down another row of tables. A plastic “Frill” bracelet with a tiny disk with “Vera Bradley” on one side, and the word “Frill” on the back was originally $12 but marked down to $1.99.

Overheard at the sale: “He was very helpful.” (A customer describing a male VB employee wearing a patterned apron.)

There were several employees roaming the floor, some pushing shopping carts of rejected bags, some straightening up the tables. As expected, men were in short supply Tuesday night. Some carried pink plastic bags stuffed full of merchandise, others were actually working. Nathan Dennison, coordinator of marketing and media services for the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum, said the sale brings an estimated $5 to $6 million to the city. A few of those bucks were made by charging $5 a head to get in during one of the several shopping sessions available during the first couple days of the sale. And yes, VB gets ALL of that money.

But Verabradleyus Obsessvi gotta eat, and any restaurant within two miles of the Coliseum no doubt gets a boost in sales. One server at a nearby restaurant has endured three years of Bradleymania. Some of that $5-6 million gets to him, but not much. The server is working the day after the sale ends this year, and he expects to see a few bruises. In the interest of keeping his job, he asked me not to reveal his name. “I have seen ladies who have obviously been in physical altercations in my restaurant on the last day of the sale, two years in a row... if I see one tomorrow, it will be three years in a row, and last year's, the lady was sporting a very painful-looking shiny black eye. I jokingly asked if she got the last one... Her two associate shoppers both nodded, smiled and said, 'yep.' I have seen scratches, terribly mussed hair and torn clothing.”

Any extra money he makes comes from volume, he says, and not because Verabradleyus Obessivi are feeling particularly generous. “I just consider the bad tippers during Vera Week as gaudily accessorized feral primates, fresh from the evolutionary chain, and move on with my day.”

As for the appeal of Vera Bradley, the server has one theory: “Some women see the purses as status symbols, I am certain. I think there may even be some kind of fabric hierarchy or caste system. I may be mistaken on that, but I do see certain patterns that are more popular with more seemingly affluent individuals.”

Overheard at the sale: “How are we doing?”

Judy O'Dwyer has attended The Sale for the last 18 years. Currently, she has 40 VB items. Over the years, she estimates she's owned100. The outlet sale is a way for her to get together with her friends.

“We go to socialize, chat with other shoppers and find great bargains. We usually find one or two items that we really ‘need’ and several that we want,” she said.

“This year I purchased a black tablet hipster ($75) at the VB store and $35 at the Outlet Sale! I rarely will pay full price for anything (clothes shopping at thrift/consignment stores is a social event as well!)”

So, like every non-Vera Bradley fan wants to know—what exactly is the appeal of the merchandise?

“High quality items made with the customer in mind – the zippers/pockets are well designed/placed within the body of the items,” said O'Dwyer.

“The variety – not only purses but luggage, stationery products, products for the home…aprons, the new baby line…very innovative and a departure from the original look that the company originated – a positive expansion into the market. My “oldest” items are two duffle bags – one smaller and one larger. They are at least 14 years old – I use them every time I travel and they still haven’t worn out! I think that the marketing wizards at VB have done an outstanding job of making sure that just about everyone can relate/find something appealing. The solid colors as well as the designs meet just about everyone’s needs and wants.”

O'Dwyer also has an opinion about the majority of the items being made in China. “The cost of the items would be significantly higher if made in the USA,” she said. “In the interest of global economy, I’m happy to have developing nations have the manufacturing business. Based on my professional experience as a director of a workforce development program at Ohio State University, many Americans are unwilling to train for manufacturing jobs, especially those kinds of jobs which are considered low-skill jobs.”

Overheard at the sale: “I got this for my sister.”

Every few feet, Verabradleyus Obsessivi kneel on the floor, with stacks of merchandise surrounding them. Its as if they are praying to the handbag gods for guidance: which one should I buy, which one should I toss into huge gray trash containers placed strategically every twenty feet or so on the expo hall floor? Some hover over the containers, picking among the rejects. Only certain areas of the floor are available for sorting: get too near one of the exit doors and an usher will kindly admonish you to move along.

I was getting to the end of the merchandise—or so I thought. I inspected a laundry bag originally $49-$58, now going for $19.99, and thought of my Ikea laundry bag, which was just as big, if not bigger, purchased for a whopping 59 cents at the store in Canton, Michigan. It was probably made in China as well, but you can't overcharge for blue Tyvek material like you can quilted fabric. I eavesdropped on Verabradleyus Obsessivi as I made my way out:

“Oh, that's a neat one.”
“I like the way they work all these different colors together.”
“How are we doing?”
“I think it's $29.”
“I think we're done—you think?”

I know I was. I made my way to the exit, only to be funneled into another cavernous hall, stretching what looked like the length of a football field, with tables and tables of merchandise. VB workers were manning the tables, making sure that each customer left with no more than his or (mostly) her $3,500 VB imposed limit. I stood a few seconds looking at the vast field of handbags, and an usher, noticing I'd not bought anything, showed me the way out. In a small room just off the lobby, one could take a last shot at buying VB accessories, as if walking through thousands of square feet of quilted fabric were not enough.

I crossed Parnell Avenue (being broke, I didn't want to pay for parking) and got to my car. I drove home and went into what had been my parents' bedroom. I found the Vera Bradley glasses case and matching wallet on a string my mother had received as a gift more than 10 years ago. My mother wasn't a VB fan, even though the purchaser had thoughtfully selected the items in my mother's favorite color combination, black, red and white. The glasses case had a pair of clip-on shades residing in it, but the wallet on a string still had the tag attached. I had no idea what the pattern was—call it red and white and black bandana with black leaf—but I picked it up and looked at it. Even if my mother had cut the strings off, it was just not her style.

Suddenly, I had an urge to find the suede Coach wallet a friend had given me several years ago. I pulled a box out of the spare bedroom closet and a red leather purse (aha! There's where it was!) fell to the back. I plucked it out and looked inside. There was the wallet. I caressed the suede, slightly worn, just a bit dirty. The wallet was a champagne color, adorned with only a bit of fringe. It would go well with a tank top and jeans, or with a dressier outfit. The VB wallet on a string was unflinchingly VB. Had I owed a pair of overalls, it might have looked okay, slung across my body.

But as I ran my fingers over it, it didn't fill me with joy or lust. If Coach had originated in Fort Wayne, and had outlet sales, I would probably sell my dad's record collection in order to participate in the mayhem. I'd look forward every year to the Coach Outlet Sale, and perhaps shove a fellow Coachette Poserus out of the way to grab that last Legacy Leather Zippy Wallet in bright coral. Instead, I have to save up my money and either venture to the outlet store in Fremont once every two years or so, to buy a wristlet, or buy a second-hand bag at one of the local resale shops. Sometimes as a treat, I will browse the Coach store at Glenbrook, enjoying the leather eye candy that is also priced out of my reach, with no thought of gaudy quilted fabric to bring me down. I inhale, touch the bags, and smile.

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