The Empress's New Purse

By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Somewhere in the Washington area is a woman whose bad taste is exceeded only by her big wallet -- and, I have to say, her skewed values.

The Washington Bag Lady has plunked down $52,500 -- yes, you read that right -- for the Louis Vuitton Tribute Patchwork pocketbook. She is, The Post's Ylan Q. Mui reports, one of only five lucky women in North America, and 24 in the world, who can call the bag their own.

Not that you'd want to. This is not the world's priciest handbag (that's the Herm?s Croc Diamond-Encrusted Birkin) but it may be the ugliest. The Empress's New Purse is -- shh! -- a hideous hodgepodge of 14 recycled Louis Vuitton bags cut up, stitched back together and festooned with gold chains.

If Frankenstein's monster carried a purse, this is what it would look like. My theory is that Louis Vuitton executives had a bet about whether they could foist the bag on what one vice president called their "very sophisticated client."

Oui, madame, only the most discerning can appreciate its true beauty.

Indeed, phrased more politely, this is precisely the Louis Vuitton strategy: "You feel as if you must buy it . . . or else you won't be in the moment. You will be left behind," chief executive Bernard Arnault explained to Dana Thomas for her new book, "Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster."

Now, I understand the allure of a new purse as much as the next shopper, though mine tend to be more of the $59.99-and-that's-before-the-20-percent-off-coupon variety. If you're rich enough to treat yourself to a $500 pocketbook, or a $5,000 one, fine -- even without the coupon.

But no moral calculus can justify $52,500, no matter how much you've given to good works. This expenditure makes Judith Giuliani look frugal in her reported relationship with her Louis Vuitton purse -- according to a Vanity Fair profile, she calls it Baby Louis and insists that it be accorded a separate seat on the Giulianis' chartered jet.

There are many lessons to be found in a handbag that costs more than my childhood home.

One is the remarkable growth in the ranks of the superwealthy. A new set of Internal Revenue Service statistics shows that the number of $1-million-plus earners grew by more than one-fourth between 2000 and 2005. If you live in the elite confines of Richistan, as the Wall Street Journal's "wealth" reporter, Robert Frank, calls it, you must find ways to dispose of all this disposable income.

This isn't a problem unique to 21st-century tycoons -- think Nero, Marie Antoinette, Gatsby. Thorsten Veblen outlined his theory of conspicuous consumption in 1899, and he could have been writing about Louis Vuitton handbags when he described the "unremitting demonstration of ability to pay." Still, as Frank writes, the rich in this gilded age "have made more money, more quickly, from more sources than any previous generation of wealth."

Simultaneously, however, there has been a democratization of luxury, which leads to the second point embedded in the purse story: Today's very rich are not as different from you and me as they were in F. Scott Fitzgerald's day. If there is to be a Gucci in every closet, the ultrawealthy need ways to distinguish themselves.

Consider: 94.3 percent of Tokyo women in their 20s own Louis Vuitton products, and half have LV handbags, according to Saison Research Institute. Thomas describes the oxymoronic phenomenon of the luxury outlet mall as "perhaps luxury's greatest ploy to get its goods into the hands of anyone and everyone."

It's also no surprise that one of the five lucky North American owners of the Tribute Patchwork is from the Washington area. (One was Beyonc? Knowles; the others have, wisely, not outed themselves.) Washington, once and perhaps eternally a fashion backwater, is now at least a place where money is spent on fashion.

Census figures released last week show that two Northern Virginia counties were the wealthiest in the nation: Fairfax, with a median household income of $100,318, and Loudoun, $99,371. Maryland was the highest-earning state, with a median income of $65,144.

Indeed, the amazing thing is that the identity of the Washington Bag Lady has not emerged since news of her purchase surfaced. Not so many years ago, there were only a few likely suspects. Now, who knows? Could be high-tech money, real estate money, K Street money, international money, venture capital money.

So if you see the Bag Lady walking -- or being driven -- down the street, do let me know who she is. Or, you could just point at her, like the boy in Hans Christian Andersen's story.

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