Two Washington area retailing chains are after your pocketbook -- literally.

Georgetown Leather Design and The Complement are competing with area department stores to sell a wide array of handbags, accessories and specialty clothing.

With about 10 stores each, these small chains are one more sign of the growing specialty store business, which has been gaining a larger market share at the expense of the traditional department stores. Although the specialty stores are smaller and offer far less variety in overall merchandise, the lines they do carry usually have a broader assortment than department stores.

In the case of Georgetown Leather and The Complement, both have established a niche in the accessories market. Even so, these two chains take great pains to point out their differences.

Georgetown Leather executives, for example, make it clear that their 10 stores sell only leather products, with prices ranging from $15 (for a wallet) to $450 (for a lambskin coat). What's more, store officials note that the chain's handbag and briefcase business is rapidly being overtaken by the leather clothes it sells. Last year, clothes accounted for more than half of the $8.7 million in sales the chain rang up.

The Complement, on the other hand, sells handbags made out of a variety of materials -- from canvas to plastic to leather -- to cater to every need and almost every price, store officials say. At the same time, the chain has vastly expanded its briefcase and luggage merchandise lines so these account for more than half of the $7.5 million of sales the company's nine stores did last year.

The chains are equally dissimilar in their origins and growth. Georgetown Leather grew largely by luck -- at least initially -- from the small "Sandal Shop" started by two women entrepreneurs in Georgetown in 1968.

The Complement, meanwhile, was carefully planned by its founder and owner, Arnold Bronfin, who had been an executive vice president of The Hecht Co. before he started his company in 1976.

As a Hecht's executive in charge of merchandising, Bronfin got his idea for The Complement when he did a study for Hecht's parent firm, May Department Stores, on how to merchandise the accessories department.

"The study showed there was a deficiency," Bronfin said. "There were plenty of specialty stores selling jewelry and plenty selling sweaters, but specialty stores selling handbags were virtually nonexistent. When I saw that, the possibilities of a good business started to ferment."

So after 23 years of working at Hecht's, Bronfin left "his very big job with a very handsome salary" and gave himself four years to make his dream work. "Four years later, I was ahead of plan."

Along with handbags, Bronfin initially sold costume jewelry. "That totally flopped within six months," he said. But gold jewelry fared better, so it is still sold in the stores. Meanwhile, Bronfin said he noted that at his first location -- at 17th and K streets NW -- women kept coming in asking for briefcases.

Bronfin saw that request as a perfect opportunity to lure men into the stores, so he expanded his merchandise to include briefcases. "Once there were briefcases in the stores, the customers then asked for luggage," he said.

One thing led to another, and today The Complement sells more luggage than many area department stores, Bronfin said. With luggage such an important element of his sales, Bronfin now plans to install a "travel center" in its next store, scheduled to open next spring in Annapolis. The travel center will feature maps, electrical adapters for foreign travel, and even an in-store travel agent.

Bronfin has figured there is "room for another six to seven Complement stores in the Washington area." After this area becomes saturated with Complements, Bronfin hopes to enjoy similar success outside of Washington, in Baltimore, Philadelphia or points south. "We hope to more than double our size in five years," he said.

At the same time, Bronfin also is growing another specialty chain, begun in 1982, after he discovered another underserved segment: women's lingerie. As a sister chain to The Complement, five "Apres Peau" stores selling basic lingerie items are now scattered around Washington. "Last year {Apres Peau} went into the black," he said. Now, Bronfin hopes the chain will soon catch up in size with The Complement.

Georgetown Leather officials also have ambitious plans to expand their 10-store chain, with hopes of opening 15 new stores in the next three years, moving north to Philadelphia, northern New Jersey and New England.

At the same time, the chain hopes to expand its volume substantially through the mail-order operations it launched last year.

"Last year, with 450,000 catalogues sent out, we filled $550,000 of orders," said William J. McCormick Jr., chairman of Specialty Retailing Inc., which owns Georgetown Leather. "This year, with 1.2 million catalogues slated to be mailed, we hope to triple the mail-order business."

SRI bought Georgetown Leather from its two owners in 1984 to diversify its retailing business, which includes 18 Jordan Kitts keyboard stores. Given the limited growth potential of keyboard stores -- piano manufacturers carefully restrict franchises in each market -- McCormick concluded that SRI needed other retailing ventures.

"I was looking for something as unique and singularly focused as Jordan Kitts and concluded specialty leather goods shops would be a good opportunity," McCormick said.

First, McCormick tried to buy Camalier & Buckley and then Becker's. But each chain was not for sale, McCormick said. Then he happened on the Georgetown Leather stores, which owner Mary Vinton was trying to sell because she wanted to spend more time with her three young children.

In 1984, Georgetown Leather numbered nine stores, with $7.2 million in sales -- a far cry from the early "Sandal Shop" days when Vinton, her partner, Toni Ray, and a handful of employes made sandals, vests and handbags.

"We were like hundreds of other shops around the country that were cutting sandals and making handbags," Ray recalled recently. Then, the store "got real lucky. A handbag store in Tysons Corner shopping center was going out of business. We fell into it." So the day after Thanksgiving in 1970, Georgetown Leather opened in the shopping center. "We had no idea what it was like to be in a mall -- what volume of merchandise we needed to have in the stores. So on Christmas day there was nothing left in the store," Ray said.

But Ray and Vinton quickly learned their lessons and began to slowly expand the chain and change its merchandise from the "peace symbols and hippie goods" to the more classic leather items found in the stores today.

Now, with an infusion of money from SRI, the chain has moved to a new and larger warehouse in Beltsville and is bracing for more rapid expansion. In the warehouse is a larger workroom where eight employes make about 500 handbags a month.

In the process, Georgetown Leather's roots have all but vanished. Last fall, the chain stopped selling sandals and other footwear.

"It's all part of the way things change," said Ray, who has remained at Georgetown Leather as vice president of merchandising. "Look at me," Ray added. "Even I am wearing heels these days."