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A new wave of women willing and able to splash the cash

Coming to a luxury department store near you is the Charge of the Handbag Brigade, led by a new breed of luxe-brand customer, the Chinese fashionista.

The designer handbag used to be the prerogative of the blonde-bob brigade. The territory was owned by the well-heeled ladies who lunch. For them, it had to be Chanel or Hermes.

Then the bag became the 'must-have' accessory of teenage society. Not for them the quilted, chain-handle Chanel classic; nor the cumbersome Hermes, complete with padlock. No, they went more for the Guccis and Pradas, all with buckles and belts.

Now, the market has shifted yet again, to our Chinese community. By all accounts, our Chinese population is not only willing, but also able to fork out thousands on that must-have designer handbag.

Brown Thomas was awash on Stephen's Day, the first day of its sale, with Chinese women clamouring to purchase as many designer handbags as possible for what was a very generous reduction in price. One woman left the shop with €3,230 worth of bags for the knock-down price of €1,332. (Well, everything is relative).

I employed a girl from China at one stage and two things stick out in my mind in relation to her. She was a meticulous and dedicated worker. And she owned a collection of designer handbags. Not rip-offs, but the real thing.

What I didn't realise, at the time, was that she was no exception. A trip to Dublin's China Town on Parnell Street -- where you can get the most amazing Chinese food at an equally amazing price -- would open your eyes to the number of young Chinese women displaying the most expensive designer bags like trophies. It's like an outward display of how well they're doing.

What makes the designer handbag so covetable? Buying decisions are emotional, not rational. If you were to be rational about any purchase you make, you'd ask yourself, 'who needs a designer handbag when any bag will serve the same purpose?' And before any male reader gets the idea of saying 'I told you so', is it really necessary to drive a car that is capable of travelling any faster than the legal speed limit?

Every sensible person believes they're immune to brand advertising, that they have a sense of self that does not require external validation by what they own. It's a warm but unjustified conceit.

According to consumer theorist Wolfgang Grassl, we add value to a product when it is associated with a perceived quality brand. Personal branding, or how we like to present ourselves, is no different. First impressions count. People make all sorts of assumptions about us based on first impressions.

How we dress, what car we drive, what accessories we carry, all add up to the creation of those first impressions. Is it any wonder we got caught up in the whole quality brand frenzy?

After all, most of us don't have personal attributes like Pippa Middleton's rear end or Liz Hurley's fab figure to promote our brand, so we rely on designer labels or fancy cars or whatever happens to be fashionable in our society, to boost our appeal.

I remember the furore Martha Stewart caused by carrying a Hermes handbag on her way into court for sentencing following her conviction for insider trading. She carried it like a badge saying, 'I might be down but I'm not out'. Images are powerful.

But times change -- as do the symbols that add up to an acceptable first impression at any given point.

In most Irish communities today, people would rather die than display wealth. A personal brand associated with ostentatious displays of wealth is no longer considered acceptable following the economic tsunami that hit the country in 2008.

Now it's so unseemly to appear wealthy that owning a 2012 car will take courage, if not effrontery. It's fashionable to brand ourselves as frugal. People who just three years ago would have died rather than admit to shopping in Penney's, Aldi or Lidl now boast openly about what great bargains they got and how proficient they are at budgeting.

We wear our possessions and carry our branded shopping bags like suits of armour, a means of displaying how like everybody else we are.

It's not that we have copped on to ourselves, it's just fashionable to be frugal, so even those who can afford to splash out restrain themselves to fit in with the crowd. We haven't changed, we've just substituted one brand for another. We've become inverted snobs.

I was never a handbag junkie myself. Shoes and boots were my addiction. High ones, flat ones, suede, leather, patent, satin -- you name it, I have it -- so I'm not exactly in a position to look down my nose at the ostentation. But why has the Chinese community become so obsessed with designer handbags at a time when the majority of us would be embarrassed to spend that kind of money, even if we had it?

China is a booming economy. In less than two decades, it has gone from being a major source of cheap labour for the production of goods for sale throughout the world, to one of the major consumers of those very goods.

And it seems consumerism follows prosperity wherever it goes. Let's face it, who wants to be left behind in the fashion stakes when the relations back home are dead impressed with a label?

The post-Christmas sales are a blessing to the Chinese community whose major celebration is Chinese New Year, which takes place at the end of January. It's no different to the post-Thanksgiving sales being a godsend to the Irish shopper in New York prior to Christmas. (Those were the days).

Hats off to the marketing departments of the major stores who had the foresight to advertise in the Chinese newspapers prior to sale and to employ staff who speak Mandarin to boot.

We may be relying on our Asian friends to boost our retail sector for the moment. But as soon as it becomes fashionable to display prosperity again we'll be first in line at the St Stephen's Day sale, hands out for the luxury brands. You just wait and see.

Sunday Independent