Legacy in paisley

First marketed to mature women as travel bags, those wildly colorful, quilted Vera Bradley carryalls and backpacks now appeal to a new generation of fans.

Published May 11, 2007


Who would have imagined a paisley patterned purse could unite generations?

Vera Bradley, apparently.

"They're everywhere, " said Jennifer Lancaster, an art teacher at Wilson Middle School, who was surprised to see girls with bags like the one she carried 15 years ago.

First marketed to mature women as travel bags, the wildly colorful, quilted prints can be spotted slung over nearly every shoulder in some South Tampa circles.

Compared with Wal-Mart, where backpacks start at $9.88, Vera Bradley backpacks range from $84 to $95, and therefore, appeal most to girls at private and more affluent schools.

The backpacks are so popular with 8- to 12-year-old "tweens, " they sold out over the holidays at the two Tampa outlets for the brand, Gifts by Maria and Estella's.

Faith Lindley, a sixth-grader at Coleman Middle School, had to settle for a capri blue print instead of mesa red.

"Most of my friends have them, " Faith said, as she unzipped her Vera Bradley backpack to reveal three smaller printed bags and an ID tag. In them she carries her school books, hand sanitizer and "about 14 lip glosses, " she estimates.

Tweens weren't originally the target market. The idea for the colorful prints got its start in an Atlanta airport in 1982. Noticing conservative read boring colored luggage, longtime friends Patricia Miller and Barbara Bradley Baekgaard decided to add a women's touch.

"When we started out we thought our target market would be us, " Miller said. "At that time we were in our early 40s. But as it has turned out the demographics are anywhere from my 3 1/2-year-old granddaughter to great grandmothers."

Thousands of collectors flocked to the Vera Bradley outlet sale last week in Fort Wayne, Ind., many camping in line overnight to snag a deal on the bags.

"I don't think there are many products that span quite this many generations, " Miller said. From traveling bags to diaper bags to book bags. Recently, their market has dipped from college to high school to junior high.

"It was just a real big preppy craze, and Vera Bradley got on that wave, " said Christina Szott, marketing director for Gifts by Maria on Armenia Avenue.

"It's our No. 1 traffic, " she said. "We get older women, but not nearly as much as we have the younger girls."

Marketers know the formidable spending power of the 8- to 12-year-old girl. Peer pressure can be intense for young girls who live close to the fashion pulse.

Szott got her first Vera Bradley bag from her "big sisters" several years ago when she joined a college sorority.

Gifts by Maria couldn't match demand before Christmas. The store ran out. Now, it has stocked up on more products by Vera Bradley, from plates to stationery to rugs. And even iPod cases and curling iron covers.

Faith, apparently not a Wal-Mart shopper, says she likes that the bags are inexpensive - her backpack was $80 - and that it's lightweight.

"I weighed it against my Coach purse, and it's way lighter, " she said.

It takes a certain preppy type to get this craze.

Eleven-year-old Kira Zagore never fell for the wild prints. "I just don't like them, " she said, although many of her friends at Roosevelt Elementary School carry the bags.

And 16-year-old Kaitlyn Raterman vowed never to purchase another one, now that they're everywhere at Academy of the Holy Names.

But rumors of an end to the busy prints are spreading.

"I hear no one's going to have them next year, " said Faith, who may have to pass her bags to her younger sister. "I hear it's going to be all Coach."

Elisabeth Dyer can be reached at edyer@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3321.