Larkie D., a 40-something techology consultant based in Los Angeles, has been collecting Chanel ready-to-wear since the '90s. (Twenty years later, her uniform is still a pair of jeans paired with one of the French fashion house’s cropped tweed jackets.) A few years into building her clothing collection, she moved onto the handbags. Today, Larkie -- who asked that we not reveal her last name -- owns 20 to 30 Chanel bags at "any given time," many of which are crafted from exotic skins with prices hovering in the $30,000 range. Over the past decade, she’s certainly spent close to a million dollars on handbags -- although the number is hard to pin down exactly, since Larkie began reselling many of her Chanel bags a few years ago.
"I realized that I only really like one or two of the styles -- the classic flap bag in exotic skins," she says. Unfortunately, many of the bags she has resold have not gone for as much as she paid. "They don’t have a great resale value, especially when it comes to exotics," she says. "If you pay $50,000 for a jumbo flap bag in alligator, you might not be able to get more than somewhere in the mid-twenties for it. It’s not like an Hermès."
Which may be one reason that, over the past couple of years, Larkie -- who writes the blog Larkie at Large -- has “moved on to the orange side.” She currently owns "four or five" Hermès bags, including a Birkin and a few Kellys, one of which is in crocodile. "As much as I love Chanel, once you touch and hold an Hermès exotic skin bag in your arms, it’s hard not to cross over," she says. "My holy grail is a Kelly in fuchsia ostrich or alligator. That would be a miracle."
Larkie’s handbag collection may sound rarefied, but she's not alone. Since 2006, she’s been visiting the PurseForum, an online community dedicated to handbag lovers. "I was trying to authenticate a Chanel bag, and I stumbled upon it," she says. "Then I just got sucked in."
In a time when forums are verging on archaic, the PurseForum has more than 400,000 registered members and over 700,000 threads. The site, which also includes a well-read blog, receives three million visits a month, resulting in an average 25 million page views.
"We have really passionate people who have been there for a very long time," says Meaghan Mahoney Dusil, who co-founded the site in 2004 with then-boyfriend Vlad Dusil while they were students at Ohio University. The couple met on the swim team. When Meaghan, better known as "Megs," was injured and could no longer compete, Vlad thought it might be fun if she started a blog about handbags. (At the time, she had two designer bags: a Prada nylon messenger and a classic Coach style.) In January 2005, she published her first post. A few months in, PurseBlog was gaining traction -- and tons of comments. So the couple decided to build a forum in the spirit of The Fashion Spot, but more about shopping, less about the industry.
From the beginning, the Dusils had strict rules about what could and couldn’t be discussed on PurseForum. There would be no trolling, no talk of politics or religion. The result was a mostly positive mix of threads: there were plenty about authentication, sourcing and showing off your latest purchases via photos. Others were simply odes to specific brands. Chanel, Louis Vuitton and Hermès have remained the most talked about luxury brands over the years, but Céline is a current hot topic. Coach remains popular amongst the contemporary labels, and so does Rebecca Minkoff. (Minkoff has told me in the past that she actually spent a lot of time on the PurseForum in the early years of her brand, responding to customer feedback.) The threads reach far beyond handbags, though, spanning the entire fashion/shopping spectrum. There are shoe threads, jewelry threads, clothing threads. Even threads dedicated to celebrity fashion.
Many of these groups -- the Coach fans call themselves the Coachies, the Minkoff fans the Minkettes -- have become so close that they form offline friendships as well. PurseForum meetups happen regularly across the country. (The Dusils and their moderators are very strict about the groups taking the messages private once a meetup is announced, so that the public can’t see where bunch of women with hundreds of thousands of dollars in Hermès might be gathering.) "One of my favorite meetup stories was a Christian Louboutin group, who got together in New York City for a day of shopping," Meaghan says. "One woman changed her return flight back to Australia so that she could be there for it. Another time, a woman flew in from Iceland for an Hermès meetup."
To an outsider, the thing that is most striking about the PurseForum is the amount of wealth that is on display. Anh Vu Yu, a 40-year-old from Houston, Texas who has been a PurseForum member since 2006, became a star amongst the community when she posted multiple photos of the closet built for her Hermès collection. "My most prized bag is not just one bag; it is my entire Hermès collection that was a gift from my husband," she says. "When I built my home, I had my dream closet custom made to showcase all of my babies." (See it all here.) Vu Yu currently owns about 50 bags, 25 of which are Hermès. "My bag collection used to consist of trendy It bags in my 20s and early 30s," she says. "I’ve since downsized on the It bags. Now I mostly have Hermès Birkins and Kellys, as well as Chanel classic flap bags."
Of course, with such riches come the crazies -- as is with any forum. "We’ll get guys with fetishes coming in and asking women to post pictures of used Christian Louboutin shoes," explains a PurseForum administrator who asked that we not use her name for this story. (“Nobody likes the hall monitor,” she says, referring to the fact that trolls have attempted security breaches, like breaking into her personal Facebook account, in the past.) In general, though -- thanks to the strict moderation enforced by the Dusils -- these women see the forum as a refuge, a place where they can share their bounties without being judged harshly. "There’s a stigma attached for a lot of people that like to buy luxury goods," the administrator says. "Often people are accused of only liking something because of the label. What attracts people to the PurseForum is that the community doesn’t judge you for indulging."
While Larkie and Vu Yu have been a part of the PurseForum since 2006, there are plenty of members who only stick around for a brief time period. "I think a lot of the ‘oldies’, as they call us, left during the recession," Larkie says. "People's lives changed. They took a step back from the materialism. Like a sorority, they graduated and moved on. But I still use it as a resource."
Luckily for the Dusils, a new crop of PurseForum addicts emerged. The site is so successful that they are able to employ seven full-time employees in New York, as well as an administrator and other contract employees. Along with traditional banner ads and sponsored content, PurseBlog was an early adopter of affiliate marketing. They teamed up with the now-defunct eLuxury early on, and were one of the first to sign on with Net-a-Porter's affiliate program. "We owe our success to the community," Mahoney Dusil says. "We’re very lucky that they’re so passionate about their bags and accessories."