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A Handle on the World

From Asprey to Zero Halliburton, Attachés Have Cachet. They Carry Clout--and Your Business Papers.

Robin Leach, host of the television show "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," remembers the day he lost his briefcase and vowed never to carry another. "I lost my briefcase in a New York City taxicab," Leach explains. "It contained three books with some of the world's most private telephone numbers. Subsequently, I went to the lost and found, but it hadn't been turned in. So I offered a $500 reward for it and then went to see a detective."
When that approach didn't work, Leach visited a hypnotist to see whether he could recall anything about the cab or its driver. "I came up with a pretty good description of the female driver," Leach says.
The detective tracked down the woman, who hadn't turned in the briefcase because she feared being arrested for stealing, even though the loss was an accident. She met the detective in a coffee shop, handed over the briefcase--everything was still intact--and collected $500.
Ever since the incident, Leach says he has sworn off briefcases. "I'm probably the only member of the 'rich and famous' who doesn't carry a briefcase," he admits. Today Leach carries his ideal tote: an Andiamo over-the-shoulder bag that was a gift five years ago from one of his directors. He just added one small detail: an outside label bearing his office address.
"The fabric is virtually indestructible," Leach says. "What I like about it is that it has got two central portions that expand: a zippered compartment and a buttoned compartment. It enables me to have two ever expanding compartments: one for files and diaries, the other for toilet supplies, electric razor, credit cards, keys, camera, film, checkbook, medicine, mobile phone and three very good Cuban cigars."
"I carry it every day," Leach adds. "I might be expected to have a Louis Vuitton, Mark Cross or Gucci briefcase, but I opt for practicality."
Leach is right. Based on his glamorous, jet-set lifestyle, it's assumed that he carries a prestigious briefcase. Why? Because a briefcase, like an Armani suit, Patek Philippe watch or Mont Blanc pen, is a business accessory that conveys power and speaks volumes about a person--before the first word is uttered. A briefcase is a subtle combination of fashion accessory, marketing tool, travel-ing office and security blanket. Some--like the silver Zero Halliburton--demand that the world notice. Some--like Swaine Adeney--are more elegant. Others--like Seeger--whisper rather than shout their credentials. Some--in "leather-look" vinyl--make a bad impression, while today's canvas and nylon totes make a trendsetting statement. As Leach might tell you, a briefcase will carry your papers and, depending on your motives, as little or as much clout as your heart desires.
Susan Bixler knows all about it. Author of Professional Presence, Bixler is president of the Professional Image, an Atlanta-based consulting firm whose 1,200 clients include Citibank, American Express and Ritz-Carlton. "A briefcase says a lot," says Bixler, who carries a soft case. "There's a certain status. The large, hard-sided, plastic-molded ones that cost about $40 say: 'I'm a worker. I have to have everything with me. So I keep it in my briefcase.' It's a security blanket."
On the other hand, Bixler adds, "if you walk in with a thin briefcase and a minimum of props, it shows you have a lot of intellectual capacity between the ears. The meeting is more customer focused than selling focused."
In Bixler's opinion, an executive's one and only choice is a leather briefcase in black, light tan or cordovan. "Vinyl or plastic doesn't last as long or look as good," she says.
Besides, when someone walks in with a vinyl "leather-look" briefcase (and probably cheap, scuffed midcalf boots), it raises the questions: Would you buy a used car from this person? How could you ever take him or her seriously?
Of course, if you're lucky--or rich enough--you might have an assortment of briefcases. Just ask Bob Ermatinger, executive vice president of the Luggage and Leather Goods Manufacturers of America, who owns what he calls a wardrobe of briefcases and selects one every day based on his destination. His six examples include an underarm envelope made by Stuart Kern of America, a Schlesinger soft-sided case with three compartments, two more soft cases by Coach and Stuart Kern, a "lawyer-type" Holland Sport glazed leather case, plus a $600 private-label suede-and-black-leather attaché. "It's the same case that Ronald Reagan carried," Ermatinger adds. "It's not made anymore. When the recession hit, no one could afford it."
Steve Berglas, a Boston-based psychologist and author of the book The Success Syndrome, also tailors his briefcase to his audience. When making a presentation to a successful firm, Berglas carries a soft, glove-leather Tumi briefcase. But when he meets with executives in a struggling business, he uses a less intimidating case. "It's like walking in with a jewel-encrusted Rolex," Berglas explains. "You don't want to wear it if the other people there are wearing Timex and Seiko watches."
Dick Forte, president and chairman of Forte Cashmere, owns three briefcases. His favorite is a $285 J. Peterman suede mailbag. " I can put two sweaters, or 12, in there," Forte says. "It's very convenient." However, when Forte travels to China and Mongolia, he uses a case that can withstand the rough treatment, a Samsonite that doubles as a carry-on bag and briefcase. "To go into China with a shiny leather briefcase is a mistake," says Forte. His third briefcase, which he uses for board meetings, is a soft London Fog that matches his luggage.
Another attaché enthusiast is Barry Berish, president and CEO of Jim Beam Brands, who owns six soft cases by Mark Cross, Bally and the Sharper Image as well as a 25-year-old Schlesinger. "I change briefcases; it's like buying a suit or tie," Berish says. "It gives me an uplifting feeling."
The ultimate briefcase connoisseur is Bob Saks, chairman and producer of the New York Friars Club, which created the famous "roast."
"I own six briefcases in black, brown and tan," Saks says. "I'm not going to take a brown attaché when I'm wearing a black suit. I have a wardrobe of cases," Saks explains, naming his Louis Vuitton and Mark Cross versions, which are two-and-a-half to three inches wide. "They're very sleek and stylish."
Every case that he owns "must have reinforced brass corners in all eight separate corners," Saks adds. "That's where all briefcases wear out the most."
Like Berglas, Saks adapts briefcase to audience. "I use my Asprey briefcase when I go from my office to a meeting. My briefcases that cost $1,000 to $3,000 and my $3,800 Dunhill alligator I use to go into a board meeting or a private conference room with a Fortune 500 company," he says. "It revolves around whom I'm seeing, how much paperwork I'm carrying and where I'm traveling."
The meticulous Saks uses the same modus operandi with his Corum and Piaget watches. His gray suits demand a white-gold watch, whereas his brown suits call for a gold timepiece.
Basically there are three styles of business cases. An attaché is a fully framed, box-shaped, hard-sided business case usually secured by one or more combination locks. This is the type people usually think of when they hear the generic term "briefcase." To open it, you lay the case flat on its side; the top inside is frequently fitted with pockets or files to organize papers and other accessories like your Filofax agenda and calculator.
A briefcase, which is typically associated with attorneys and accountants, opens at the top while upright. It can be secured with a lock. The interior is usually fitted with two or more compartments with gussets that allow for expandability.
Envelopes are carried under the arm and have flap enclosures plus locks or snaps.
In the market for a business case? If you want to be in style, you'll have to forsake the hard attaché--once the ultimate yuppie status symbol--in favor of soft cases, which are lightweight, have a place for everything and allow for a shoulder strap. Due to changing consumer lifestyles, there's now a trend toward soft, supple looks. Besides, if your company has "casual day" on Friday, do you really want to lug a formal attaché?
In fact, sales of hard cases have plummeted in the past three years. The most dramatic drop occurred in 1993, according to industry estimates by Showcase, the trade publication of the Luggage and Leather Goods Manufacturers of America. That year, 7 million business cases were sold--down from 8.6 million in 1992.
"Basically, more and more people seem to carry less traditional business cases in favor of more casual styles like briefbags, backpacks and totes," explains Michele Pittenger, spokesperson for the luggage and leather-goods industry.
Michael Gelman, executive producer of "Live with Regis and Kathie Lee," follows the trend with his soft, black Coach briefcase. "I bought it for myself in East Hampton," Gelman explains. "I've always loved Coach leather. It's sturdy, functional and classic looking. My briefcase weighs about 20 pounds, and I have tennis elbow in my right arm, so I carry it in my left. Then I developed tendinitis in my left arm from carrying it, so now I switch back and forth...maybe I need a backpack," he says with a laugh.
You might also follow the example of Matt Lauer, the news anchor on NBC-TV's "Today" show, who carries a black private-label soft case from Barney's. "It was a gift from my girlfriend last Christmas," Lauer says. "I carried around an old, black satchel for 12 years, and it was completely broken. I keep all my wire copy for stories [in my case], newspapers, keys, checkbook and sunglasses. It's very boring."
Lauer commiserates with Leach. "When I first got my briefcase, I tended to forget it. Now it's like a ring on my finger. In New York City, you can't put a briefcase down for one second. They tend to disappear."
Another soft-sided-attaché enthusiast is Daniel Boulud, the chef/owner of the French restaurant Daniel in New York, who carries a black Longchamp briefcase. "It's soft leather with three pockets," Boulud says. "I carry my weekly and monthly reports, recording machine, cash organizer, pictures of my daughters, keys, three pairs of glasses and cookbooks."
Besides using a soft case, another trend is "carrying a nylon or canvas bag," Pittenger adds. "Briefcases used to be leather. Now you see executives carrying canvas, for it suits their needs better."
Ed Safdie, owner of Connecticut's Norwich Inn and Spa, carries the canvas tote bag he designed for the spa, into which he throws his Hermès zippered portfolio. Massachusetts Rep. Joseph Kennedy traipses around with a carry-on bag usually reserved for planes. Tom Kershaw, owner of Cheers, the famous Boston bar, uses a heavy-duty, black canvas bag that he bought when helicopter-skiing in Canada. "I'm not really a briefcase kind of guy," says Kershaw. "A briefcase isn't expandable."
Some people, however, refuse to be left holding the canvas bag. For them, the only way to go is with a pricey, status-symbol case. Tova Borgnine, the CEO and chairman of the Tova Corporation cosmetics firm in Beverly Hills, California, is a perfect example. A huge fan of Louis Vuitton--which is known by its golden LV initials--Borgnine bought a briefcase for her actor husband, Ernest. (An LV monogram briefcase can cost up to $2,170.) She also included a gold plaque inside, inscribed with the words I Love You. When she gave it to Ernie, though, he replied, "you're the one in business. You carry it."
Now, when she opens the briefcase and sees the plaque, Borgnine jokes, "I don't know if I love me or I love him." What made her pick Louis Vuitton? "Two or three of my friends suggested it. I have Louis Vuitton luggage," Borgnine explains. "It's an investment because of its durability and practicality, and, after 15 years with it, it looks brand-new."
Borgnine also owns a second briefcase that she uses every day: "The most beautiful, soft, baby alligator case from Italy, which was handmade for me and given to me by QVC [the home-shopping channel] when I reached my first $10 million in sales."
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