Parting ways with a Mary Frances purse used to bring such sweet sorrow for Karen Pellouchoud. As the owner of Periwinkle Cottage in Boulder City, she delighted at a sale in the triple digits. But the bag lover in her couldn’t bear to see the embellished accessories go. She developed an attachment to them; a bond only a new mom and other Mary Frances fans could appreciate.
Rather than burden herself with worry once her “babies” left her store, Pellouchoud opted for something similar to chaperoned visits: the Mary Frances Purse Club. Three times a year, members join to show off their favorite bags and get a sneak preview of the new crop to come.
On this Saturday morning, the store owner bustles about the Historic Boulder Dam Hotel, where the club has gathered for its 11th meeting in two years. Members’ purses rub noses as the women squeeze between tabletops in search of their name cards. A few come dressed in the same outfit they throw on for a trip to the gym. The rest arrive as embellished as the purses that brought them here. Once every seat has been warmed, Pellouchoud quiets the loud buzz of the room with a tap on the microphone.
She shares a story it seems she’s told before. Two years ago, when Pellouchoud first welcomed the purses into Periwinkle Cottage’s doors, the store owner wondered whether they would wind up collecting dust. “I remember thinking, ‘Who in the world in Boulder City would wear these?’ ” she said. Two days after they arrived in her store, all 10 bags made an abrupt exit. “It just proves,” she said, pausing before delivering the line that prevents this story from wearing on the audience, “that we have more women in this town that have class than anywhere in the whole country.”
On cue, every member clapped their manicured, tennis bracelet-laden hands together with the kind of fervor their college football-watching husbands at home spring off their couches with. Their applause puts the meaning of these meetings into perspective. It’s one thing for members to admire the Mary Frances handbag to the left of them, but to have their own admired is worth far more that the $15 raffle ticket that bought their way in.
Plus, finding an occasion that befits these particular bags isn’t an easy task. Mary Frances, who hails from San Francisco, designs her purses with little editing and bestows them with names such as “Exhale,” “Best Buds,” “Giddy Up” and “Flustered.” The beading, jewels, floral adornments, tassels, lace, bells and whistles the designer can’t get enough of, have each bag looking busier than Britney Spears’ PR team. And, for these ladies, that’s a good thing.
Take Tillie Merkel, the oldest member of the club at 90, who owns “five or six” bags. “They’re conversation pieces,” she said. “People always want to know where I got it, how I got it, if it’s too big or too small … I love it.” Wearing Revlon lipstick in watermelon, a pink shirt and white cardigan, Merkel brings to mind a small town Helen Gurley Brown. Before her daughter rolls her wheelchair away, the vanity-conscious senior adds that, aside from her own daughters and a lady at Homestead (an assisted living center), she never has to worry about other women carrying the bags.
Neither does Logan Kanaley. In fact, she doesn’t even fret the other girls will be sporting a purse at all; they usually get in the way of things like hopscotch and monkey bars. “I got it around March and it’s for special occasions,” the 9-year-old said of her mini Mary Frances. And today indeed marks a special occasion as it’s the first meeting Kanaley, the club’s youngest member, has attended. Aside from carrying the floral-decorated coin purse with a long chain strap, Kanaley also dotted her eyes with glitter and slipped into a pair of polka dot ballet flats. She may fill her purse with Tamogotchi toys and Pawparazzi accessories but Kanaley will undoubtedly replace those items with Bobbi Brown lip gloss and a Chanel perfume vial one day.
For now, she sits at the round table before her and nibbles from a plate of pancakes as models navigate through the maze of chairs, toting bags from the latest Mary Frances collection. Some trigger loud gushes. Others just interested stares. The reactions at the meeting aren’t unlike those in-store. “Some women come in and know immediately (which purse they want),” said Pellouchoud. “For others, it takes hours.”
Regardless of how long it took them or what inspired them to snatch it, every woman here had the desire to own at least one Mary Frances purse (two members own more than 50). And each carries it with the same pride as the owner of a ’57 Chevy cruises Main Street. These meetings just allow all of them to do it together, which is why Pellouchoud and club president Cindy Bezard started the group in the first place.
“Hey,” said Bezard, who owns Treasured Times Tea House in Boulder City. “If those ladies can wear purple dresses and red hats and get together, then we can have a purse club!”