That's not to say that deep-pocketed shoppers are looking for flash; quite the contrary.
"Women are starting to think of something that looks a little timeless and isn't so identifiable the way the 'it' handbag of the minute was," says David Wolfe, a trend forecaster at the Doneger Group in New York. "They're looking for things that maybe have fewer details and gimmicks but [with] recognizable quality. The exotic skins certainly deliver that. Anybody who looks at those bags knows that they're pricey."
Not everyone is convinced that four- and five-figure handbags are here to stay.
"Retail prices have increased tremendously over the past four or five years," says David Lamer, former president of Lambertson Truex and a managing partner at retail consultancy BBD Consultants. "It's primarily the result of exclusive product, but particularly due to the weakness of the dollar."
Luxury shoppers typically lag the broader consumer in spending reductions during a downturn, but the current conditions are hitting everyone--and prices that seemed high but acceptable a few months ago aren't digestable any longer. "What was once considered expensive has quickly become insane," Lamer says.
Retailers say the most successful exotic bags are offered in classic shapes, like clutches and totes, that won't date the way a trendier bag might. "In a tough economy, when people do shop, they think about the investment they're making," says Lou Amendola, chief merchandising officer at Brooks Brothers, which is experiencing double-digit growth of its exotics business this year, despite the tough retail environment. "They say, 'I will have this for several years to come,' rather than buying something that may just be the fad for the season."
The market for these goods is strong enough that companies are offering new products. Even brands that have had great success with logo-driven pieces, such as Louis Vuitton and Coach, are offering bags in skins like alligator and python, with price tags that head into five figures.