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Big bags are in, but that extra weight can strain your back. Our solution is the "lunch" bag: a clutch tucked inside your tote to take along when you leave the office to eat or do errands.

Exotic skins can be imitated successfully with embossed leather or vinyl. "Ostrich skin reproduces so well, you almost can't tell real from fake," says Desire Smith, author of Handbag Chic and Fun Handbags.

Pebbled leather won't show scratches as much as smooth; it's usually more resilient.

Watch out for reconstituted leather—this cheesy stuff is made from leather scraps fused with other materials: It feels cardboardy, cracks easily, looks chalky on the reverse side.

Decent hardware has weight and well-soldered rings and chains. Silver, brass, or nickel is most practical; when gold-plated hardware is nicked, the base metal underneath is exposed and things get ugly.

Inner space is simpler to organize with two or three pockets. Faille, rayon, or vinyl linings in dark colors (won't show stains) are most durable.

Evening purses in metal mesh wear better than fabric ("If a water spot gets on silk, it's done," Smith says). Embellishments, often glued on, are too fragile for bags in heavy rotation.

Bag rentals—to test-drive new styles or get one-night custody of a megawatt clutch—are available at

Pictured above: Roomy but not huge, soft but not shapeless, this red drawstring pouch (Kate Spade, $545) is an excellent foil for the ubiquitous black clothes in our closets.


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