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How to flash fashion’s top labels without paying the big bucks

A crowd of fashion industry insiders whipped out their phones as a pair of bizarre attendees popped onto the catwalk just before Fendi’s Milan fashion show earlier this year. One was dressed as a chipper pink bug with giant crystal eyes; the other, a surly blue fuzzball with a resentful stare. Both looked as if they’d wandered out of a child’s fantasy land. Waving as they twirled down the runway, the Fendirumi, as they’re called, took their seats and waited for Kendall Jenner to lead the models onto the catwalk.

It was a silly stunt from a serious fashion label, but one based on some serious money. Those monsters aren’t mere curios – they have corresponding products, namely keychains meant to dangle from the handle of a really expensive handbag. The tiny versions of those mascots cost US$1,500 ($HK11,630) each and are just two in a full line of freaky beasts and trolls that have sparked an international fashion trend. Other so-called bag-bugs, like a six-inch mink and fox-fur cyclops, start at the bargain basement price of US$600.

These are accessories for accessories, and they’re big money.

Since Fendi first unveiled its strange charms in 2013, fashion labels have rushed to release their own. Adrienne Landau, Furla, and Kendall + Kylie each have their own lines of pom-poms. Prada sells a cutesy set of bear and robot charms. Anya Hindmarch is pushing quirky clip-on coin purses, decorative tassels, and leather stickers. It’s trickled all the way down to such everyday mall shops as Express, Charlotte Russe, and Wet Seal. Each are seeking a heftier chunk of the US$102 billion personal accessories market, a stupendous figure arrived at by market research firm Euromonitor. That includes everything from fine jewellery and leather goods to luggage and fancy pens.

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For the fashion labels, the less expensive versions of these items provide a way to grab new customers who can’t afford their pricier wares, or get them to tack on an additional purchase at the cash register.

Indeed, the little items have proved a lucrative trend that’s gaining prominence within women’s wardrobes. Karen Giberson, president of the Accessories Council, a trade group, said this is one of her industry’s hottest categories now. Not just charms, but pins, decals, stickers, and patches are all having an extended fashion moment.

“Lately, these charms have gotten bigger, bolder,” she said.

Charms bring a playful whimsy to high fashion, an industry that has a habit of taking itself too seriously. For Fendi, a 91-year-old Italian fashion house with a penchant for extravagant fur coats and accessories, the cute puffs infuse a sense of fun. Though the label is renowned worldwide for its meticulously crafted fur goods, these styles bring a flourish of outlandish kitsch, for which shoppers are clamouring these days. Labels have shifted to a more irreverent tone, infusing stodgy brands with some fun.

There’s “a mood for frivolous, fun, tongue-in-cheek, playful accessories,” said Ella Hudson, an accessories analyst at fashion trend intelligence firm WGSN.

Fendi, which is owned by US$35.7 billion luxury powerhouse LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, has built an entire franchise around bag bugs, designing related apparel, handbags, and jewellery. There are backpacks that look like snarling animals and shawls covered in eyeballs. Watches have indignant faces, and double-wrap bracelets are adorned with angry peepers. Even Fendi’s most iconic handbags – the Baguette and the Peekaboo – have gotten monstrous makeovers. A spokesman for Fendi declined to comment on the bag-bug business.

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Hanging charms and trinkets from accessories isn’t a new concept. Kids and teens have been at it for decades. In the 1990s, they’d spangle their bags with all sorts of trinkets nabbed from shops such as Claire’s. You’d see backpacks laden in Hello Kitty decorations and keychains. Charm bracelets, stuffed with way too many charms, would be looped around their wrists.

“Charms help mark the milestones in your life, things that define you,” said Nancy Deihl, director of Costume Studies at New York University. “That’s what accessories are supposed to do.”

The fashion industry wasn’t blind to bubbling trends, and it has dived into these add-ons many times. As far back as the 1930s, luxury houses started running beaded handbags and glitzy accessories down runways, looking for new ways to accessorise. Perhaps the biggest influence came from one of the most famous handbag styles of all time. The Kelly, made by French luxury house Hermes and named after actress Grace Kelly, was originally a saddle holder. Every bag has a little gold padlock and key, and fashionable folks would tie a scarf around the handle for a bit of extra flair.

“The scarf around the Kelly bag is very fun,” said Candy Pratts Price, fashion consultant and former creative director of Vogue.com. “They were handy, then it became chic.”

Why strap a furry, wide-eyed oddity to a sleek handbag? It makes a purse radiate more of the wearer’s personality, an assertive statement of individuality that pops. And by pairing accessories with other accessories, you can mix-and-match charms, depending on the weather, mood, or the event you’re headed to. It becomes less likely that you’ll find another person with a matching combination. Potential looks and unexplored outfits increase exponentially.

Fashion isn’t fully personalised unless an item is one-of-a-kind, such as a bespoke suit or a redesigned vintage dress, because clothes and accessories are sold en masse. But any sort of minor customisation, a way to tweak a widely sold, mass-marketed item, appeals to a shopper’s need to express individuality, said Jennifer Baumgartner, a clinical psychologist and author of You Are What You Wear: What your Clothes Reveal About You.

“It’s personalising something that is not so personal,” said Baumgartner. “This is a way to get that individualism without having to create individual pieces. We can pick and choose what we like.”

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These items are subtle moneymakers for brands as well. For a label such as Fendi that churns out big-ticket items like US$2,400 satchels and US$6,000 bomber jackets, less expensive adornments allow luxe labels to obtain customers who typically shy away from sky-high prices. Shoppers who aspire to wear the Fendi logo can get a teeny piece of the brand without shelling out their life savings. It provides a sense of belonging to an upper-crust culture that’s normally out of their financial reach.

“There are emotions that are elicited behind luxury brands such as Fendi, Hermes, Prada,” said fashion psychologist Dawnn Karen. “We would like for people to deem us as worthy and important enough to wear these brands.”

But these tertiary accessories can be more than useless decorations. As the trend gained momentum, brands set their sights on useful trinkets that serve a purpose. Valentino, Alexander Wang, and Prada are among the lofty labels pushing ranges of interchangeable shoulder straps, an accessory that alters both the look and use of a handbag. Clip a shoulder strap onto a clutch and transform it into a crossbody bag that can be used for more than going out. Add one to a leather tote to transition to an off-duty travel look.

Meanwhile, luxury labels are beginning to take tech accessories more seriously, too. In September, Louis Vuitton showed off a collection of iPhone 6 cases on its runway: chic little covers made to look like miniature studded trunks. Hermes makes a US$205 calfskin winder for your headphones. Kate Spade sells portable batteries, and Michael Kors has plastic Powermat charging kits.

Fendi is doing its part to keep shoppers yearning for its little beasties. Each season, the fashion house updates its poms, baby backpack keychains, and dolls that look like Fendi creative director Karl Lagerfeld. There’s big poofball charms available in every letter of the alphabet, dour monsters with serrated teeth, and punk rock versions of Karl’s head.

In September, one season after the mascots sat in the front row, Fendi was back with a ready-to-wear collection from Lagerfeld called “Techno Rococo”, a quirky, pastoral mix of stripes and florals. The models donned glittery lipstick and multicoloured geometric hair clips. This time it was Bella Hadid, an “It” model like her sister Gigi, who opened the show in a chunky, striped dress with bell sleeves.

Sure enough, hanging from her handbag was a pink and white creature with a yellow head, spaghetti legs wobbling back-and-forth like jelly, as she strutted down the catwalk.