Marilyn Riseman's STUFF

When Marilyn Riseman arrives at a Boston event, you immediately know two things: you are attending the hottest event of the night, and you will not be the best-dressed person in the house. The inimitable and indefatigable octogenarian has been the grand duchess of Boston’s haute couture scene for longer than most of us have walked these streets, and she has the stories — some printable, some too scandalous — to prove it. Always decked out from head to toe in finery that seems to have been shipped straight from a runway somewhere, Riseman is equally known for her accessories — particularly her handbags. We’re not talking about schlumpy purses or tote bag-like carryalls; Riseman’s arm candy is pure art. We chatted with the frank-talking fashion plate and former Newbury Street shop owner about what’s hot and what’s not.

What makes a great bag, and what makes you want to keep it in your collection? I don’t buy things for occasions. I don’t go out to look for anything specific — bags, dresses, shoes. I buy things that I like. I buy things that I love. If you buy for your tastes and when you see it and when you can afford it, it will become a classic.

Are you surprised that some bags can run more than $10,000? Not surprised — disgusted. It’s disgusting and it’s foolish. It’s sick; it’s very, very sick. But if people want that, then fine.... I was at a trunk show the other day, and they showed me a gray Chanel bag. It was nice, but it was $75,000. I almost busted a gut.


Where did your love of handbags come from? My first job in the fashion world, before the store, before any of it, was as a handbag buyer.... I learned then that craftsmanship was almost as important as the fashion. But fashion is why women will buy something. I have a Louis Vuitton box bag that I get compliments on all the time. I don’t know why the box bag hasn’t come back around. It should. I have a great Alexander McQueen bag with feathers; it was a great buy. For years, Chanel made good bags but didn’t really make them fashionable. They’ve since changed that. Similarly, Gucci was a must-have, and now they’ve let that part of the market go. [Gucci bags are] well made, but not as fashionable. At least, they aren’t my style anymore.

Do you like the trend toward bigger bags? I don’t like big bags. They’re too big. I don’t want to carry luggage. I like small bags. Before I buy a bag, even in the days when I was a bag buyer, I try it out. I need room for a charge card, lipstick, a few bucks, a small comb, some pills — pills and pills — and good-bye. Why the hell do you have to take the Brooklyn Bridge with you? It’s a bag.

I saw Vogue editor Anna Wintour on 60 Minutes the other night. It seems like she “perhaps” stole a bit of your trademark style? [Laughs] Ha! You know, when I was watching her, I thought she wears things very well. I would love to have a $200,000 expense account to pick things out each year — without the guilt. The thing that makes it all work for her is that she understands what she can wear and, of course, has access to things. Know your style, even if you don’t have $200,000 a year to spend.

                                                                                                                                                   -Carol Beggy