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This Pa. woman owns 3,000 handbags, and she keeps them in an army bunker | Elizabeth Wellington

Ilene Wood is a hoarder in the most haute sense. A mere 300 of her handbags will be on display at the Historic Bethlehem Museum & Sites from Oct. 11 to April 30.

Ilene Wood is a hoarder in the most haute sense. She has a collection of more than 3,000 handbags maybe some 300 in this room.
Ilene Wood is a hoarder in the most haute sense. She has a collection of more than 3,000 handbags maybe some 300 in this room.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

Ilene Hochberg Wood’s collection of 3,000 handbags — the majority of which dwell in a 2,400-square-foot Quonset hut on her Lehigh Valley estate — will make a fashionista fall to her knees.

Her collection has everything: crossbodies and clutches, wristlets and duffels, hobos and backpacks. There are fun ones like the giant Converse sneaker shoulder bag. Other pieces drip with kitschy nostalgia like a pocketbook stamped with the Hess Brothers department-store logo.

However, the real heart-stoppers are Wood’s designer babies. Fashion’s marquee names are all represented: Marc Jacobs, Michael Kors, Moschino. She has Judith Leiber minaudières, Edie Parker clutches, and Louis Vuitton satchels. We are talking scores of Kellys and Birkins.

There are the rare Anne Marie of Paris’ sculptural darlings — of which she has 19.

Wood’s most expensive acquisition: a flaming-red, 40-centimeter crocodile Kelly that she estimates to be worth at least $100,000.

Wood keeps most of her bags in an impenetrable, stainless steel bunker outfitted with electronic doors and alarms. Wood ordered the bunker online seven years ago from the Army. Half of the space — two Jaguars reside on the other side — is filled with sealed 18-gallon plastic storage bins stacked on top of each other that are overflowing with bags. The bins are organized thematically, with descriptive labels like “wooden top handle,” “leather shoulder bags,” and “evening bags” neatly taped to the outside. Beauts that cost thousands of dollars live next to those that might have cost $10 or less.

“I collect handbags on every level,” Wood, 64, said. “Not everyone can spend on handbags what it costs to buy a car or a house and I get it. … . My collection is about the democratization of fashion.”

On Friday, the Historic Bethlehem Museums and Sites will debut “PURSEonality: A Stylish Handbag History” at three Lehigh Valley museums, starring hundreds of handbags from Wood’s collection. Ultimately Wood wants to open her own handbag museum, and she hopes PURSEonality,” which will run through April 30, is the first step. This is the first show dedicated to Wood’s massive collection.

The Kemerer Museum of Decorative Arts will feature 300 of them, including Wood’s oldest (a Victorian-era carpetbag), the most unusual (a 1960s Lucite evening by Hollywood designer O.E.L. Graves) and the most valuable (the hot Kelly). Also included in the Kemerer exhibit are Wood’s straight-off-the-runway pieces and their Chinatown knock-off counterparts. One hundred needlepoint bags will be placed in the Moravian Museum of Bethlehem. And 150 handbags that pay homage to travel — including one fashioned from a taxi cab light — will be at Allentown’s America on Wheels Museum.

Industry insiders say Wood’s stash is quite possibly the largest private collection of handbags in the world. The largest public one boasts over 5,000 and resides at the Handbag Museum of Bags and Purses in Amsterdam.

“I haven’t seen anything that comes close to it in size and quality,” said Karen Giberson, president and CEO of the Accessories Council. Giberson hosted a cocktail party for Wood at New York’s LIM College of Fashion last month to introduce Wood to the New York handbag elite. “It’s certainly the largest collection I’ve ever seen."

A bygone era

Handbags are among the most powerful women’s accessories. “They are statement-makers,” Giberson said. “It is both functional as it holds all of our necessities, treasures, and secrets.”

What we carry varies according to who we are at that moment. Some carry our lives in our handbags, so we tote around ones that are big and durable. Others are minimalists and a tiny shoulder bag will do. Maybe we’re the girl who changes her bag every day. Or perhaps we carry the same purse until it falls apart. There are those of us who can afford a Chanel and want the world to know, and there are those of us who can afford a Chanel but still carry the Target special. And then there are those of us who can’t afford Chanel at all.

The bottom line is, women make a choice every day. It’s not “To carry or not to carry?” but “What to carry?”

Wood made her first choice when she was 9 when her mother presented her with two: one was a sad brown vinyl, the other a red leather Bonnie Cashin. (In 1961 Cashin became Coach’s first designer.)

Wood chose the red bag.

“And when my mother asked me why, I told her that red was a great color and it goes with everything and it makes an outfit pop and it looks special and it’s very unique,” said Wood. Even back then, she spoke fluent fashionese. “I passed the test.”

While studying at Cornell, Wood carried a Coach. She graduated in 1976 with a degree in design, joined the buyer training squad at the now-defunct Abraham & Straus department store and moved to Greenwich Village. With her big Joyce DeWitt eyes and cascading Cher hair, she was a poster girl for all that was glam-mod chic. She was six degrees of separation from all that was go-go-boot cool: She shopped at the same boutique as pre-fame Cyndi Lauper and Betsey Johnson lived next door.

Her taste in handbags became even more eclectic — think tassels and disco sparkle.

At 25, while working as the fashion director at Ormond Shops, she met Irwin Hochberg, who was almost 50, and the owner of a company that sold store furnishings and display equipment to the largest department stores in the world. They married and moved to west Allentown, settling into Max Hess’ mansion.

That’s when her handbags leveled up.

Every time her husband traveled to Europe on department-store business, he’d bring back a fancy European handbag. Sometimes, she’d tag along. During a trip to London in the 1980s, Wood spotted a navy blue matte crocodile Birkin behind a glass vitrine in Harrods.

“I’d been looking for that exact bag for a while, so I went insane,” Wood said. “I went over to the clerk and asked her if it was for sale. When she said yes, I bought it on the spot. I probably paid about $4,000 or $5,000 for it then. That bag is probably worth about $60,000 or $70,000 now. I didn’t know it then, but I was making savvy investments.”

Collecting to cope

Wood is a haute hoarder in the best sense of the word. She doesn’t just collect handbags, but art and books and other kitsch.

But handbags, since her mother handed her the red Bonnie Cashin, are her passion.

In the late 1990s, Hochberg’s heart began to fail and Wood found some solace in retail therapy and bought handbags. Hochberg died in 2003.

In 2006, she married Bob Wood, an Allentown A-lister. They were married for six years before she found herself caring for yet another dying husband. This time sitting by another hospital bed, she bought handbags online to pass the time.

“I was mentally detaching myself,” Wood said. “But then I got to the point where I wasn’t collecting for me anymore, I was collecting for posterity. I realized I was saving bags from the landfill. I was becoming attuned to how fashion fits into women’s history. They were cultural artifacts that weren’t being preserved."

Bob died in 2011 and Wood grieved, researched, and collected.

Not only would she buy the crocodile Birkin for a few thousand dollars, she’d buy the crocodile bag shaped like a Birkin for a few hundred and the knockoff fashioned from pleather covered with the fake logo for $20 or $30. In the cases where she has both the real bag and its reasonable facsimile, she’ll carry the fake.

A library of bags

Mention a designer or a certain style to Wood, and she will make a beeline to the exact bin in her Army bunker.

Wood’s favorite bags, however, live in her library tucked between her books that include her 1987 New York Times best seller Catmopolitan, a parody Cosmo featuring felines, written when she was still Ilene Hochberg.

There are Edie Parker clutches with “Ilene” inscribed in the brand’s hallmark script. There is a Moschino made to look like Oscar the Grouch’s home, bags shaped like water bottles, and some with giant safety pins as handles. In the corner is a Patricia Nash for QVC carpetbag like the one Emily Blunt carried when she starred in 2018′s Mary Poppins Returns. And from this handbag bounty, Wood produces a leather overnight case designed by Mark Cross made around the time Grace Kelly famously carried one just like it in Rear Window.

“There is so much to choose from,” said Lindsey Jancay, director of collections and programming at Historic Bethlehem Museum & Sites who is curating the exhibits. “Every time I come here I see something I didn’t see before and that makes the choices for the show all the more tougher to make. There is so much history here.”