NEW YORK (Bloomberg) - A crowd of fashion industry insiders whipped out their phones as a pair of bizarre attendees popped onto the runway 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. Waving as they twirled down the runway, the Fendirumi, as they are 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 are not 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 (S$2,130) 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 15cm mink and fox-fur cyclops, start at the bargain basement price of US$600.
These are accessories for accessories, and they are 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 is 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 United States 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.
For the fashion labels, the less-expensive versions of these items provide a way to grab new customers who cannot 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 is gaining prominence within women's wardrobes. Ms 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 Ms Ella Hudson, an accessories analyst at fashion trend intelligence firm WGSN.
Fendi 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.
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 are 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 multi-coloured 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 runway.