Bags to Riches

updated 12/15/1997 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/15/1997 01:00AM

OF ALL THE ACCESSORIES THAT contribute to the glam persona that is Jackie Collins, none bestows quite the feeling of her black sequined Chester evening bag. "I love when a stranger comes up to me and says, 'Wow! Is that a Chester?' " says Collins. "It makes me so proud."

That's because the bestselling author of Hollywood Wives, Hollywood Husbands and Hollywood Kids happens also to be a Hollywood mom. Chester bags are the brainchild of her daughter, London-born designer Tiffany Lerman, who launched her career without help from the well-connected novelist. "I didn't want to ride on her coattails," says Lerman, 30. "I wanted to prove I could do this myself." All she got from Collins, 58, was unqualified faith. "I'm still," says her mother, "very in awe of her talent."

The fruits of that talent now adorn the glittery types chronicled in Collins's books. With her line of handbags, from a $25 sequined cosmetics purse to a $75 eyelet-embroidered shoulder tote bag, Lerman's designs dangle from the arms of Kelly Preston (Jett Travolta's mother owns a diaper bag), Annette Bening and Leeza Gibbons (who stick to evening bags). Lerman's designs have been featured on Melrose Place and Ellen and purchased by Demi Moore and Lerman's friend, Wilson Phillips pop singer Wendy Wilson, who describes the bags as "funny and cutting-edge, yet classy."

With their playful use of materials—velvet, gingham, plastic—and attention to such details as inner pockets for easy lipstick access and waterproof linings for diaper bags, they're a hit with noncelebs too. "The bags have a clientele from high schoolers to 65-year-old women," says Jennifer Kaufman, who sells Chesters in her L.A. boutique. "Like a favorite pair of sneakers, they always work."

And Lerman is always working—ideas come to her anyplace, anytime, but her mother "is my first inspiration," says Lerman, whose father, art-gallery owner Oscar Lerman, Collins's second husband, died of prostate cancer in 1992. "She's one of the strongest women I know. I never saw her get out of control, despite all her responsibilities." Lerman recalls Collins as a stay-at-home mom who "was always around," writing out her bestsellers in longhand in the morning, then fixing lunch for her and sisters Tracey, now 34, and Rory, 28. Thanks to Collins, says Lerman, "I had a normal upbringing—embellished," she adds, "with the occasional celebrity." In London and then L.A., where the family moved when Lerman was 14, guests included Rod Stewart, Michael Caine, Robin Williams and, of course, auntie Joan Collins.

Like her mother, Lerman showed an early talent for writing, "but she always had a fascination with bags and purses," says Collins. And their contents. On a vacation to the south of France, 5-year-old Tiffany—"T" to the family—innocently pinched several thousand dollars from an uncle to fill her new, still empty purse. "After that," says Lerman, "if you had anything in your bag, you'd stay away from me."

When it came to her career, though, Lerman was determined to avoid the family purse strings. After graduating from UCLA in 1990 and then attending L.A.'s Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, Lerman began a line of T-shirts with fancily trimmed necks and sleeves before returning, two years later, to her first love: handbags. She named her new label for a late beloved Labrador retriever, Chester (the pooch on the logo is her latest Lab, Duncan). Today, with more than 500 stores selling her product, Lerman, who lives in L.A. with Gary Sacks, 30, an L.A. Clippers basketball scout she wed last summer, no longer has to filch from unsuspecting uncles.

But Lerman's bag, so to speak, isn't just bags. "I'm interested in designing housewares," she says, "cushions, place mats, fabrics." Someday she may even be as famous as her mother. Someday? Not long ago, says Collins, "I was in a store in Santa Monica, and this girl seemed to recognize me. I was about to say, 'Yes, my new book is out soon,' but she came up to me and said, 'Are you Tiffany's mother?' "

TOM GLIATTO
CRAIG TOMASHOFF and VICKI SHEFF-CAHAN in Los Angeles

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