The Perfect Handbag: Adventures in American Manufacturing

Justin Paul Leather BagMy favorite purse of all time (left) and the replacement I recently commissioned from the original Brooklyn manufacturer (right)

This is the story of how far I’d go to carry the same bag for nearly a decade… Short story: After the bag I carried daily for six years began showing signs of distress and I discovered it was no longer in production, I sought out the original producer — thankfully, he remade what I consider to be the best bag ever invented.

I’ve never considered myself a stylist individual. Though I appreciate design, I’m more of a utilitarian. Once I find the perfect product, I stick with it. Like many women, I had been on the hunt for the perfect purse since I was a tween. Once I had been enlightened that women were trained to carry around at least a pound of goods, just in case these goods might come in handy at any given moment, I jumped on the purse bandwagon and haven’t turned back.

Erica Swallow AuH2O ModelIt wasn’t until Sunday, August 3rd, 2008, though, that I found the perfect bag. I was modeling in the 2nd Annual AuH2O Block Party sidewalk fashion show, wearing Donatella Quintavalle jewelry (see right photo) and AuH2O thrift and vintage boutique threads. Also showing in the show, though, were beautiful bags by Teich, a New York-based designer.

On another model, I spotted the most gorgeous leather bag — made of deer leather, I learned — hanging elegantly from one shoulder. The sidebag-style purse had two large pockets and two visible zippered compartments on the outside. While I hadn’t fallen completely in love yet, my heart skipped a beat, and I knew I needed to see it after the show. As soon as the show ended, I leaped towards the designer, Allison Teich, and asked her about the bag. It was the only one of its kind produced, she told me, as it was a sample from the Brooklyn factory she sourced from. She handed me the bag and I fell absolutely in love once I opened it. Inside, it had the most beautiful lining I had ever — and since — laid my eyes on. Vintage red roses, shimmering gold light bursts, and soft geometric figures against a deep black gave me a feeling of calm, but lively, enchantment.

The pocket configurations, too, were exactly what I needed. Two large pockets, and three small zipper pockets — one on the interior, and two on the outside. This setup gave me plenty of room to compartmentalize all of the do-dads I carried around. A long, skinny pocket for pens and chapstick. A narrow, slanted, easy-to-reach exterior pocket for my business cards. An interior side pocket for bandaids and other health items. And of course, the two large pockets for everyday items, such as my wallet and sunglasses… It was a dream come true.

Teich and Justin Paul BagsA peek at the lining of my old and new purses, both by the same Brooklyn manufacturer

While the purse set me back a few hundred dollars — even after a modeling discount — I’ve been using it ever since. So, from an investment perspective, this puppy was a bargain!

Now, the unthinkable happened this year: The lining tore. Six years of wear and tear did its work on the soft, delicate lining. A hole appeared in the bottom of the main pocket and the most exposed part of the lining at the opening had been rubbed so much that it wore thin to mere strings. Pennies started to disappear in the inner workings of the purse and my fingers would get stuck in the worn areas from time to time. I knew it was time to repair or replace, so I began my journey towards fixing my purse in May.

I reached out to Teich, and she told me it would be just as costly to have the lining repaired as it would to send it to the original manufacturer. Plus, she told me, she was no longer designing and producing handbags, as she had moved on to running various Teich shops in New York. In fact, I had stopped by the West Village Teich at one point a few years earlier, bag in tow, to tell her again how much I loved it and how I’d never take it off. The store was full of jewelry, scarves, belts, and even children’s toys, I remember.

Allison was amazing, though, to introduce me to the original manufacturer, Roy Campos, owner of Justin Paul, Brooklyn-based luxury handbag manufacturer. Within days, I was on my way to having my precious purse repaired. I was even planning on going to New York that weekend, so Roy and I planned to meet up to see what he could do.

Roy Campos and Erica SwallowDesigner and producer Roy Campos and me in his Brooklyn factory

After taking a look at the bag, Roy told me that it’d be just as costly to make a new bag as it would to reline it. With 30 minutes left until closing time, I decided I’d take a look around the factory with him and see if there were any leathers and linings that piqued my fancy. Admittedly, I didn’t find any that completely replaced my old love, but I did find a warm, maple leather that reminded me of the first time I laid eyes on my now aged purse. We started there and moved onto linings. Again, nothing lit up my heart like the soothing red roses and golden bursts I had rested my belongings against for the past six years. That old lining was produced in Japan, Roy told me, and he had run out long ago — I had known all along that there was something special about it. Finally, though, we found a spring paisley pattern in subtle blue, purple, and lime green that embodied a more sophisticated and grown-up feel. I decided to take the leap, and we picked out the final details — rivets, pulls, and zippers.

As it turned out, Roy and I were both heading back to Manhattan from Brooklyn — and as fate would have it, we were heading to the same block in Manhattan — he to replace some machinery tool and me to visit a friend at Venmo HQ. We talked about our families and what brought us to New York. We had a lot in common, actually, and Roy made me feel clearer about where I was going in life. In fact, he reinvigorated a light in me, a desire to do what makes me feel passionate. He came from a family of cobblers, he told me, and when he came to New York, he just fell into the leather goods business, fell in love, and has been doing it ever since. The way he jaunted across his factory and spoke about his work reminded me that I, too, once put passion above societal expectations… Something I feel I lost sight of in the past few years (but, hey, that’s another story).

Back to the perfect purse… While I chose to get a new purse created, I’m certain that this is the perfect design for me, and I will be wearing it for another six years, until maybe this one falls apart, and I contact Roy again for a little assistance.

In short, all I’m saying here is that love and passion can drive a person to do things that were once unimaginable. How many goods in your home were produced by people you personally know or have met? Or did you ever love a product so much that you sought out the person who made it? It’s sagas like this in my life that showcase what true passion, curiosity and respect look like. I would have never been at peace without knowing who made the bag that pulled me through so many episodes. Knowing what I know now, I’m even more touched by its beauty. I only wish that this sort of passion can seep into every other aspect of my life — and may you and yours find the excitement in every day goods and happenings to seek out their true roots and unique beginnings.

Update: After manufacturer Roy Campos read the above blog post about how much I loved my old bag, he called me back and said he wanted to refurbish the old handbag. He replaced the lining free of charge and gave this beauty a new life! Watch a video on how he refurbished the bag, alongside photos of the process, on the blog of Maker’s Row.

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3 thoughts on “The Perfect Handbag: Adventures in American Manufacturing

  1. Pingback: Handbag Maker

  2. This is so great, Erica. How wonderful when you find the perfect thing, and even better to be able to go back to the source and give it a new lease on life. (Yes, I moved the thing-ness of your purse from one object to the next. The purse is dead, long live the purse!)

    • In fact, I’m not even sure what to do with the first purse… So, I’m keeping it. So, it will likely live a long life, anyway, doing something! Maybe I’ll finally donate it to someone who needs a purse, but only if I know where it’s going. In fact, I could likely patch up some of the lining for cheaper, and then it’d make a good donation, actually. And would have a purpose in life! Maybe someday I’ll find a listing for someone who’s looking for a purse with just these specifications. That would be an amazing happening.

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