Clothing lines made of sustainable fabrics seem to pop up like dandelions in these green-focused times. Contestants even
made couture garments out of corn husks and plastic cups on one of my favorite “Project Runway” episodes. Unfortunately,
like anything in the world of clothes, it’s possible the Earth-conscious attire is simply a fad.
But Anita Hopper’s Refind Originals is different than those green-come-lately, heart-on-the-sleeve companies. She doesn’t tout her business’ green qualities until she’s blue in the face and she doesn’t claim to make a difference in terms of the fashion industry’s carbon footprint. But she has found a way to make luxury goods with low overhead: She crafts handbags out of leather jackets she finds at thrift stores.
When I first read about one of Hopper’s signature bags, the ruffled clutch ($75), in Martha Stewart’s Body + Soul magazine, I didn’t guess the adorable accessory was painstakingly handcrafted in an Irvington basement. And when I contacted Hopper about the custom bags mentioned in the glossy blurb, I couldn’t resist asking her to make one just for me (Cost: $185).
I first arrived at her brick Tudor-style home a few weeks ago, clutching my thrift store leather find and ready for a lesson in handbag design. One look at her hand-painted dining room furniture and her McCoy pottery told me she has an appreciation for things with a history.
Although she just calls it frugality.
Before Hopper devoted herself to Refind Originals in 2007, she spent 25 years as a self-employed interior designer, taking extra pride in decorating for modest budgets. Doing so meant relying on purchases made at antique stores and garage sales.
“I’ve always loved old things and enjoyed refurbishing,” she said.
So it’s no wonder she was inspired by an old leather jacket hanging sadly at a Goodwill store a few years ago.
“I can’t explain it, really,” she said. “That jacket just wanted to be a purse.”
Embarrassed at first to share her idea, Hopper let the jacket hang in her closet for another year before she showed it to her daughter-in-law, who claimed she’d proudly carry the end result.
Two years later Hopper now has about 100 leather jackets hanging in her basement, awaiting their chance at reincarnation. One wall of the studio is dedicated to old silk shirts, which Hopper uses as lining for the handbags. The opposite wall is a smattering of leather scraps in nearly every color of the rainbow, none of it new.
She lovingly took my rescued leather piece, a battered black Wilson’s leather jacket, out of the shopping bag. “Does this have sentimental value?” she asked.
I giggled at her tender thought, remembering the pajama-clad, sleepy-eyed thrift excursion I’d taken days before.
“No.” I replied, with too much sarcasm.
She went on to explain how the Heart + Soul article had done more than just bring me to her door. She’d received jackets once worn by women’s deceased husbands, complete with neckties to be used as lining. She started to cry a little.
Then I realized how vapid my original column idea (repurposed fashion materials) had been compared with the deep connection clothing can make to loved ones.
“The first jacket like that I received I was astounded someone would trust me with their memories,” Hopper said. “The coats probably still smelled like their husbands.”
Such experiences shaped Hopper’s business practices, like including a photo of the intact jacket with the finished handbag.
Hopper said personal touches like that have gained her invaluable exposure.
She was selected as one of 25 sellers on the huge Etsy.com site to appear at the One of a Kind craft show in New York. The number of orders she’s getting on her Web site forced her to hire part-time help and for the first time in two years, she’s felt confident enough to raise her prices.
To the naked eye it would appear the whole “green” trend has worked to Hopper’s advantage, but there’s more to it than that. The human element – and just plain cheap materials – have proven to be assets in her endeavors, and neither of those are fads.
To see the before and after photos of the handbag Hopper made for me, visit hauteintheheartland.blogspot.com.•
If you’d like to share your own style ideas or know anyone who’s making waves in the fashion community, contact Gabrielle at firstname.lastname@example.org. This column appears monthly.