Wednesday, September 15, 2010
When Home is... a Handbag
“What do you get when you cross some vintage upholstery fabric, a pre-loved skirt, an unloved shirt and some recycled buttons? The blooming beautiful Betty Bloom of course! She's part vintage chic and part urban street wear - does it get any hipper than that?"
Handbag designer Jennie Smith has always loved objects with a history; they perhaps give her the strongest sense of home. ‘Home is so important to me but my husband and I have moved around a lot. Eventually we realised that we had to create a ‘home’ through the objects we’d collected that are in our house rather than the house itself.’
After six years of working in the corporate world, Jennie became aware she was buying a lot of clothes. ‘If we were going out on a Friday night, I would pop down to a chain store and buy something new. It was so cheap - $20 or $30 for a top – and my clothes started to pile up.’
‘It got me thinking. I recycle everything else but with fashion I just consumed so much.’
So began a new chapter of shopping at Vinnies and other charity stores, where Jennie would buy outfits and alter them. For the alternations that didn’t ‘quite work out the way I imagined while standing in the shop’, she would use the fabric to make handbags.
‘The business evolved naturally. I started getting compliments on the handbags and friends began asking me to make ones for them. Then I started selling them.’
From there Jennie got her business Rejenerate online, set up an etsy shop and before she knew it, had a couple of wholesalers. It is unsurprising that her creations found new homes so quickly; her bags all have their own unique stories thanks to their very unique histories:
"Cute Clarabelle is the lovely combination of a vintage tablecloth and some salvaged denim. Topped with recycled buttons and lined with a pretty pink vintage print, Clarabelle is ready to leave the kitchen table and see what lies ahead in her new life as a handbag!"
And some have a history that is only just beginning:
"Floral Fifi started life as a piece of chic upholstery fabric in the sixties. She waited patiently to take her place in a posh lounge room, posing at society cocktail parties, but alas it wasn't meant to be. Now it's the 21st century and she still hasn't lived and mortifyingly is suddenly being referred to as 'vintage fabric'! Luckily she has finally been combined with salvaged fabrics and buttons and 'rejenerated' into a handbag...so she's bringing some sixties chic to the noughties!"
For Jennie the stories of the fabrics are perhaps what she loves most about creating her bags; the previous lives these fabrics have seen, the homes they have lived inside.
‘Especially those fabrics that are so obviously from the 50s and 60s,’ says Jennie, ‘I think of those women making their curtains, washing them and taking care of them. How did they look in the room? It’s sad to think that whoever those women were may no longer be around but I like to think they’d be pleased their kitchen curtains have been given a whole new life in another home and loved by someone else.’
While Jennie sources fabrics from op-shops, markets and online, what she loves most is when people give her fabrics (or curtains or clothes). ‘That way all the history is attached and tucked away. You know the stories.’
Favourite stories include a recent find of Italian 1940s and 50s fabrics given to her by a friend whose grandmother was moving into a nursing home. It had sat in her garage all these years after moving to Australia when she was only 20. ‘She pretty much just filled her suitcase with fabrics when she left Italy. I made a clutch bag for my friend and the fabric I chose was actually fabric her grandmother used to make olive sacks when she was a little girl. Now every time she looks at the bag she laughs thinking of her grandmother’s olive sacks.’
Jennie also makes clutch bags for brides and for these occasions loves to use family heirloom materials. Weddings are a particularly emotive time when you think about home; that of your childhood and of your future, where you come from and who has walked these steps before you.
‘I recently made a bag that was entirely made up of a bride’s family. We used parts of her grandmother’s wedding dress and her mother’s for the outside and lined the inside with her grandmother’s going away outfit, a pastel, floral print number.’
Finished off with a brooch from her great-grandmother, it’s hard not to imagine those three older women, two no longer here, walking down that aisle with their daughter, granddaughter and great-granddaughter.
It hasn’t just been fabrics that brides have used for their bags; ‘One bride had a couple of great-aunts who were crotchet champions. She chose her favourite doilies and table runners and I turned them into bags for her and her mother to carry on her wedding day. They looked very sweet and now everyone in her family wants one!’
Jennie also made a bag for her own wedding, using a vintage damask tablecloth which used to belong to her Swedish grandmother and a brooch from her Australian grandmother.
But it is another tablecloth from her Swedish grandmother that speaks of home most to Jennie; ‘It’s a Christmas tablecloth that my grandmother embroidered bits and pieces on. It’s got little gravy stains and red wine stains and every year when we put it on the table I sit there and could spend hours thinking about all those little stains and the stories that go along with them.’
Whether it be old napkins, hankies, doilies, curtains, buttons, ribbons, brooches, dresses, jackets or jeans, the history of those objects – known or unknown – will always capture Jennie’s imagination. Just like ‘Retro Rhonda’ and ‘Autumn Audrey’ have captured mine:
"Retro Rhonda started life as a super trendy Scandinavian fabric in the sixties. Now that retro is cool again, Rhonda is raring to re-invent herself! Paired with a pair of salvaged curtains and topped with recycled buttons, Rhonda is retro, recycled and ready to roll!"
"Autumn Audrey started life as a stunning kimono but now that she's Down Under, she decided it was time for a change. Combined with some recycled wool and topped with some pre-loved buttons, Audrey has been completely 'rejenerated' into a one-of-a-kind handbag. Audrey's past life as a kimono means that she's used to showing off and being admired so get ready to be the centre of attention when you hit the town with Audrey!"
I wonder how they are enjoying their new homes of today. And just think of the many more stories those bits of fabric will hold in the years to come.
For more information about Rejenerate and Jennie Smith, visit her website or blog
All photos © Jennie Smith