Sometimes when you carry a purse or briefcase for decades, it can seem attached to you.
And when that favorite bag wears out, it may be hard to part with.
So, don’t. Recycle it and repurpose it into something else.
With a little creativity, you can hang onto your old handbags and briefcases — and be a good steward by saving it from a landfill, too. Here are some ideas.
From designer bag to custom shoe
I worked hard one summer in junior high, hoping to save up and buy a 1980s Louis Vuitton purse. (I know, how ’80s and how shallow.) But it was to be a special first, and I would carry this bag with me for more than two decades.
The reason those things cost so much is that they are built to last a long, long time. When the handles got loose on mine or the zipper came off track, I could get it fixed easily. But when the corners of the bottom became worn and then developed holes that allowed pennies, nickles and dimes to fall out, it was time to do the unthinkable: toss it.
But how could I? It was history. It had seen so many good years. I simply had to think of something.
I heard about a shoe repair place called Deno’s ( www.denosshoerepair.com/) in Highland Park Village in Dallas that was making sandals out of old designer purses, and I thought I’d look into it. Sure enough, owners Jimmy Velis and his brother-in-law Harry Yianisas have been repairing shoes since the 1960s.
I took in my worn-out Louis Vuitton “Speedy” bag and a fairly new pair of Nine West heels that I was willing to sacrifice for this project. The Nine West shoes were open-toe, slip-on heels with no back.
Yianisas didn’t bat an eye. He told me to come back in a few days for a fitting to make sure that the top part of the new handbag fabric wasn’t too tight over my foot.
“We only really make sandals from these items because it’s difficult to make a closed shoe from that material,” he says.
To make sandals, you need a very small amount of leather or canvas-lined vinyl, as some designers use on bags.
You also need to have enough pattern in the material so the logos can be centered on both shoes. Keep that in mind while brainstorming on which bags to recycle.
This custom work is not cheap ($100 and up), but the shoes, like the original purse, will last for a long time and will be unique to your wardrobe.
Deno’s can make flip-flop sandals that use a very small triangular piece of fabric on top of the foot.
“It doesn’t require a real large bag, and sometimes we can even make a pair out of a larger lady’s wallet,” Yianisas says. “[The thing] to look for in an old bag you’ll be willing to sacrifice for shoes is purse material that’s in good condition and still soft, not too stiff, but we can make a lot of old materials work really, too.”
He says a piece of leather about 8 inches by 6-7 inches (minimum) will make a pair of sandals.
“We usually need at least a half inch border so that we can fold it inward,” he says.
Check with your favorite local cobbler to see if it offers a similar service. Edwin Boche, who owned a shoe repair business in Arlington for 12 years and now works out of his father Jeronimo Boche’s longtime shoe repair shop, Burleson Boot & Shoe, is known for his intricate, custom boot work. Boche, well-known in the area as a go-to shoe and boot guy, says he just made a pair of sandals for a customer using her old designer handbag and it turned out beautifully.
“She just brought the sandal-style shoes and the old designer bag to me, and I made them and they turned out really nice,” Boche said.
I love my custom-made “bag shoes”; I could wear them every day. They look as good with plain jeans as they do with a brown work suit.
Belt buckles and hair barrettes
I was in a leather shop in a small West Texas town and ran across a Western buckle kit that would allow the wearer to put her own leather or fabric in the buckle. The kit suggested you could also needlepoint something to be placed in the buckle. All I had to do was cut out the fabric by drawing out a quick oval pattern using the metal buckle and then insert it and glue it down. Easy enough!
I had a little leather left over from my Louis Vuitton purse. So, I used scissors and cut out an oval shape and glued it into the buckle frame using E-6000 craft glue, which I bought at Michaels (but you can find at home improvement stores, too).
Next, I found a plain leather belt and attached the buckle. A cobbler or shoe repair person can sew the buckle into a leather belt, too, and it’s relatively inexpensive.
I was able to snap my own buckle into the belt. It was another great way to reuse something I once loved.
I also used the tiniest scrap of my Louis Vuitton purse to make a simple oval-shaped piece that I glued onto a barrette. The barrette is the one I grab whenever I am putting my hair back, because it’s simple and elegant, and like my shoes, it goes with everything.
Old satchels and briefcases: polish it up
I can’t pass up an old camera bag or briefcase, because they were made of the finest materials and designed to last. But as the years go by, they do often need to be repaired and polished.
I found an old Travelaire briefcase at a thrift store that just needed a good shine-up. Now it will last for a few more decades.
“Theo” (aka Roosevelt K. Miles Jr.) at Theo’s Shoe Shine, inside Leddy’s Ranch on Houston Street in Fort Worth, has been taking care of shoes, leathers and bags since 1972. He knows how to polish up any pair of shoes, and he can do the same on an old purse or briefcase. But if it’s a lost cause because the finish has seen better days, he says it might be a candidate for a dye-job facelift.
“I can out-shine anyone,” Miles says with passion for his craft.
And sometimes, that’s all an old leather case needs — a good conditioning and polishing treatment.
Then there are the leather bags that need more than a good polishing. This task is not that hard to tackle on your own. Leather shops provide all of the materials to strip the finish a little, stain the leather item and seal it when it’s dry.
I found a green case with great bones but a pretty shabby dull and scratched finish. It was beyond the stage of having a cool patina. Still, it was less than $5 at a thrift store, and it was calling my name. I had to rescue it.
With lighter colors like this green hue, you can’t really match the stain, so it’s better to go darker. I used a “chocolate brown” dye from The Fiebing Company. I only needed one coat using the applicator that it came with, and I had a lot left over to do more bags later.
You’ll want to wear gloves and follow the directions. When staining it, moving in the same motion from right to left or up and down keeps the stain smooth and will prevent strange marks.
One coat still left my bag looking a little distressed, which is what I wanted to see. The stain filled in some of the scratches and softened the leather. I used a sealer by Fiebing to lock in the stain so it wouldn’t bleed on me or my clothing. The project was a cinch. I kept wondering, “Is that it? That’s it?” But the process is pretty simple.
If you don’t have the time or want to mess with hunting down the materials, you can run your bag to a shoe repair expert. Cobblers dye shoes and bags all the time. Boche says most shoe experts handle basic colors, but he can dye yellow, purples and custom colors on leather goods.
Whether you take them to an expert or tackle the projects themselves, there’s really no reason to put your old cases out to pasture when there are still a few ways to give them another few decades of use.