June 30 will mark the end of an era for a particular group of New Yorkers. That’s when Artbag, the go-to store for lunch ladies (when lunch was a verb) and needed their best handbags repaired and restored for those tony lunches, left town.
Donald Moore, his son, Christopher, and Christopher’s wife, Estelle, will close their Madison Avenue boutique and move their handbag retail and restoration business to Coral Springs, Florida.
For 90 years, customers have depended on the store, particularly for repairs, which today represent around 85% of its business. The clientele has long had a heady list of celebrities, including Jackie Kennedy, Diane Sawyer, Elizabeth Taylor and Cicely Tyson, who have turned in their Chanel, Louis Vuitton and Hermès bags for repair.
But celebrities hardly made up the bulk of their business. A loyal Long Island shopper ‘once sent us 160 handbags to clean because smoke from a fire in her house had damaged them,’ Christopher Moore recalled the other day amid store clutter , where packaging is in progress. He also remembers restoring a Hermes handbag that a woman brought in after an ex-boyfriend nearly damaged it with a pen.
“Our business has been good,” he said. “During the pandemic people found things to buy to support us and that got us through water. But rents on Madison Avenue are killing us, and Lexington and Third Avenues weren’t that bad. The Moores believe closing Artbag will end the only black-owned business on Madison Avenue between 59th and 86th streets.
Christopher’s father, Donald, tall and handsome with a halo of white hair, and now 80, started working at Artbag in 1959. “I started from scratch…literally,” he says. . “I swept the floors and dusted the bags every day.” These floors were in the store’s second home, on Madison and 64th Street. Since its founding in 1932, the store has had three locations, the first on Lexington and 55th, then two stops on Madison.
After hiring Mr. Moore, Hillel Tenenbaum, who then owned the store, shone on the young man who, newly married, had come to New York from his family’s farm in Elizabethtown, North Carolina, with just $60 in the pocket.
“He asked me if I would like to learn how to make handbags, and I said yes,” recalls Mr. Moore. “So every night after work he took me home and started showing me how to make handbags. I worked from 8:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. It can take two days to make a new handbag.
Prior to starting his business, Mr. Tenenbaum had been a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology. He brought in his son-in-law, Lewis Rosenberg, who was a blacksmith. A third partner, Ronald Price, joined later.
In 1976, Mr. Tenenbaum was willing to sell a small stake in the company to Mr. Moore. Nearly two decades later, in 1993, Mr. Moore bought out the three partners. That same year, he brought his son. Six years later, Donald Moore passed ownership to Christopher.
In an interview at the store, Christopher said his family came from a long line of entrepreneurs. “My great-grandfather had the first black-owned general store in Elizabeth City, North Carolina,” he said, adding that his grandfather was an agricultural contractor who hired laborers for farmers. whites in this region.
Donald Moore clarified that his father and grandfather had their own farms. “They weren’t sharecroppers,” he said. “They never worked for white men.” As he recounts, his mother and father also had businesses that supplied black workers to white farm owners.
When asked how he learned to be a successful entrepreneur at Artbag, Mr. Moore just smiled and said, “When you come to a place at 18, you pick up everything.”
Still, he said, at first some customers at the store were unwilling to deal with a black man. In his recollection, only customers in a hurry would settle for Mr. Moore if the other salespeople were busy. But that changed over time, he says, “when they started to realize that I was good with my hands.”
The skill involved in restoring a worn-out handbag may include not only cleaning the leather, but also remodeling the bag, which may require removing the old structure and replacing it with a new skeleton – sometimes in using buckram fabric, sometimes bonded leather – to restore the old handbag. form. It may also be necessary to replace the hardware.
At a time when Artbag made original designs as well as copies of designer handbags, the most popular was the Hermès Kelly bag. At one time, the boutique made custom bags to fit jewelry frames made by Cartier.
The company’s expansion has not been without conflict. In the late 1990s, Hermès sued Artbag and other companies that copied her handbags. In 2000, Artbag moved in with Hermès and no longer made copies. She continues to restore Hermès Kelly and Birkin bags, as well as those of other famous designers.
It’s not always the copies that intrigue customers. Donald Moore, a big fan of Elizabeth Taylor — he adored her in “Cleopatra” — said she called after admiring a handbag designed and made by Artbag that a friend was carrying. Mr. Moore rushed to make one for her so he could take it to Ms. Taylor’s hotel the next day.
When he knocked on the door, he was disappointed not to meet the glamorous movie star, but a woman who wore no makeup and was undressed. It wasn’t until the next morning, when he saw her in a newspaper photo leaving the hotel, that he concluded he had met the actress herself.
He recalled Jackie Kennedy, who lived around the corner from the shop, as charming and very understated.
Artbag’s customers, famous or not, tend to be loyal. Marietta Meyers has been going there for decades and has great confidence in the store’s work. “I bought a cheap straw bag with thick gold binding,” she said. “Of course the paste came off, so I sent them the bag to change the plastic. They put a leather handle on it, and it came back better than new.
The Moores hope the Florida store takes root. They chose Coral Springs because it’s halfway between Miami and Palm Beach and therefore easily accessible from two airports. Customers can send their bags there for repair.
Yet with them gone, their discerning clientele will either have to take better care of their handbags or venture to FedEx more often.