How Are High-End Bags Professionally Restored?

Handbag lovers, beware: the product can potentially become a casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic if not properly taken care of, at least according to Judy Bass, the Technical Director at The Handbag Spa, a cleaning and repair service in the UK.

“We’ve seen a lot of damage just recently with hand sanitizer,” she explains. “Hand sanitizers are usually alcohol-based and they do an awful lot of damage to the leather surface of the handbag, and that has been on the increase.”

Although shifting habits and behaviors as spurred by the spread of a global virus have clearly resulted in increased business for the leather specialist, damages to handbags are not an entirely new phenomenon. After all, the more we use something, the more worn out it becomes. Enter the likes of Bass’ The Handbag Spa and a slew of other repair shops all around the world, each seeking to restore a bag’s glory and, sometimes, even adding some value to the product in the process.

Most Common Handbag Damage

But before we get into the increased selling potential of a restored bag, let’s start from the beginning: what are some of the most common damages that experts like Bass have made a business out of?

“We see a lot of corner repairs,” reveals Bass. “Particularly on Mulberrys, where the corner piping has worn through and got damaged.” The Handbag Spa in specific prefers not to take bags apart (“we feel that’s interfering with [its] authenticity,” says Bass), opting to repair rather than replace. “The corner repairs depend on whether the piping is still there,” she explains. “If it is not, we would replace it. If [some of it is], we use special fillers.”

Bass also mentions dyeing is a popular request. “We do lots of changing of color. People get fed up with last season’s color,” she says. “So they bring [the bag] in to match […] next season’s color. We often change bags to darker [hues] for the winter.”

Lainey Molnar, a Hungarian former fashion stylist and current digital business strategist who happens to restore handbags on her own time, echoes Bass’ observations. “Seventy-five percent of the time, I’m dyeing the bags either black or navy or a darker color,” she says. “Lighter bags are hard to restore because you’d have to paint white over faded gray. So [the majority] of what I do is dyeing them and fixing the little tears and surface scruff.”

Other issues are endemic to specific brands. Take Michael Kors, for example, whose bags almost always boast a unique etching on a strap. “It’s quite a specialist job to re-etch straps and it just isn’t [worth doing] given the value of the bag,” explains Bass, mentioning that a majority of customers forego the repair given its high estimated cost. “It’s an obvious problem that Michael Kors has that they haven’t fixed [yet],” she says.

More examples: Mulberry bags are particularly prone to corner damages; Fendi Baguettes, according to Molnar, tend to rip more often than other favorites given the fact that most are made with non-leather materials; the coated canvas on plenty of Louis Vuitton offerings often cracks if not taken care of properly.

Other brands that both repair gurus see a lot of include Prada, Chanel, Hermès, Tod’s, Celine, and Chloé. Whether any brand employee would recognize a restored bag over a pure original is debatable. “They might,” says Molnar. “I use different finishes, I’m not trying to really emulate the originals.”

Bass is a bit more confident in the other direction. “We just had a Mulberry bag and I’d actually defy anybody to say that anything had been done to it,” she recounts. “It had become very faded and scratched and the woman thought we sent her a new handbag.”

As a general statement, brands do not provide repair companies with a slew of “official” materials to use at work. Instead, restorers seek out special products that could be applied across the board, from fillers to dyes. “[You build] up a starter kit boasting the right tools [to be used again and again],” explains Molnar. As for whether high-end companies ever direct consumers to repair shops, Bass mentions that authorized sellers are more likely to do so over official company personnel.

Leather Repair

The most logical branch-out for a company born to fix broken bags involves care products that promise to extend the “health” of a handbag and minimize the need for repairs. The Handbag Spa, for example, sells a full range of cleaners, protectors (“protecting the leather from the start and cleaning it on a regular basis keeps the bag in the best condition,” says Bass), repair pens that allow for quick-fixes when noticing minor scratches and—this is 2020 for you—alcohol-free antibacterial cleansers that promise to avoid the damages caused by hand sanitizers.

Speaking of related ventures: although it is hard to estimate how much value a restoration project adds to any given bag, thoughts naturally drift to the potential success of a bag flipping business. When asked about the topic, Bass is a bit cagey. “Handbags only keep their values if they’re in very good conditions,” she says. “So if it has gotten to the point where it needs to be sent to be refurbished, particularly if it’s in a bad state, it’s lost its value anyway. Whether we increase that value, I don’t know.” About bag flipping in specific, she says: “It’s always been a possibility but we’re so busy [already] with what we’re doing.”

Molnar, on the other hand, reveals that, out of the 20-25 bags that she restores yearly, she keeps half for herself while trying to sell the other half. She finds Prada and Dior as the easiest brands to sell but the hardest to come by. In terms of how much money she can actually make when flipping, she estimates a 20%-30% profit on bags she buys for $200-$500. “It’s not a crazy good business, to be honest,” she says. “It’s at least 10, 20, 25 hours of work to actually restore these bags when it comes down to it.” It should be noted that Molnar doesn’t take on direct requests, opting instead to stick to the bags she buys on eBay, Vestiaire Collective and The RealReal for personal use or re-sell.

Of course, at the heart of the value of a handbag lays its authenticity. Bass is careful to note The Handbag Spa’s policy: “We don’t authenticate bags,” she says. “We actually don’t mind if a customer wants his bag restored and it isn’t authentic. Sometimes it is obvious to us that [the product] is not authentic but you don’t bring it up to the client.”

Molnar, in contrast, makes full use of her fashion background when inspecting for authenticity. In addition to her own knowledge, she trusts in eBay’s instructions and even sometimes reaches out to a friend who is an importer of second-hand designer bags from Asia. Her expert researching skills haven’t always been as honed as they are today, though. The hobbyist recalls a pink Dior saddle bag that she found online for the incredibly low price of 5 Euros. “I authenticated it but this was before I was doing the refurbishments and I thought I’d never wear a pink bag,” she reminisces. Not yet adept at dyeing the valuable product and turning it into something she’d use, Molnar ended up selling it “for, like, 30 Euros.” Needless to say, she learned from her mistake.

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