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How car-seat upholstery became Kim White’s bag

Wednesday, Feb 28 2007
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Kim White suddenly found herself jobless. The fashion retailer where she had worked for eight years went under, and she struggled for months, collecting unemployment and designing handbags, the only other thing she felt she knew how to do. She had sent out an e-mail blast to all her friends asking if anyone knew a place to find cool, preferably vintage fabrics to use for her bags, hoping she’d find something extraordinary enough to catch people’s attention. One pal’s reply — about a textiles warehouse in South-Central that was going out of business — piqued her interest. She decided to pay it a visit. She drove to the storage facility off Hoover and talked to the owner, an elderly Latino gentleman. He pointed her in the direction of some dusty furniture fabrics, but White’s eyes were fixed on the hundreds of rolls of colorful car textiles at the back.

“I couldn’t believe it,” White says. “The patterns and colors were amazing — psychedelic trippy prints, zigzags, checkers — all GM, Ford and AMC fabrics ?from the 1970s and ’80s.” Those decades gave birth to some of the kitschiest cars of all time — gems like the Gremlin, the Pinto and the Pacer. Turns out, the elderly Latino gentleman was the mack daddy of car interiors back in the day. He would buy up all of AMC’s textile excess from mills on the East Coast and store it in warehouses in California, Texas and Nevada. Each roll was tagged, indicating the year it was made and the model it was intended for. White ?had stumbled upon a car-seat gold mine. She bought each and every roll — over 10,000 yards of fabric.

“All I knew was what I did as a kid in high school, which was making bags out of fabrics,” she says. When she was a little girl, she didn’t spend her pocket money on sweets or toys — she blew it on fabric. And needles. And Simplicity patterns. “My grandma and my mom were big crafty ladies,” says White, who lives in Highland Park. “We hand-embroidered and made quilts together. I knew how to sew before I even started school.” But the young White found seamstressing, well, stressful. Nothing ever turned out quite how she wanted — except for her bags. So she began making just bags, all kinds of bags. Nasty ones at first, small and square and made out of velvet with really long straps so they would hang by the wearer’s waist. But they were popular, and by the time she was in junior high, White was already selling her designs at street fairs and in ?local stores.

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After that fateful trip to Compton, she knew she could be back in business. It took her a year to set up her handbag line, and in May 2003, it was finally ready. She took her samples — each one containing a tag with the make, model and year of the vehicle the fabric was meant for — to the high-end fashion trade show Designers and Agents. “I had no idea what I was doing — but I had buyers from Harvey Nichols and Fred Segal wanting my stuff,” White says. A year later, in the fall of 2004, she was chosen as the only handbag designer for Gen Art’s Fresh Faces. Her bags even made an appearance on The O.C., at the height of the show’s coolness.

It wasn’t just fashionistas who were into her line — vintage-car fanatics were equally intrigued, and her handbags have even been on sale in car museums around the world, including the Petersen Automotive Museum here in Los Angeles.

When we spoke, White told me she had just been e-mailed by the editor of the hot-rodding magazine Garage, who is working on an upcoming “chicks issue” and liked her bags. White has since expanded her line to include clutches made from vintage 1960s furniture upholstery with kooky plaid and floral designs — “which is funny because that’s so not me,” she says. “I’m a jeans-and-boots kinda girl.” Two months ago, she launched her belt line, currently leather, although she aspires one day to work with vegan vinyl alternatives.

White is still in contact with the elderly Latino gentleman from the warehouse in Compton, and shortly after launching her line, she met up with him downtown and showed him her bags. “He looked up in the sky and called out his dead business partner’s name,” White recalls. “Finally!” he said. “Somebody who appreciates these damn auto fabrics as much as we did!”

Car-seat handbags are available ?at www.kimwhitehandbags.com; prices range from ?$90 to $250.

Reach the writer at caroline@carolineryder.com

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